Lorraine McCune, Ph.D.
volatile topic is often dominated more by closely held political
opinions and cultural bias than by the needs of children, their
teachers and parents. In some school cultures there is a divide
between the “bilingual” teachers that can include all ofýthose
working with children of limited English proficiency and the “regular” teachers.
I have personal experience of a school where the teacher of
the bilingual K1 class only learned by accident that all of
the “regular” kindergarten and first grade clýsses were having
a Thanksgiving Feast, with food, entertainment, parent participation.
When the bilingual K1 teacher inquired about why her library
time was cancelled the day before Thanksgiving break, she learned
that the library was co-opted for the party…but not a party
for her kids. Teachers of children with special needs have
found some of this same exclusion. I hope this is a rare occurrence.
However it is symptomatic of a view that sees some children—and
hence their teachers—as so different that their needs and interests
do not come to mind when plans are made for the ‘regular’ kids.
professional politics of Bilingual Education as a field can
play into this problem. Professionals in this field vary widely
regarding both the goals of the programs and the theory of
what is best for children. The basic tension is between maintaining
and valuing the home language versus promoting the use and
knowledge of English. My own expertise as a language acquisition
researcher leads me to believe that this tension is more illusory
acquisition remains in some ways mysterious, but the effects
of various bilingual situations occurring naturally in homes
and communities have produced some facts that should not be
earlier children begin to learn a language or languages, the
more rapidly they progress and the more successful they will
can easily learn two languages by immersion if both are begun
in the first six or seven years of life.
is part of a child’s sense of self and self-worth and is best
learned in a nurturing environment where her meanings are understood
and her needs met.
children reach middle childhood and early adolescence they
begin to profit more from formal language instruction, and
learning by immersion is a bit more difficult.
on these facts, drawn from my understanding of bilingual language
acquisition, I have a few suggestions for optimizing children’s
our shrinking world everyone can benefit from having two languages,
so preserving and accepting the home language is important.
However, every year in school where a child is taught solely
in the native language rather than English will increase the
child’s difficulty in learning the new language. These facts
suggest that the ideal approach to English-language learners
in the early grades is to provide instruction in both languages,
with a goal of emphasizing English more as the year progresses
and as individual children are ready. It is even a good idea
to transfer children to English-only classes during the school
year as they are ready. Children between six and seven when
they enter school, knowing no English, are likely, by the end
of second grade, to read English as well as those who entered
speaking English, given appropriate instruction.
truly bilingual schools where entering monolingual children—for
example those knowing either Spanish or English—are taught
together, half the day in each language are an even better
idea. In this case almost all of the children are likely to
be reading in both languages by the end of second grade. I
say almost, because difficulty in learning to read will inevitably
plague some children and their teachers no matter what the
needs of non-English-speaking children entering school in middle
childhood or adolescence, is an even more complex issue—beyond
the brief confines of this column.
nurturance and language acceptance aspects, essential to feelings
of self-worth should never be neglected. Teachers and other
school employees communicating, even haltingly, in the languages
of children’s homes, provide a sense of caring for families
and children. Never forget that all of the children and families
are “our families” regardless of the home language.#
McCune is an associate professor at the Rutgers University
Graduate School of Education and serves as advisor to educational
toy company, General Creation. She can be reached at www.generalcreation.com in
the “Ask Dr. McCune” section.
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