The preschoolers were a mix of English and Spanish speakers. They sat quietly as their teacher read them a story, then put down the book. Now it was their turn. Whether the book had been read in their home language or not, they were told to act it out in pantomime.
This is one way the youngest learners can demonstrate comprehension of a second language. Drama is the most natural thing to a child, and it’s magical to see these experiences unfold.
Yet such scenes are rare. This one happened only because the Osborn School District was part of a dual-language learning initiative with Helios Education Foundation, Arizona State University, and Childsplay Theatre Company.
We’ve worked with Childsplay for the past three years under a federal grant to study how drama frames could enhance learning in the earliest grades.
More recently, Helios Education Foundation approached us about studying two-way immersion dual language learning, which ideally occurs in classrooms in which half of the students speak English, and the other half speak Spanish. Under state law, this combination is forbidden in K-12 without a state waiver, so we started a pre-school program. Osborn School District had a proven track record of dual language learning so we were a natural partner for this initiative. For more than 20 years, Osborn has implemented a dual-language program for our English language learners to still be able to have primary language instruction as transitional bilingual classes were deemed illegal.
Nationally, two-way immersion has been shown to produce strong academic outcomes. Our experiment was no different. Pre-schoolers showed considerable growth over the school year in key metrics.
People come into the classroom, and they are amazed by the rich vocabulary and vibrant conversations of the students. Teachers see shy students blossom, and students with disabilities fully participate.
I was not surprised. This reinforces my 18 years of experience in bilingual and dual-language learning environments. Each year, our 7th and 8th grade students who take algebra and geometry take the Phoenix Union High School District qualifying test, with most scoring well enough to earn high school credits. Three-fourths of our 6th grade dual-language students earn a year of high school credit for Spanish before they enter the seventh grade, again through Phoenix Union’s equivalency exams.
But under Arizona law, only English-proficient speakers can enroll in dual-language classes. English-language learners must be taught only in English, though study after study shows that model doesn’t work. It doesn’t come close to matching the results when mixing English-, Spanish- and bilingual speakers in a classroom and teaching in both languages.
These classes are not language classes; they focus on reading, writing, math and science. They just happen to be taught in English and Spanish. They add energy beyond the traditional model of a teacher imparting knowledge to students. Interactions go in every direction, with students helping each other and the teacher learning from students. Cultures are shared.
Parents ask for these courses because of the benefits of bilingualism. They see the higher test scores and academic achievement in our dual-language classes. They want their children to learn about other cultures. I’ll show them a classroom where the kids are reading a story in Spanish. The teacher asks a question, and if a student answers in English – showing comprehension - the teacher responds in Spanish to encourage the child to do the same. And vice versa. Language is learned and absorbed through interactions with teacher and peer!
I’d like to see the Legislature make it possible for us to provide this rich, two-way immersion experience to all students. We should move away from a law that limits the benefits of dual-language learning to English speakers. We have an opportunity this year with HCR 2001. We hope the legislature will affirm that bill as it is a positive step forward for Arizona students.
Providing dual language instruction is not cheap or easy. Any district undertaking such an endeavor needs to be well prepared for the challenges. But those who do will find, as we and Helios did, that the benefits for our children are well worth the time and investment.
Michael Robert, Ed.D. is superintendent of the Osborn School District. He was previously principal of Encanto School when it was honored as an A+ School of Excellence by the Arizona Educational Foundation and earned an “A” Rating from the Arizona Department of Education.