Students Are Not Learning English In Puerto Rico

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Although Puerto Rico's political leaders have recognized the need for English-language instruction throughout the island's public schools, most of the teachers who must carry out the island's language policy are inadequately prepared to do so, according to a U.S. Department of Education study.

English-as-a-second-language classes were mandated in 1948 for all public-school students on the island. The policy, according to officials, was prompted in part by the "large-scale" and repeated migrations of Puerto Rican families to the United States mainland--shifts that created urban ghettos of people who, unable to speak English, were either unemployed or working in menial jobs.

Yet, the study notes, by the time Puerto Rico's Spanish-speaking students reach high school they have neither achieved "verbal mastery" of English nor retained any interest in learning to speak it.

The Congressionally mandated study, "An Analysis of the Inservice Training Needs of Teachers of English in Puerto Rico," is the result of a nine-month research effort by the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico under contract with the National Institute of Education.

Using a representative sample of 807 public-school teachers on the island, the researchers surveyed attitudes toward the education system, the students, the curriculum, and the social and political forces that influence the ability of the teachers to teach.

Overall, the study found uneven levels of teacher competence. While most teachers are able to read English adequately, it reported, some "are not entirely comfortable speaking or writing in English."

"In the elementary schools, for example, there are many teachers who have insufficient functional competence in English and know far too little about how to teach or even to communicate in it," a summary of the study reported.

In the secondary schools, the study found just the reverse. Teachers demonstrated greater levels of language competence but a reluctance to speak English or to encourage students to speak it in class.

Of Puerto Rico's approximately 85,000 students in 1979, an "overwhelming" number are from the 60 percent of the families in the commonwealth who receive public assistance, according to the study, and only one third of all students graduate.

Apparently influenced by their island's poor economic conditions, nearly half of the teachers believed that students from "economically deprived areas were wasting their time studying English and should be concentrating on vocational or technical preparation," the report noted.

Compounding the problems of English instruction for the island's schoolteachers is the the embarrassment caused them by the return of Puerto Rican migrants from the "mainland," who, according to the study, often speak better English than the teachers.

Because nearly 60,000 of the island's students had lived on the mainland for three or more years, according to 1979 statistics, the "returned migrants" not only "crack the homogeneity of the typical Puerto Rican classroom, but also "contradict the teachers' notion that English is not for the poor."

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