New ESOL program helps to bridge the language barrier
Oct. 12, 2001
Julia Oliver
Staff Writer




The desks in Lillie Nelson's sixth-grade classroom are set up in clusters of two to four children with ESOL pupils scattered randomly. ESOL is the acronym for English for Speakers of Other Languages.

While Nelson speaks only in English, snatches of Spanish can be overheard in conversations among the children.

In a learning environment such as this one at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary, language often is a barrier between teachers and children, especially when one-third of the 750 pupils are in ESOL and only five staff members are bilingual.

But a new program allows students and teachers to work together to bridge the language gap. Above-average bilingual students in Nelson's classroom serve as translators.

Lucy Salazar benefits from this situation. She scrunches up her face and smiles ­ as if uncertain ­ when addressed in English.

She understands very little, she says in Spanish.

Salazar, 12, a native of Guatemala, is in sixth grade and in her second year at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School. She is classified as level 1 ­ the lowest of four categories ­ in the county's ESOL system.

Last year, she was pulled out of her social studies classroom each day for special English instruction, but this year she is part of the new inclusion program at Langley Park-McCormick.

She now sits in an English-taught social studies class with fluent English-speakers.

Salazar said when she needs help she asks her neighbor, Laura Bonilla, who is not in ESOL, to translate instructions into Spanish.

"I ask my friend, 'What is it that she said?'" Salazar said.

Bonilla, 11, also likes having ESOL pupils in her social studies class.

"I think it's really good because the ESOL students can learn what we're learning," Bonilla said. "Mostly they come to me."

ESOL students are not the only ones to benefit from increased discussion of classroom instructions, the educator said.

"When they're asking me, I'm reading more," Bonilla said. "And it's helping me to understand and do more work."

The sixth-graders said they exchange phone numbers and ESOL pupils call their classmates for assistance on homework.

Already conduits of learning have formed: Maria helps Reyna and Jessica but calls Laura for help when she needs it. Pedro helps Ingrid but asks Cristo and Laura for advice.

Principal Cheryl Logan, who has been instrumental in implementing the new system, said the ESOL arrangement allows pupils to learn in an English context as opposed to isolation.

In the inclusion program, ESOL pupils are placed in classes with above-grade level peers for math, social studies and science.

They are not directly paired with English partners, but they learn the same content.

An ESOL teacher, who is trained to teach English as a foreign language, is always present and tailors the lessons to different language abilities. In the past, ESOL teachers would work with groups of ESOL students separately from native English-speakers, but now it is all done in one classroom.

The theory is that above-average pupils ­ chosen by their test scores ­ will be role models for English-learners.

Logan said she is not worried about exceptional students being held back by the set-up because they have already proven their ability to study.

"You're always going to have kids who shine," she said.

Linda Marr, the ESOL teacher, said she favors the new the arrangement because it allows her pupils to learn the same material the other children do, instead of just doing unrelated language exercises.

Marr doesn't speak Spanish, but the majority of the class, ESOL or not, does.

"I know a few words," Marr said. "I have a Spanish dictionary if I need one."

While Nelson took Spanish for two years in college, she isn't fluent and often has bilingual pupils help her explain class work to Spanish-speakers.

She said the inclusion system is working well, although she cautions that it is too early to judge.

Logan said the success of the program will be judged by the standardized test scores at the end of the second year.

If the inclusion ESOL students' scores compare favorably to those at other elementary schools, Karen Woodson, the county school system's supervisor of ESOL and Language Minority Programs, wants to expand the program.

She said she hopes to put it in all of the county's 27 elementary school ESOL centers within the next three years.

For now, Nelson said the ESOL pupils seem to be more interested in class than in the past.

The biggest complaint she has is the talking that goes on during class.

"It gets a little loud sometimes, but it's new for me, so I'm trying," she said.

E-mail Julia Oliver at joliver@gazette.net.