Learning a second language

Boy moves to U.S., picks up English quickly

Young reader

July 18, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

When Johannes Pleah arrived in the United States last summer, he spoke only a few words of English -- yes and no, yellow and red.

Almost a year later, nearing his ninth birthday, Johannes is reading everything he can get his hands on. He won a Dr. Seuss writing contest for Read Across America Day this year.

"I love mysteries," says Johannes, who will be a fourth-grader this fall at Pleasant Plains Elementary School in Towson. "I like reading everything."

A native of Mali, Johannes spoke only French when he arrived in the United States with his parents and two older brothers.

As one of the top pupils in his second-grade class in Mali, he was comfortable speaking and reading French.

"But in class here, I couldn't read English and I didn't know too many words," Johannes says. "I sat there not speaking very much."

But Johannes was doing more than silently sitting in class, says his third-grade reading teacher, Jane Ude. "He was soaking it all in, getting ready to show off all that he had learned," she said.

The dictionary became one of his best friends. "I look up every word I don't know to find out what it means," says Johannes, who enjoys playing soccer and basketball.

Because Johannes was a top second-grader in Mali, he was placed in one of the advanced reading groups at Pleasant Plains, allowing him to get comfortable with other top pupils as he worked to learn the language.

"He just picked it up so quickly," Ude says. "I'm so proud of him for working so hard."

That hard work included a lot of reading at school and home. His favorite place to read is his bedroom, usually at his desk with the dictionary nearby.

His favorite Dr. Seuss book -- "One Fish, Two Fish" -- helped him win the Read Across America contest.

The contest called for students to write stories in the humorous rhyming style of Dr. Seuss. "Rhyming is one of the hardest skills, especially for someone who was so new to English," Ude says.

But Johannes calmly accepts his accomplishments, proud that he is learning English. His winning entry -- titled "The Crazy Sofa" -- will be published in a collection of children's stories, and his mother promised to buy him a pair of basketball shoes as a prize.

"I like those books," he says. "It was fun to write like that."

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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