Jonathan Cannon / Herald Democrat
Sina Couch, the first grade bilingual teacher at Mayes Elementary in Denison, works with Yahir Castillo on his letters.
CHRIS JENNINGS / HERALD DEMOCRAT
Sory Elementary School bilingual teacher Ramon Vázquez leads a reading group in Spanish. Other groups in the class did a similar assignment in English.
CHRIS JENNINGS/HERALD DEMOCRAT
Sory Elementary School teacher Ramon Vázquez hands work to students in his bilingual class. Vázquez has a class with both second and third grade students.
Third in a series
In a few classrooms at Mayes Elementary School in Denison, and five campuses across the Sherman Independent School District, sentences in both Spanish and English can be heard in the halls as teachers and students go about their day. The programs are not just an introduction to Spanish. English language-learning students are immersed in dual-language classrooms.
“Our goal in the dual-language program is to have them fluent readers, writers, thinkers, listeners and speakers in both languages,” said Denison Director of Special Programs Brent Hoy.
Denison began its dual-language program just a few years ago, and the district has been adding a single grade level every year. Currently, the district has bilingual classrooms through second grade. Sherman’s bilingual program covers all the elementary grade levels and has been around for more than a decade; but four years ago the district transitioned to a similar dual-language model.
Hoy said, for pre-k, kindergarten and first grade, all the instruction is in Spanish except for Math, which is always done in English. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the language of the day is Spanish, while on Tuesdays and Thursdays it is English. Sherman ISD’s director of Bilingual and English as a Second Language Education, Lauren Dill, explained that things are a little different at the SISD schools participating in the program. Those are Fred Douglass Early Childhood Center, Sory Elementary, Washington Elementary, Jefferson Elementary and Dillingham Intermediate School.
“Essentially our students learn math in English, if they enroll in pre-K with us, starting from pre-K,” Dill said. “They obtain foundational literacy skills in their native language. We also have times called conceptional refinement, which is done in the opposite language of instruction so we have a refined model that allows us to make sure we have a structured program for students to move through.”
Starting in second grade, Sherman ISD students do literacy learning half in English and half in Spanish, a technique that Sory Elementary teacher Ramon Vázquez employs in his classroom every day. After Sory lost a bilingual teacher earlier this year, Vázquez added a group of second grade students to his third grade class.
“I use whole group, small group and pairs for instruction, depending on the activity or the subject,” Vázquez explained. “Although students can work very well in English and Spanish by third grade, there are specific objectives they must practice with teacher instructional input and guidance to increase their reading level, as well as their writing and speaking proficiency in both languages.”
For reading assignments, Vázquez said he will often group the children according to reading proficiency, despite their being in different grades.
“We all know that learning occurs when an individual can apply concepts in different situations,” Vázquez said. “I have seen students grow more with multi-age classrooms, sometimes with fourth and fifth, others with third and fourth, and now with second and third.”
Sina Couch, who is the first grade bilingual teacher at Mayes, said the language of the day is used for basic directors — “line up,” “get your things ready to go home,” etc.
“We focus mainly in their native language to help build those skills that actually transfer from their native language to the second language,” Couch said.
In second grade, teachers begin to give some instruction in English and continue some in Spanish. Hoy said it is essential to develop a strong base in the student’s native language. Without that, Couch said, “they’re just struggling to understand what the teacher’s saying instead of being able to do anything academic, so it really puts them behind.”
Once students become comfortable in both languages, Vázquez said, it’s natural for them to switch back and forth depending on whom they are around.
“If they were with a group of Anglo students, they would not switch, they would only speak in English,” Vázquez said. “It’s like when you’re with your friends, you have a certain register that you use. Sometimes it’s slang, sometimes it’s military jargon if you come from the military, but you don’t do that in a different context. They don’t do it either.”
Dill explained that her district has found that by the time students reach fifth grade, they’re right on track with their peers.
“The goal is, we build their native language support, because the better reader you are in Spanish, the better reader you are in English,” the SISD bilingual director said. “The better writer you are in Spanish, the better writer you are in English. As long as we develop those simultaneously we tend to see student growth kind of level off right around fifth grade, and they’re able to go into a classroom with other peers and continue to achieve at the same level.”
Hoy said research has found that students in dual-language programs through fifth grade are outperforming their regular-education peers in all subject areas by ninth grade — research that is supported in both districts. He said, in part, that success is due to the fact that students are getting a double dose in some areas.
The dual-language approach also has success over other programs for English language learners. Hoy said it allows the students to develop “academic language” in both spoken languages and doesn’t rush them to use only their second language.
He explained that in other programs the goal is to get students to English proficiency as quickly as possible, but that can leave them struggling in later years because they may only have developed a base in English for the social language and not for the academic language required to succeed in their education.
“The academic language is so much higher than the social language,” Hoy said. “If you have a good foundation … acquiring another language is easier.”
NEXT: ESL, and the differences between it and bilingual education.