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A bold new approach to English proficiency for kids: Lean on their first language

Sixth grade dual language teacher Luz Valasquez leads a math class on polyhedrons. At sixth grade, dual language students at the school test 20 to 30 percent higher than the English-only students.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Sixth grade dual language teacher Luz Valasquez leads a math class on polyhedrons. At sixth grade, dual language students at the school test 20 to 30 percent higher than the English-only students.

California public schools have a woeful record of moving non-English speaking children to grade level proficiency in English. The state has been sued (and it settled), the Department of Justice has investigated, and tens of thousand of students have not been able to fully participate in school due to language limitations.

Now a federal grant will allow the Los Angeles Unified School District to try something new to help some of its youngest English language learners (ELLs) achieve better educational outcomes.

L.A. Unified has approximately 160,000 students whose first language is not English. The majority of those students speak Spanish as their first language.

Loyola Marymount University's school of education was awarded a $2.7 million dollar grant to collaborate with four LAUSD elementary schools with high ELL populations. LMU will train 84 transitional kindergarten through third grade teachers in a new method to get children proficient in English by utilizing the child’s first language as a literacy tool.

In an immigrant-rich city like Los Angeles, it is not uncommon for a child to arrive at preschool or kindergarten with very limited literacy in English. But according to LMU professor Magaly Lavadenz, director of the Center for Equity for English Learners (CEEL), students do come with literacy skills –they just happen to be in another language.

“They bring their home language. They know how to communicate, how to interact,” Lavandez said. “They know how to negotiate meaning in their first language.”

These skills are the building blocks of early literacy, she said.

However, these literacy skills are too often ignored in the classroom, Lavandez said. “We want to use [this foundation] as a way to add English to what they already bring.”

When a child enters school with a limited ability to understand English, the teacher’s primary challenge is to get them reading and writing at grade level in English, which is essentially their second language.

Traditionally, that effort has involved strict English-only classrooms with little appreciation for the child’s knowledge in their first language.

Lavandez believes this method doesn’t work.

“Schools have not attended to the needs of English language learners in the early grades,” she said. That has resulted in the “creation of long-term ELLs,” said Lavandez.

The training the early elementary grade teachers will receive will focus on how to utilize the literacy skills a child has in their home language – treat it as an asset – and simultaneously build English literacy, Lavandez said. 

“The goal is ultimately for students not necessarily … to become bilingual but for them not to have their first languages and cultures erased as part of the schooling process,” Lavandez said.

The five-year, $2.7 million dollar grant is from the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Dept. of Education and the Sobrato Family Foundation.

LMU will also train and officially certify 18 new bilingual teachers as part of the grant.

The University of California - Davis also received funding from the pool of $22 million in grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition. It plans to provide professional development for 50 additional LAUSD teachers and 25 instructional coaches to "develop the academic language and literacy of English learners."

“These partnerships with LMU and UC-Davis support the District’s commitment to our English Learners and our ongoing work to prepare them for college and careers,” said Superintendent Michelle King in a press statement.

This funding comes at a moment when bilingual education is growing in popularity across the state, and a November ballot measure – Prop 58 – would reverse the ban on bilingual education enshrined into law after the passage of Prop 227 in 1998.