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February 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 5

Educational Tools for Diverse Learners / Beginning Reading For Bilingual Students


      The National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators was created to advance the quality of materials and technology for students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse learning needs. The Center provides publishers and developers with information about research-based and field-tested educational tools.
      At Wilson Elementary School, just east of downtown Houston, approximately two-thirds of the children come from homes in which Spanish is the first language. A high proportion of these children enter school speaking limited or no English. The principal, Ramon Alvarez, Jr., a native of Southwest Texas, feels a certain urgency about educating these children. As a child, Alvarez also entered school speaking no English and, as an adult, has lived all too close to the tragedies that can befall persons not adequately prepared to participate in our society.
      Even though the test scores at the school were in the acceptable range, Alvarez saw evidence that most of the children who entered Wilson with little English left it grossly unprepared for the demands of middle school. The problem was not simple; the teachers were dedicated, yet the children did not learn enough.
      With a commitment to teachers that the school would provide staff development, Alvarez engaged his staff in the search for effective tools. The immediate goal was to transform learning to read a second language (English) from a failure-ridden experience into a successful continuation of learning a first language. A clue to how to do this was found in the extensive research synthesized by M. J. Adams (1990) on the importance of learning letter-sound correspondences, blending sounds, developing phonological awareness, and being able to apply this knowledge reliably during beginning reading.
      The first tool the Wilson School staff selected was a beginning Spanish reading program that gradually introduced letters and systematically built reading skills. Because Spanish has great consistency in its letter-sound correspondences, Spanish reading is easier to master than English reading. With this new program, the children breezed through the process of learning to decode in Spanish. By December, over half of the 1st graders could comfortably read 1st-grade books in Spanish. In addition to teaching the children to read Spanish, the teachers devoted several periods a day to teaching English vocabulary and sentence structure.
      The Wilson School staff's second goal was to find an effective tool for teaching reading in English. The consonant sounds in English are basically the same as they are in Spanish, except for a few letters (for example, ñ, rr). The challenge is the vowels, which are quite different.
      Teachers introduced these new letter-sound relationships gradually. Moreover, the staff selected an English reading program that taught sounds, blending, and other skills in the same careful step-by-step manner as did the Spanish program. Teachers began instruction in English reading only when a child had mastered the fundamentals of reading in Spanish and had learned enough English vocabulary and sentence structure to understand the stories to be read.
      A pleasant surprise for all came as the children readily transferred the blending skills they had learned while reading Spanish to their reading of English. Compared to previous years, the end-of-year results were impressive. Virtually all children were fluent readers in Spanish and two-thirds were reading at or above 1st-grade level in English. The lower third of the children were near completion of the 1st-grade level reading in English.
      An incident in April emphasized the importance of supplying teachers with effective tools. The two 1st-grade teachers at Wilson School were new, and, as part of an orientation program, they visited the class of a teacher designated a model teacher of limited-English students. This teacher used a very different approach to teaching English reading, pulling activities from a variety of sources. The two teachers were very impressed with the physical appearance of the classroom and the way the model teacher interacted with the children. They were, however, shocked to see that the performance of the children in reading was significantly behind that of their children. Their conclusion: the systematic approach is key. Even the best teachers with many resources could benefit from this tool.
      This year, Wilson's bilingual kindergarten teachers, having observed the progress of the 1st graders, are using the new approach. This early start with literacy, coupled with the use of tools that systematically build from Spanish to English, will enable the children to read in Spanish and also have an early start with English.
      The staff at Wilson School is eagerly awaiting the visit of one of the Hispanic school board members. Last year, he was amazed at the progress he saw. Having had a full year of teaching experience behind them, the teachers are waiting to show him that a lot more is possible.

      Jerry Silbert has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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