Bilingual, bi-literate and ready for the world: Delavan-Darien School District plans dual language instruction

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Sunday, October 20, 2013

DELAVAN--Welcome to school.

Or, if you like, bienvenidos a la escuela.

Next fall, the Delavan-Darien School District is launching a Spanish-English dual language instruction program.

For English-speaking kids, the program can start them on the path to true bilingualism, a comprehension of a second language that goes beyond “hola, amigos” and “Cómo te llamas?”

For Spanish-speaking kids, the program means they'll be able to learn in their first language while absorbing a second.

Either way, they'll be trying something dramatically different. It's a style of learning that has been used in other industrialized nations for years, with students leaving school knowing two, three or four languages, said Ron Sandoval, Delavan-Darien director of the dual-language program.

 In the United States, school districts are beginning to see dual-language instruction as a way to give their students a competitive advantage for college or other post-graduation careers. It also can increase test scores, decrease the achievement gap between white students and minorities and, possibly, attract students.

“We have parents of 2- and 3-year-olds calling to see if they can get on the waiting list for the program,” said  Rosamaria Laursen, head of the Beloit School District dual-language program. “It's only our second year.”

How it works

In the United States, language instruction usually begins in middle or high school.  Students memorize vocabulary, study grammar and perform repeat-after-me exercises to master pronunciation.

The primary task is learning the language.

“This is sequential instruction, one subject on top of the other,” Sandoval said.

In dual-language instruction, teachers teach the academic subject such as science or social studies in the second language.

“Kids are learning content, and that's constantly teaching and reinforcing the language,” Sandoval said. 

Dual-language teachers don't teach the same lesson twice, once in English and then in Spanish.  Nor do they translate as they go along.

Instead, they employ a teaching method called “total physical response.” Movement, gestures, music and visuals are all incorporated into the lessons. This is something all primary school teachers do  to keep their students engaged. In dual-language instruction, however, these techniques are intensified .

“Kids remember the movement. They remember the action,” Sandoval said.

The school day is divided into English and Spanish.

In Delavan, it will be 80 percent in Spanish and 20 percent in English.

In the Beloit School District, the morning is in Spanish and the afternoon in English.

Literacy—reading and writing—is taught in both languages. The remaining subjects, such as social studies, math, science and health, are taught in one language or the other.

Between the transition between the two languages is “the bridge,” a period where teachers review vocabulary and ideas in both languages.

“This is the time for the teacher to connect both languages,” Sandoval said.

In Delavan-Darien, as students progress through the grades, the percentage of material taught in English and Spanish will even out to 50-50.

“The philosophy of dual-language instruction is to become bilingual, bi-literate and bicultural,” said Sandoval. 

Test scores

That sounds great. But what happens when kids hit third grade and encounter the first round of high-stakes state testing? Won't learning in two languages slow kids down?

Studies have shown that it takes dual-language kids at least four years to catch up with their English-only classmates.  But after that, the dual-language kids begin to excel, outperforming their single-language classmates.

An estimated 46 percent of students in the Delavan-Darien School District speak Spanish.  Of those, 23 percent are “English language learners,” meaning that they can't manage in an all-English classroom without help. 

Now, many of those students have to be taken out of class to learn vocabulary and other basics. Meanwhile, they're missing classroom content they need to succeed. As a result, they fall behind, and once they're in middle school, it's difficult to get them caught up, Sandoval said.

Dual language means they can get both content and language, and that helps decrease the achievement gap between students who were raised with English and those who are learning English as a second language.

Spanish-speaking students are “immersed in English” outside of school—on television, at the movies and on the playground, Sandoval said.

In Kenosha, Sandoval headed a school that housed dual-language instruction and a school for the arts.

Eventually, the test scores of the dual-language students led him to try to separate the two schools so he could showcase their achievements.

Dual language has been around for long enough for those performance studies to be repeated in school districts across the country, from Illinois to California.

For Sandoval, the future is the bottom line.

American is becoming increasingly diverse, and we're now living in a global economy, he said.

“Companies  do business with everybody,” Sandoval said, waving his hands to encompass the whole world. “We want our students to be prepared.”

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