Breaking the Language Barrier

By Lynn Schnaiberg — June 15, 1994 11 min read

Carlos, a 3rd grader, reads softly to himself in Spanish from Los Trucos de Clifford, his index finger carefully tracing each word as he sounds it out, syllable by syllable.

Carlos is doing what most other 3rd graders are doing: learning to read, with Clifford, the ubiquitous, oversized red dog. But that is the very thing that his teacher and school psychologist’s assessment said he wasn’t supposed to be able to do. Not even in his native Spanish--the first language of many students at Murchison Street Elementary School, which sits in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in east Los Angeles.

Labeled a “nonreader,’' Carlos was sent to Eleanor M. Vargas’s special-education class in September 1993. Each morning for about two hours, when the other students in his mainstream class are in language arts, Carlos and other students with mild learning disabilities are getting the special attention they need to learn to read.

“When he picked up a book, he just couldn’t do anything with it’’ at the beginning of the year, says Beatriz Carreon, Carlos’s mainstream-classroom teacher.

Under a brightly colored banner that reads “Seeing Is Believing’’ hangs the work of another student, Joselito, whose teacher said he could not write and generally did not participate in class before he came to Vargas’s class. “I play SEGA, the game I play, NBA jam I play, wet my fins, I play at my hous,’' it reads.

Vargas knew that what she was doing in her classroom was working when the parents of one of her students, in a show of gratitude, came in one weekend to blanket her cracked, lime-green classroom walls with a fresh coat of white paint.

In fact, many parents and teachers at Murchison Street Elementary call Room 51, Vargas’s class for bilingual learning-disabled students, “a miracle-maker.’'

In a nation where the vast majority of special-education students never leave special education--and limited-English-proficient students are disproportionately represented among its ranks--Vargas’s class appears to be an anomaly.

Under state law, special-education classrooms like Vargas’s can’t enroll more than 28 students. In such classrooms, researchers say, an average of 1.7 Hispanic students per class return full time to their mainstream classes each year.

In the 1992-93 academic year, Vargas sent four students back to their mainstream classrooms. Her students’ reading scores shot up by as many as five grade levels in the same year.

‘Theory Busting’ Program

None of this happened by accident. Three years ago, researchers chose Vargas’s classroom as one of two pilot sites for their OLE, or “optimal learning environment,’' project. The other pilot site, a rural elementary school in northern California, has a large migrant student population. Since then, six other schools across the state have also adopted elements of the OLE project in their classrooms.

More than half of Murchison Street Elementary’s 1,050 students are limited English proficient.

Each year, Vargas, a 20-year veteran special-education teacher, welcomes some 30 students into her classroom, about half of whom are limited English proficient.

About 85 percent of the school’s students live a few short blocks from the school in one of L.A.'s oldest housing projects, Ramona Gardens. Some students come from families that have spent three generations living within the clusters of gray-blue, cinder-block buildings, Principal Robert S. Bilovsky says. Roughly 98 percent of the student body participates in the federal government’s free lunch program.

OLE is a “theory busting’’ experiment to make special-education classrooms look and work more like those for gifted students, says Richard A. Figueroa, the head of the California Research Institute on Special Education and Cultural Diversity in Sacramento and OLE’s lead researcher.

The project also tries to move away from the traditional, medical approach to special education. That model, Figueroa and others argue, allows schools to explain underachievement as a result of an often unidentifiable student flaw instead of the school’s poor instruction for students whose language needs don’t “fit’’ into the general-education program.

There is no way to “prove’’ that a child has a learning disability, which usually manifests itself in problems with reading, spelling, or writing. In fact, researchers have documented many cases of L.E.P. students being misassessed as learning disabled. In these cases, special-education evaluators unfamiliar with the second-language acquisition process have misinterpreted as learning deficiencies typical characteristics of the language-learning process.

For example, students who remain silent for a long period of time may be diagnosed as having aphasia (the partial or total loss of the ability to articulate ideas as a result of brain damage). But this so-called “silent period’’ is often a normal stage for a child absorbing a second language.

Estimates on the number of L.E.P. students in special-education classrooms nationwide range from roughly 228,000 to one million, according to a report from the U.S. Education Department’s office of special education, an indication of how thorny just identifying these students can be.

To compensate for these diagnostic difficulties, the OLE project sets out to place students in an environment that gives them the chance to show that their deficiency lies not with them, but with the curriculum.

“The simple handshake of bilingual education and special education just doesn’t work,’' concludes Figueroa, who speaks from personal experience.

Eight years ago, prodded by frustration with the program serving his 1-year-old daughter Elena, who is deaf, Figueroa and his wife decided to experiment at home with teaching principles that would later grow into the foundation for the OLE program. Since kindergarten, after numerous negotiations with the district, Elena has attended totally mainstreamed classes in the Sacramento schools.

Comprehensive results on OLE student performance will not be available until the end of the year. But initial findings from the two California sites where the OLE program has been fully implemented point to a model that could drastically change the way bilingual special education works, observers note.

In fact, Los Angeles plans to expand the model to 10 other elementary schools to serve more learning-disabled students this fall.

“When we first got into bilingual special education, we assumed that the special-education delivery system was O.K. and all we had to do was make it accessible in two languages,’' says Leonard M. Baca, a pioneer in bilingual special education and the director of the Bueno Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“What we’ve learned from this project is that that model is in serious trouble,’' he says.

Attitude Adjustment

The OLE program flies in the face of the conventional wisdom upon which traditional special education is based: that students need a highly centralized program that focuses on remediating isolated skills largely through repetition and watered-down instructional materials.

The typical, prepackaged special-education program runs totally counter to what researchers have said bilingual students need, Figueroa maintains. In response to those needs, the OLE classroom is student-driven, using the student’s home language, whole language, rich literature, and group learning.

For many L.E.P. students, their home-language support stops the minute they enter traditional special education, adds Nadeen T. Ruiz, one of the project researchers and an assistant professor of education at California State University at Sacramento.

So the OLE model also takes into account the fact that many language-minority students often have fewer chances than their English-speaking peers to use their native language outside the home, making learning in school more difficult.

It took Vargas and her assistant, Angelica D. Beltran, almost two years to make the full shift into using the OLE principles. They started by locking away the Buffy and Max basal readers, prepackaged teachers’ manual, word lists, and weekly spelling tests that they had relied on for years.

Then they replaced the publisher’s laminated ABC chart above the chalkboard--"which no one ever looked at,’' Vargas says--with a student-made version. The letter A, which used to represent “apple,’' now stands for “avion’’ (airplane) and “anillo’’ (ring).

Charts, drawings, and stories--all student creations--now plaster the walls.

“It took a total change in attitude,’' Vargas says. “We had to back off a little so students could discover things themselves.’'

Before launching the OLE program, Vargas and Beltran would work individually with four or five students in a class for 50 minutes a day. Now, they have about 15 students each morning during their mainstream classrooms’ language-arts time on a three-week-on, three-week-off rotation throughout the school year.

English- and Spanish-speaking students used to work side by side in the same class, “just with different worksheets,’' Vargas says. Now, Vargas and Beltran separate the youngsters into two groups so they can tailor instruction to their needs and students can work in groups more efficiently.

The research behind the project, which began in 1989, is funded by the University of California at Davis and the state department of education. Frustrated with the overrepresentation of L.E.P. and minority students in special education, Shirley A. Thornton, the department’s deputy superintendent of specialized programs, wanted to develop an alternative.

“Regular education can fail you a lot cheaper than this,’' Thornton says, noting that California spends about $3 billion a year on special education. “To me, the best special education is the one that gets kids back to their mainstream classes.’'

And that’s just what Vargas intends to do. What’s more, by bolstering literacy in her students’ primary language, she can help ease their transition into English (which begins around the 4th or 5th grade in California), the OLE researchers say.

Interactive Storytime

“Grab whatever book you want, in English or Spanish, it doesn’t matter,’' Vargas shouts in Spanish as her 15 L.E.P. students stream down the hall of the pale yellow stucco building and into her classroom.

She encourages her students to choose freely between English and Spanish when they speak, write, and read in class. She used to reserve English for one block of time or activity and Spanish for another.

Although many of the students in this class are predominantly Spanish-speakers, Vargas says more and more of them are starting to take risks by using English. A similar trend has emerged at OLE’s San Francisco-area site.

Two 5th-grade boys read English “Batman’’ comics while a bespectacled girl pulls out a laminated book, Los Dos Amigos, that some of her classmates wrote in Spanish.

Vargas plops into an oversized black leather chair, taking on the role of classroom emcee.

“So what did everybody do over the weekend?’' she asks.

Hands fly up. Eric explains in English that he went to a friend’s birthday party. Rene talks in Spanish about going to Shakey’s pizzeria with his family.

“Ay no me digas, and how was it?’' Vargas comments, effortlessly switching between the two languages. Aware of the gap that often exists between the experiences language-minority students read about in standard schoolbooks and what they have actually lived, Vargas is careful to let her students guide their discussions and writing.

A poster hanging off a small table in the front of the classroom reads, “What We Want To Learn About.’' Cooking, dinosaurs, computers, writing, English, and making books--topics the students voted on at the start of the year--fill out the list of studies.

In a seamless transition from their discussion, Vargas asks her students to pull out their “interactive’’ journals. A key OLE feature, the journal exercise encourages students to write without fear of being corrected. Students write anything from one paragraph to an entire page, in Spanish or English, using the discussion as a launching point for their compositions.

Carlos, gripping a newly sharpened pencil in his fist, writes about going to Mexico and riding horses on his relatives’ ranch. Beltran sits with him, reads his entry, then writes questions about it, talking to Carlos the entire time.

Sometimes, the journals may even offer an explanation for why a student may be falling behind. One of Vargas’s former students wrote about a cousin who had just died of AIDS. Another wrote about his father’s truck being firebombed during a local gang shootout.

“If you can get through that,’' Vargas says, “reading and writing is a piece of cake.’'

On a recent morning in Room 51, Ana, a 5th grader, is putting the finishing touches on the cover of her first solo book in Spanish: The Day I’ll Never Forget. Other bound books--all written and illustrated by Vargas’s students--such as Have You Seen My Rabbit? and Vacaciones a Hollywood y Tejas--spill out of a plastic basket.

Ana’s mainstream-classroom teacher, Hilda Maldonado, says that before Ana joined Vargas’s class, she was afraid to call on her. She knew Ana had reading problems and didn’t want to embarrass her.

A few weeks ago some students chose Ana to read a passage aloud. “I sort of cringed and thought, ‘Oh no,’'' Maldonado recalls. “But she stood right up and read without any problem.’'

Maldonado shakes her head slightly. “I thought to myself, this is truly incredible.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 1994 edition of Education Week as Breaking the Language Barrier