Growing number of Illinois schools are teaching students in two languages

“Abran sus libros a la página treinta y dos y treinta y tres.”

In the time it takes a mono-lingual grownup to scratch her head, a classroom speckled with second-graders flip their textbooks open to pages 32 and 33.

It’s time for social studies class at Mary Enders Elementary School in Woodstock, where kids get their lessons in Spanish in the morning and switch to English after lunch. Woodstock District 200 is one of a growing number of Illinois schools that launches kids’ world language learning in kindergarten and follows through all the way to graduation.

This autumn morning, second-grade teacher Sergio Maya, from Spain, is using Spanish to coach kids on the differences between “necesidades y deseos” (necessities and desires). Bulletin boards blare “Celebremos el otoño” (Celebrate autumn) and display scraps of notebook paper with children’s printing “Yo se que …” (What I know about …). Maya goes table to table to lead kids through readings in Spanish with follow-up comprehension questions.

“En Español, por favor,” a parent helper reminds an English-speaking girl.

Two-way teaching

With about a third of its population native Spanish speakers, Woodstock school leaders opted to optimize the educational possibilities. By starting at the youngest levels, English- and Spanish-speakers can soak up language skills from each other. Now about 700 pupils, or 10 percent of the student body, are in dual-language classes and about 40 families are on a waiting list to get their kids in on the ground-floor kindergarten or first-grade courses.

“For our Spanish speakers, we see the best gains in closing the achievement gap,” says Keely Krueger, director of grants and bilingual education at District 200. “For everyone, it opens up the brain to so many areas.”

Sitting side-by-side in classrooms, young language learners model pronunciation for each other and reinforce understanding by using new words in everyday tasks. When kids take on a second language early, research shows, it comes to them nearly as effortlessly as cooing and crawling.

“It makes me think in English,” says Woodstock third-grader Alex Ortiz, who lives in a mostly Spanish-speaking home.

Ortiz is in teacher Roxana Cervantes’ class, where a spirited game of Day of the Dead (the Mexican version of Halloween) bingo is playing out. Kids paste pictures of “esquelatos” (skeletons) and “calaveros de azucar” (sugar skulls) on gridded game sheets.

“We know that when it comes to learning a second language, it’s better to learn it younger than older,” Cervantes says.

Flaxen-haired Fallon Ash, 8, has been not just learning Spanish-but learning in Spanish-for four years now. It’s pretty easy absorbing even science through Spanish, she says. Most of the words are just about the same anyway. “Planeta, planet,” she explains.

“There’s more than language learning going on,” Cervantes says. “It’s building unity in the community through acceptance of a different language and culture.”

Fallon might not know it but she builds bridges when she gets home from school.

“I can help my parents translate when they talk to some of our neighbors,” she says.

Imported ideas

Dual-language learning, also called two-way immersion, is nothing new, says Sonia Soltero, associate professor in bilingual and bicultural education at DePaul University. It traces back to the 1600s, when Polish, German and Dutch immigrants came to the New World and imported programs to trade language skills with earlier Americans.

“It’s a big difference from having two language classes a week,” Soltero says. “You learn to learn in another language-science, math, social studies, literature. You have a chance to learn pronunciation and dialect from native-speakers that you just don’t get in traditional foreign-language classes.”

All you need to get a two-tongue curriculum working is a critical number of speakers from each language in the school. Yet dual-language learning struggles to get off the ground.

In Illinois, two-way instruction is loosely coordinated. In fact, even people like Soltero and Krueger don’t know exactly how many schools host the programs because they’re self-reporting. The Center for Applied Linguistics cites 20 schools in 12 school districts statewide. But Krueger thinks the current number is closer to 65. She names several new dual-language courses in her area-Highland Park, Elgin, Crystal Lake and Schaumburg.

“At a time when there is so much emphasis put on testing basic skills, it is important to illuminate that instruction in areas often seen as non-essential not only increases student academic achievement, but also enables children to have a more global view of their world and prepares them for the responsibilities of being world citizens,” says Kathleen Priceman, a first-grade teacher who helped pioneer a partial-immersion language program at Lincoln Elementary School in Oak Park 16 years ago.

Whole new world

Robert Bou-Saab, now a junior studying animation at Laguna College in California, was one of the first to come up through the Lincoln Elementary dual-language curriculum, which pairs English and Spanish speakers for two hours a day. Now 20, Bou-Saab not only established close bonds with the classmates who shared language discovery, but speaking English, Arabic and Spanish helps him connect with people he meets in day-to-day life-from college roommates to waiters in restaurants-his father Jamil says.

Robert’s brother, Ramie, took his love of language a stride further and, at 14, is adding Chinese as a fourth tongue to his repertoire.

“It really shaped my kids,” says their dad, an engineer. “Opening the door to language opens doors not only in education and the workplace but makes them feel empowered to communicate with people from different cultures.”

Bridget Scolio has three daughters in the Woodstock immersion classes. Fifth-grader Gabriella, part of Woodstock’s first dual-language learners, not only speaks but reads and writes proficiently in Spanish. Scolio is waiting for the day when her girls use their special speaking skills to conspire against their parents without having to talk behind their backs.

“They’ve grown tremendously,” she says. “It shows them there’s a whole other world out there.”

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