Teaching bilingual students

Teacher Helping Boy With SchoolworkResearch by Robert T. Jimenez, University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign, and Russell Gersten, Eugene Research Institute, has led them to believe that non-spanish-speaking teachers can become better at working with Spanish-speaking students with the help of experienced, successful Latino teachers. Alva Rivera is such a teacher. In a series of discussions over a three-year period, these researchers documented the teaching style that makes her so successful with language-minority students.

Rivera’s style is exemplified by her ability to modulate language use and task difficulty so students experience success in her classroom. Her understanding of their cultural background and family life facilitates communication between home and school. Her personal experience learning English when she entered school, coupled with her teaching of Spanish in an immersion program for Anglo middle-school students, has led to a deep understanding of the problems second-language learners encounter. The building blocks of her instructional practice include in-depth training in second-language immersion techniques, classroom management and motivational strategies, and explicit, direct instruction.

Rivera works in a large urban elementary school where 90 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and Latinos make up 77 percent of the student body. She teaches a fourth-grade transition classroom with 27 students. These students speak Spanish as their first language. They received all their instruction in Spanish during the primary grades. Rivera reports that they need teachers who can sensitively but persistently encourage them to use English increasingly as a means of both oral and written communication.

Rivera says that teaching English as a second language is highly complex, requiring carefully planned, structured teaching that includes knowledge of the process of second-language acquisition as well as an appreciation of their students’ Spanish-language strengths. Rather than insisting that her students speak English, she structures the day so students have opportunities to practice and use English.

However, if a student is flustered in answering a complex question, Rivera will ask the student to explain in Spanish and then help the student to express at least some of the ideas in English.

Defined periods for use of English and Spanish

She provides clearly defined periods each day for using English and for using Spanish. She does not discourage children from using Spanish during English time, but she does discourage them from using English during Spanish time. This is because she believes students need more support to maintain their Spanish. She never views students knowledge of Spanish as a problem. On the other hand, she never accepts limited English proficiency as an excuse for not learning or for misbehaving.

Rivera sees her role as helping students make connections between the two languages. Her goal is to facilitate the transfer of knowledge that students possess in Spanish into English. Although students switch back and forth between languages during a lesson, Rivera herself tries to operate in one language or the other during each period (English for math, Spanish for social studies).

Rivera emphasizes vocabulary instruction, yet she does not discourage her students from inserting Spanish words as needed. She often takes them back to Spanish to get them to articulate their thoughts, either orally or in writing. She develops their vocabularies by frequent short writing assignments using word banks. The brevity of the assignment and the availability of the word bank enable all students to achieve some level of success.

Cooperative learning

The cooperative learning activities in Rivera’s classroom are consistent with her and her students’ cultural background. Students work in the same groups for an entire quarter. She reports that students feel comfortable speaking in these smaller groups, and she finds they write more when she allows them to work together. She tells them it is good to work together and to share so that all can do well.

Rivera frequently makes home visits, and she schedules open-ended parent conferences, making herself available for a few hours after school one day a week. She finds that parents do not mind waiting to see her but they do resent being told to arrive at a specified time.

Jimenez and Gersten credit Alva Rivera’s teaching success to her ability to build on students’ strengths by modulating the difficulty of tasks and the use of language. She knows how to facilitate connections between her students’ two languages. She accepts responsibility for teaching her students the information and skills they need to learn. She makes it clear that she holds them accountable for learning, and that their native language background is never a weakness, but a strength.

“Conversations with a Chicana Teacher: Supporting Students’ Transition from Native to English Language Instruction” The Elementary School Journal Volume 96, Number 3, January 1996 pp.333-341.

Published in ERN May/June 1996 Volume 9 Number 3

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