Learning the language should be priority one

As some of you may know, I wasn’t born in this country. I came here with my parents when I was eight years old and spoke literally five words in English: egg, bed, foot, hat, and comb. Random what you remember as a kid. I had this basic book of words and pictures my parents bought so I could learn English while we waited around in Italy to be allowed to fly to the United States, and those are the five words I remember, because I learned them first and best.

When we finally landed in New York and settled down in the one-bedroom apartment with my aunt and grandfather (yeah, it was a bit crowded), my parents enrolled me in third grade at PS 97 in Brooklyn.  I was in a crowded class. There were probably more than 30 students in one classroom. I spoke no English, and no one bothered to teach it to me. I guess they figured I would just learn it by osmosis. I sat in the same math and social studies classes as everyone else. I understood nothing. Generally, if we were going over a worksheet in class, the teacher would simply skip over me, knowing I would never give the right answer. My vocabulary improved… by maybe 50 words. There was another girl in that class with whom I was paired. She was supposed to help me, because she spoke Russian as well as English. She merely translated everything for me that  wanted to say. I was grateful for the help, but I wasn’t particularly successful at improving my language skills. When I entered fourth grade – an overcrowded classroom with more than 40 kids to one teacher, and desks almost literally stacked on top of one another – I was no less clueless than I was in the third.

That’s why a WashPo article a friend of mine posted on Facebook this morning really struck a chord. In it, the writer describes the resource struggles that resulted from thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central and South America pouring into the United States and the efforts to educate these kids. Let’s set aside the fact that the legal status of these kids is pointedly ignored and barred from discussion by the school administrators. Let’s set aside the fact that illegal aliens (and yes, I absolutely refuse to call them anything else for the sake of political correctness) are putting a huge strain on our infrastructure, draining resources from already-overwhelmed school systems, and are doing so at the expense of every taxpayer. That’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the International Academy.

By the idealistic standards of the International Academy, an experimental high school program for young immigrants who do not speak English, Haskins’s class that fall morning was a success. A second-year student with limited skills had helped a new classmate who had none, building his own self-esteem and drawing her into a friendly learning environment.

But the surge of nearly 3,000 unaccompanied minors who have reached the Washington area from the border this year — including 150 enrolled in the Alexandria academy, located on the third floor of T.C. Williams High School — has put unprecedented strains on its staff, facilities and unique educational philosophy.

The international high school model was founded in New York City in the 1980s, during a soaring influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Its mission is to integrate foreign youths into U.S. society, teach them basic English and give them a solid high school education, all at the same time.

As a former ESL (English as a Second Language) student, I think this model is only partially correct. You cannot – CANNOT – properly teach a subject such as social studies or science without a solid English foundation, and that’s not something you learn as you go along – at least not at a pace that is conducive to learning. You must learn English first. That’s a fact.

After the abject FAIL that was third grade in New York, my dad got a job in Philadelphia, and we moved. The elementary school I attended tested my English language ability and determined it was nearly nonexistent. I was placed in an ESL class with other kids who spoke no English.  Philly schools’ ESL classes focused entirely on teaching the language. I was in a class with older kids and younger ones. We learned exactly how the model in this article describes, but we all had to do it in English. There was no translation into our native language. We were completely immersed, but we were only immersed in learning English. There were Hispanic kids, a Greek girl, a couple of Russians, etc. We all helped one another, but only in English and only for the purpose of learning English. There was no math or science or social studies. Just English – 6 hours per day with 4 hours of homework per night entirely focused on grammar and vocabulary.

I remember sitting there at my parents’ kitchen table and writing out English grammar exercises until my hand cramped and my middle finger on my right hand developed a huge callus. I’m not complaining. I learned English grammar cold in that class, and the 50-ish vocabulary words I was forced to learn every night were far above my pathetic progress in New York.

That’s how the ESL program was run, and I think it’s brilliant.

Yes, the more experienced kids helped the newer ones. The older ones helped the younger ones. But they didn’t do so by providing a translation service. They did it using their own English skills, solidifying what theyalready learned, while helping others.

But where I think this International Academy goes wrong is by trying to cram other classes and skills into what needs to be a clean program that teaches kids to communicate – both verbally and in written form. If they miss a year of math or science or social studies, so be it. I don’t feel I missed out on much, because I would have been sitting there in those social studies and those science classes like a dolt, not understanding anything anyway. When I did math in New York, I mostly got everything wrong, because I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do. So why bother putting a kid in a math class in which they will likely fail, because you want to provide them with “a solid high school education”?

Sorry, but you can’t learn math or social studies or science without language skills, so it’s no wonder some of these kids sit around looking like monkeys doing a math problem! You can’t claim you’re providing them with the math/science/social studies skills they need when they have so much trouble understanding basic instructions. From my own experience, it makes more sense to teach them English first. Yes you sacrifice a year of math, science, etc. but you get a kid who will actually understand those subjects once they get out of ESL, instead of lagging behind in classes, worried they won’t pass a standardized test.

My ESL class was exempt from standardized testing until we were able to transfer into a “regular class,” and we didn’t transfer out of ESL until our teacher told school administrators we were ready.

And when you were ready, you really were ready. We learned English. Completely. Sometimes better than native speakers. After festering in a regular, overcrowded classroom in Brooklyn without language instruction, jut trying to keep up as best I could, focusing on the single most important thing I needed to succeed was exactly what the doctor ordered.

I guarantee you none of you, if you ever met me, would know that English wasn’t my first language unless I told you. I guarantee you probably wouldn’t know it from my writing. I credit the ESL class in Philadelphia with teaching me a very basic skill I needed to succeed.

I think the International Academy has the right idea, but goes about it the wrong way.

You don’t need to spend extra resources on bilingual science, math, social studies, art, etc. teachers. What you need is maybe five teachers whose exclusive focus and expertise is ESL. Have those teachers focus their efforts in their classes of 30 solely on teaching English, and when these students are ready, integrate them into regular classes to continue their education. They will catch on, and they will do so relatively quickly. Meanwhile the spaces in those International Academy classes can be filled with new students, who will receive help from their peers who, by virtue of being in ESL longer, will be able to now utilize their newly-learned English skills to help the new crop of students.

It took me a year to become so proficient in my ESL class, that the teacher recommended I move to a regular fifth grade classroom. Yes, I missed some math and science, but I quickly acclimated and learned, because I could actually understand what the teacher was explaining!

I know some highly-educated, experienced education experts will tell me how wrong  I am, but I can only speak from my own experience. It worked for me, and it worked for the students who went through the program with me.

Their mileage may vary.


8 responses

  1. “highly-educated, experienced education experts”. They’ll be the ones who couldn’t teach in kindergarten.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You give me several fun thoughts.

    The first is that your foreign origin is actually betrayed by your careful use of English. Wasn’t there something from My Fair Lady about the way to detect a foreigner was that their use of English was far more precise than a Native Englishman? I think it was when the Hungarian was claiming to have exposed Ms. Doolittle. Inverse logic, but very true.

    Second, when I was a kid, my dad was doing some research in Post War Germany, so we all moved to Munich. This is the way he put it:

    Most of the Germans you will meet will have some use of English and some of them will speak it very well. Take that as a courtesy on their part. It’s their country and you are a visitor. You need to learn at least the basics for good manners and to show courtesy to them in turn.

    I agree with you completely. If I move to a country, I will need to learn their language and customs. That’s how you become part of the country you’re in. If you don’t want to be part of it, you shouldn’t be there. You should be where you actually want to be. Either in your native land or one that suits you better.


    1. Well, it’s not just about learning the native language of the country where you settle. I certainly try to communicate in whatever language happens to be the native tongue of the nations I visit, and I certainly don’t expect others to speak English to me merely because I’m American.

      This post is more about education and HOW we educate immigrant kids, vice whether they’re here legally, or whether they should learn the language at all. It’s obvious they should – both from a resource and a cultural standpoint. But it’s the WAY we teach them that concerns me. From my own experience, it’s just not optimal.


  3. I like what you’ve said. My parents were both teachers (father was former USAF officer). They took up teaching in over-seas schools in 1981, and did so (with a 2-year exception) until they (semi-)retired in 2006/7. Mom did mostly ESL and Special Education. Dad was math and science. They taught in “American/International” schools where the primary instruction language was always English. I’ll have to ask their thoughts on this when they visit me later this month, but it all sounds logical to me.

    As an extension of the concept, given students’ current language skills, we should consider implementing a similar program for native U.S. “English speakers”. A year of nothing but grammar, vocabulary, spelling, writing and penmanship, until they can meet a basic (moderate-to-high) level of competence in communication. Perhaps all of second or third grade.

    Maybe that would help the under-performing native students in schools.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree. I cringe at some of the writing I see even from college graduates! OMG!!!


  4. You could support these folks:

    They, like you, believe that students need english proficiency first. They oppose bi-lingual education (apartheid in the class room). It was founded by a legal immigrant (BTW: I prefer “criminal alien/immigrant” instead of “illegal alien”; the first act an “illegal alien” of an “alien/immigrant” entering the country illegally is a crime. I like to keep that fact up front where it’s obvious). The US English founder had an interesting take on bilingual education: “The bilingual education advocates want my kids to learn spanish in school so they can grow up to be dishwashers and janitors. I want my kids to learn english so they can grow up to be doctors and lawyers.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, this post was not even against bilingual ed, but rather the WAY language is being taught in schools. It is inefficient and ineffective.


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