English-Language Learners

San Jose Elem. School Provides Rich Language Experience

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 13, 2012 2 min read
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I’m back in my regular Ed Week saddle after a trip to the West Coast, where I had the chance to visit schools and classrooms full of English learners.

One of my favorite days was the one I spent at Gardner Academy, in downtown San Jose, Calif., where some native Spanish speakers are being taught in their primary language and in English from the moment they start prekindergarten.

The goal of the program—which is a pilot that spans preschool through grade 3 in three Bay Area elementary schools and 13 feeder preschools—is to develop the literacy and language skills of young English-language learners so that they get on track to become bilingual and biliterate early on, and, by fourth grade, close the gap in academic achievement between them and their native English-speaking peers.

The hallmark of the classrooms I visited was language, language, language. Talking, talking, talking. The teacher talking to students. The students talking to the teacher. And the students talking to one another. They are noisy, lively classrooms.

In the preschool class I visited, teacher Rosemary Zavala was presenting a lesson on plants. On the day I was there, it happened to be a Spanish day. The language of instruction alternates every day, though an English-speaking instructional aide and a Spanish-speaking instructional aide are always present.

Ms. Zavala drew a tree and used lots of other visual cues to talk about what plants need to grow, at the same time that she was teaching and reinforcing words such as raíces (roots), ramas (branches), tronco (trunk), hojas (leaves), and árbol secoya (sequoia tree). She asked each student to tell her where they see trees. If they didn’t respond in a complete sentence, she asked them to try again. And then she had them turn and talk to one another about what trees need to grow. They also sang a song about studying plants.

Ms. Zavala and some of her colleagues at Gardner are using a model called SEAL—Sobrato Early Academic Language—which was developed by Laurie Olsen, a researcher and the director of the SEAL project at the Sobrato Family Foundation. The foundation, based in Silicon Valley, is paying for the pilot in the three schools and 13 preschools, where collectively, 70 percent of students are English learners.

While the goal is to preserve and develop a student’s primary language at the same time they are developing English, not all parents are electing for their children to receive primary language instruction at Gardner. But teachers in structured English immersion classrooms are also using the SEAL model to develop strong English language and literacy skills in the early grades.

The program is in its third year, with the first group of students now in first grade. The results so far are promising. Among the positive impacts that SEAL has demonstrated to date: changing teacher practices, greater alignment of curriculum across the early grades, increased levels of literacy activities in students’ homes, and growth on measures of language and literacy (in English and in Spanish), as well as cognition and social skills.

There’s much more to say about the SEAL program in particular, and the growth in dual language programs more generally, which will be the subject of a story I’ll write for Ed Week soon. Consider this a little preview.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.