Massachusetts’ voters decided in 2002 that public school teachers should immerse their students in English. This week, WGBH’s Andrea Smardon is investigating the impact of the ballot measure known as Question 2. She visits Dever-McCormack K-8 School in Dorchester, where teachers are bringing Spanish back into the classroom.
BOSTON — It was 2003, and voters had just approved a state ballot measure requiring students to learn in English. Second-grade teacher Christine Cronin had just started her new job at the Dever-McCormack K-8 School when she realized she had a major problem. Half of her students did not speak English, yet she was responsible for teaching them to read in the language they didn’t know.
She could tell her students about the letter “N” and the sound it makes. But how could she put that in context?
“I’m thinking about the pictures that I’m asking them to associate with this letter ‘N’; they don’t know what these things are called in English, They don’t know what a net is. They’re not calling it a net.”
In the past, Cronin spoke Spanish and English to her students. But after Question 2 passed, teachers all over Massachusetts had to put away their bilingual materials.
“What I really just wanted to do was pull out my things from when I taught in Spanish, and say OK, here we go, this is ‘EN-nay’, it says nnn, just like I said before. And here’s the words it sounds like, and pulling pictures that made sense in Spanish because they started with that sound — really teaching them how to read — because I knew that if they learned that, then they would get the English reading pretty quickly,” Cronin said.
Cronin felt that she was handicapping her students by not using their native language. She says she still harbors guilt about the students who couldn’t read when they left her class.
“I have one student in mind who would be a 7th grader right now – he never became a good reader. In 2nd grade I had the opportunity to teach him to make meaning out of reading, and I felt like I couldn’t, and I feel like I failed him,” Cronin said.
After struggling with this approach for a few years, Cronin and other teachers decided to try another model: A dual language program.
In a classroom at the Dever school, a teacher speaks to his students in Spanish. Here, it’s allowed. The English-immersion law mostly eliminated bilingual programs, but there is an exception. Schools can use a dual language approach, immersing students in two languages alternately, as long as one of them is English. This week at Dever, these second graders are learning exclusively in Spanish. Next week they will be taught only in English.
“Deportes,” says one girl.
“Kayportes?” asks a boy.
“Desportes,” she repeats.
The students are working on their writing skills in small groups. At one table, a native Spanish speaker is helping a student whose first language is English. She helps him spell the Spanish word for sports.
Cronin says this approach allows students to learn not only from the teacher, but from each other.
“In the dual lang. model, the children sitting next to them are a mixed group of English speakers and Spanish speakers, and so they’re being pushed during their English time to use the skills they’re developing,” Cronin said. "And they also get the opposite time when they’re the language models, and they’re teaching their peers how to speak Spanish.”
According to Cronin, the school is already seeing promising gains with the dual language approach. She says far fewer students are struggling to read. And, she says, the program allows students to use the skills they already have in their native language.
“One of the things that was most attractive to us was the idea that it’s an additive model, so it’s the idea that being bilingual is a good thing, as opposed to it’s a problem that needs to get fixed, which is the attitude that was behind the referendum question,” Cronin said.
Cronin doesn’t believe that the English-only law is the best approach, but she does agree with the idea that students need to learn English.
“In our country, English is the language of academics, it’s the language of power, it’s the language of achievement. We need kids to be able to listen, speak, read, write at a high level in English. I think that’s why question 2 got a foothold,” Cronin said.
“There were programs that were not working effectively to get to that ultimate goal of kids being able to be successful here. That always has to be a number one goal. It’s the ways in which you get there that differ,“ Cronin continued.
The State Department of Education was not able to say how many dual language programs there are, but a recent UMass study shows two percent of English Language Learners are in dual-language programs. All other public schools in are required to teach students in English, unless parents sign a waiver requesting bilingual assistance for their child.
PT. 1: TOTAL IMMERSION
WEIGH IN: YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH ENGLISH IMMERSION