Clubs Ground Students in Language of Their Roots

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 14, 2007

The fourth-graders at Bailey's Elementary School in Falls Church reached for pink paper, markers and glue one day last week to make Mother's Day cards. Their teacher, seizing an opportunity for a lesson in adjectives, asked them to think of words that describe their mothers.

"Bella," one student yelled.

"Buena," another added.

Dora Hernandez Manuel paused. "How do you write mucho?" she asked. With a little encouragement, she sounded out the word and finished her card: "¡Te amo mamita mucho porque tu eres bonita!" I love you, Mommy, because you are pretty!

Dora and the other children in the Bailey's Heritage Language Literacy Club speak Spanish as their first language. But although they talk with ease in their native tongue, they struggle to read it and write it because most, or even all, of their formal schooling has been in English. In the after-school club, they're reading and writing in Spanish, learning basic grammar and expanding their vocabularies.

As immigrants from around the world enter the United States, schools have long focused on teaching them English. But bilingualism is gaining favor among employers, educators and parents, fueling a movement to help children who are native speakers of Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic and other tongues master those first languages.

Educators say many first-, second- or even third-generation immigrant children speak socially in what is often called a heritage language but would be lost if they had to write an essay or a formal letter in that language. Research has shown that proficiency in a native language can help students become better English speakers. In an increasingly global economy, it also makes business sense.

"The thrust has always been focused on English because that's the priority. You have to get people to learn English or they can't get ahead," said Maria Carreira, a Spanish professor at California State University at Long Beach. "But I feel like there's been this realization that these kids have these enormous skills, and we need to give them special training."

In the Washington area, many school-run programs are geared to Spanish speakers. Several school systems have long had Spanish classes designed for fluent speakers, but those offerings are expanding. Schools in Anne Arundel, Loudoun and Prince William counties are adding new language classes in September for Spanish speakers.

Heritage language programs nationwide reflect local communities. Portland, Ore., schools are adding a Russian for Russian speakers class. Wisconsin educators are planning a pilot program that will allow Arabic- and Mandarin-speaking high school students to complete some assignments in their first language. When an increasing number of children from northern Africa and Senegal began settling in Prince George's County a few years ago, educators created a class for fluent French speakers.

The traditional foreign language approach doesn't work for many of these students. In early levels, they'd be bored as the class recited the days of the week or practiced introducing themselves. But they'd struggle to read literature or write cohesive essays in an advanced class.

"You sound like a kid," Carreira said. "You're fluent, but you sound like someone who is not educated."

Suzette Wyhs, supervisor of the foreign language program for Loudoun schools, understands the complexities of teaching heritage speakers. She was born in New York to parents from Puerto Rico. As a child, she heard lots of Spanish but didn't speak it well. "When my mother talked, I understood, but I couldn't string three words together," she said.

"We're looking for bi-literacy, not bilingualism," Wyhs said of Loudoun's program. "Many of the students speak and understand well, but they are functionally illiterate; they never learned to read and write."

Education experts are seeking to find the best ways to teach this population. The National Heritage Language Resource Center, formed in 2006 and affiliated with UCLA's Center for World Languages, has obtained $1.3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education. The center plans to design a curriculum after surveying instructors and college-age heritage speakers.

Many parents turn to heritage language programs to help children connect with their culture and communicate better with family members in other parts of the world. Rose Yong's children -- Apollo, 8, and Ashley, 7 -- have been learning Mandarin in an after-school program at Arlington Traditional School.

Yong and her husband have family roots in China, although both grew up elsewhere. "I feel like they can embrace their heritage, be thankful of who they are and where they came from," she said.

Educators say the programs also can help students boost their performance in the classes they take in English. "If they don't have a firm base in a first language, it becomes harder to learn a second language," said Stephanie Fillman, who coordinates the heritage literacy club at Bailey's.

About 225 Bailey's students meet after school once a week to practice reading and writing in Spanish. About 100 middle and high school students work as tutors.

With help from George Mason University, the school is studying how students in the heritage club progress academically in comparison with Spanish-speaking counterparts who don't participate. They'll review student grades, test scores and English proficiency.

Lisa Rabin, a GMU Spanish professor, has started a similar program at Arlington Traditional School. The students read and write, but they also have fun playing games such as hangman. "We thought this would be a place for them to appreciate their Spanish and have fun with it and not be embarrassed to speak it," Rabin said.

On a recent afternoon, the Arlington County students celebrated the last class of the year with doughnuts and gifts of bilingual dictionaries. Teacher Candace Frank told them she didn't mind the excited chatter. But she did mind that it was in English.

"Chicos, ustedes saben como hablar español," Frank said. "Es una fiesta, pero todavía es clase." (Children, you know how to speak Spanish. It's a party, but it's still class.)

Karla Valentin, 9, has learned new words and improved her writing. Now she knows that "profesora" means teacher. "And before this, I didn't know how to say giraffe" -- la jirafa, she added.

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