•In Louise O’Neill-Mejia’s classroom, the children are learning to live in two worlds: the familiar Spanish-speaking setting of their ancestry and the new English-speaking milieu of their adopted home.
•Using the maintenance method like a tennis match, with rallies in Spanish, then English, the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in her mixed-grade classroom at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Port Chester, N.Y., learn academic subjects in both languages.
•The class is part of a bilingual program operated with state funds. The 18 children in Mrs. O’Neill-Mejia’s class are classified as limited-English-speakers; many came to the United States only recently, from countries such as Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Colombia.
•In the maintenance method, Mrs. O’Neill-Mejia teaches the children primarily in Spanish, building up their comprehension and confidence before using it to teach them English. In addition, the children receive special instruction in English and in United States culture through English as a Second Language classes. Throughout the program, however, students maintain and improve their ability to speak and learn academic subjects in Spanish and English.
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•The Edison program also includes a parallel class of native-English-speaking students who are learning Spanish by the same maintenance method, receiving all their instruction in both languages. The goal of the program, is for both groups to attain proficiency in the two languages.
•Some educators have criticized the maintenance method, suggesting that since many children come from poor countries and are illiterate in their native language, they should be taught strictly in English to begin with. Mrs. O’Neill-Mejia’s answer is that the children are still oriented to their native tongue in nonverbal ways, despite their lack of proficiency in it. ”Many of these kids didn’t even know how to read in Spanish when they came here,” said Mrs. O’Neill-Mejia.”But they still think conceptually in Spanish. So if concepts are solidly formed in their first language, then we can transfer them more easily into English.”
•Indeed, her airy classroom is a study in bilingualism. Number charts, calendars, vocabulary lists and instructions on the chalkboard are written in both English and Spanish. And like all maintenance-method instructors, Mrs. O’Neill-Mejia is herself bilingual. One morning recently, she sat with six fifth-graders in a tight semicircle and conducted a weekly English lesson. She had the children read, then quizzed them in both languages to test their comprehension.
•Mrs. O’Neill-Mejia discounted the argument that the maintenance method retards a foreign student’s development in English, ”As soon as we see someone flourishing in English,” she said, ”we push them and do everything we can to improve their skills.” A year ago five students in the group knew no English at all. Now, like most of their classmates, they read at second-grade levels or better and are improving rapidly. ”I like reading and I like to work,” said Mariana Suarez, one of the five, a 9-year-old whose family moved from Bolivia two years ago.
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•Children are tested once in the fall and again in the spring to monitor their progress, and to determine how many English-support classes they should take.
•Educators have seen academic and linguistic progress in the classroom, and they say that the program has also reaped social benefits on the playground. ”When these kids first came here, many were timid and withdrawn,” said Frank Napolitano, the school principal. ”Now you can’t measure their change in attitude and self-esteem. They’re able to communicate, they’re thriving and they’re accepted by their peers.”
Thanks for the report.