Course's goal is `not only bilingual but biliterate'

Class: Foreign students hone ability to read and write in native language.

April 25, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Peggy Wheeler's Spanish class is different from most foreign language classes because the language isn't foreign to her students.

Her 14 charges at Annapolis High School speak Spanish fluently. They don't need to learn to count in Spanish or to practice rolling their R's.

Instead, they are honing their ability to read and write their native language in Wheeler's "Spanish for Heritage Speakers" class.

Although critics lament time not spent studying English, researchers say the heritage courses build confidence and help the students to stay proficient in their native language and to gear up for college-level courses. The classes also boost job prospects and enhance the students' mastery of English.

"It's my language, and you can never stop learning your language," said Candida Lemus, 17, who came to Annapolis last year from El Salvador.

Since the mid-1970s, such courses have grown popular nationwide, especially in large immigrant centers such as New York City, California and Texas.

In Maryland, Montgomery County has more than 1,600 middle and high school "heritage language learners" in native Spanish courses. Officials there are also developing a French course for students from former French-speaking colonies.

Prince George's County offers native Spanish and French courses. Howard County is piloting two levels of a Spanish heritage class and hopes to submit it as a proposal for a new course.

"What we're trying to do is be sure that students that have that language skill can use it," said Robert E. Robison, Montgomery County's program supervisor of foreign languages.

This is the fourth year that Annapolis High has offered a heritage language course.

Cathy Nelson, coordinator of Anne Arundel's English for Speakers of Other Languages program, said the idea is to make students "not only bilingual but biliterate."

Students whose native language is Spanish have vocabulary and other language skills and an innate understanding of some grammar, "yet they needed more detailed, practical refinement of their writing skills," said Deborah Espitia, Howard County's coordinator of foreign language and ESOL.

Teachers might assume that a student who speaks Spanish can read and write in the language as well, but that's not necessarily the case.

"Ironically, when you have heritage language learners in foreign language [classes] and subject them to the same assessment, oftentimes heritage language learners don't do as well," said researcher John B. Webb, co-editor of the book Our Voices, Our Selves: Stories of Heritage Language Teachers and Their Students.

Research shows that teaching people who speak only Spanish to be literate in their native language helps with reading comprehension in other languages.

"Language skills are indeed transferable," Webb said. "It's all part of creating an environment that supports language learning."

Patricia Orndorff, Anne Arundel's coordinator of world and classical languages, said English-speaking students study language arts every year. "Why not give these kids that same kind of opportunity? They need it as well," she said.

The Arundel school system is considering offering the Spanish heritage language course - now available only at Annapolis High - at other schools. Orndorff would like to see the program expanded beyond Spanish - perhaps to one for native speakers of Korean, she said.

Mastering one's native language also builds confidence, experts say. Students in Wheeler's class - all enrolled in Anne Arundel's ESOL program - are immersed in English in every other course, so it can be a relief to enter a Spanish-speaking classroom.

But groups that believe schools should be focused on teaching English criticize the value of efforts to sharpen Spanish language skills.

Children with limited English proficiency "really need every hour of the day to be studying English," said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a group opposed to bilingual education programs.

"That's the language of opportunity in this country," he said. "You can speak 10 languages in this country, but if not one of them is English, you will be underemployed."

But advocates say refining Spanish skills will help students gain jobs because they can translate and interpret.

"To let these students go through school and not to achieve greater proficiency in that language is to waste a potentially valuable resource," Webb said.

Tenth-grader Oscar Canales, 16, first enrolled in ESOL classes at Bates Middle School when he came to Annapolis from El Salvador in 2000.

Although he attended school in El Salvador until the fifth grade, he has noticed the loss of some skills. But the situation is improving now that he's in the heritage language class. And there are other benefits as well.

"I feel happy though, because that's my people in there - a lot of friends in there," he said.

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