The challenges of teaching English language learners to read
Acclaimed actress Rita Moreno hosts Becoming Bilingual, a 30-minute PBS program that examines the challenges of teaching children to read in a new language. The show visits six cities across the country to learn about the different ways schools are working to create bilingual readers. Becoming Bilingual is the seventh episode of the award-winning series Launching Young Readers.
Featured Video: Becoming Bilingual
About the program
For a teacher who speaks only English, having students who speak another language can be a daunting prospect. How do teachers teach English language learners (ELLs) to read in a new language? Becoming Bilingual visits schools and programs in El Paso, Texas; Arlington, Virginia; Long Beach, California; Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and Woodburn, Oregon, to highlight the different ways schools are working to create bilingual readers.
Find out how Ms. Espinosa and her team at the Escontrias Early Childhood Center in El Paso, Texas, teach a significant number of their young learners to listen, speak, and write in English.
New Kid in Town
Watch as the Arlington Public Schools Intake Center in Arlington, Virginia helps place kids like eight-year-old Marlon, a new student from Honduras, in the right classroom.
Parents as Partners
Meet Kathy Mayer, the principal of Rachel Carson Elementary in Chicago, Illinois, who learned early on that one key to teaching young readers is getting parents involved.
Two Languages at a Time
Learn how Ms. Gonsalves gives equal time to both her native English and native Spanish speakers in her class at Webster Elementary in Long Beach, California.
Poet Francisco Alarcon
Bilingual Poet Francisco Alarcon visits Oyster Bilingual School in Washington, D.C., where he helps a group of third-grade students tap into their dreams and write poetry.
Beyond Survival English
Travel 30 miles south of Portland, Oregon to Heritage Elementary, where part of the job is teaching kids one word at a time — first in their native Russian, and then in English.
A Welcoming Library
Join librarian Laura Kleinmann in the Oyster Bilingual School library, a place where English language learners can go to put everything they've learned about phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension together.
Transcript by segment:
Introduction: Becoming Bilingual
Cynthia: I'm gonna jump with you, Gabby.
Rita Moreno: When you don't speak much English…
Rita: …learning to read in English can be really tough…
Girl: (reading) He did not get the grapes.
Rita: …and help has been hard to find.
Ms. Espinosa: I cried for a whole month.
Dr. Emma Violand-Sanchez: We have a lot of students that are falling through the cracks.
Rita: Today, research is starting to show what really works for teaching English language learners how to read.
Ms. Espinosa: What sound does the letter "a" make?
Rita: Across the country, parents and teachers are using that research to make a difference for their kids.
Ms. Mayer: Indigo! Excellent!
Rita: We'll show you how they do it!
Ms. Espinosa: I was like, "My goodness. I'm getting through. They're listening. They're learning."
Francisco Alarcon: Ahaha-aieeee!
Rita: Becoming Bilingual, a Reading Rockets special, is funded by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education programs.
Rita: I moved here from Puerto Rico when I was only 5 years old. New York seemed cold and noisy — and I didn't speak a word of English.
Rita: Hello, I'm Rita Moreno. At first, school wasn't much fun. Kids teased me about my curly hair, my olive skin, and — most of all — my English. I used to stare at the blackboard hoping that the words would finally make sense.
Rita: Now there are millions of kids who need to learn a language that's totally different from what they hear at home. Fortunately, we've learned a few things about teaching them how to read. Today we're gonna visit some schools around the country where children are experiencing success.
First Steps (El Paso, Texas)
Ms. Espinosa: Good morning. And are you ready to have a wonderful day?
Rita: In El Paso, Texas, veteran teacher Angelica Espinosa is facing a new challenge.
Ms. Espinosa: Nineteen little bodies walk in here, all Spanish speakers, coming into an English-only class. I would speak to them in English and just get blind looks, just looking at the ceiling, at the rug, anywhere, you know, but at me. And those blank little looks, just broke my heart.
Rita: This year, for the first time, she has a room full of five-year-olds who speak only Spanish. She's had a lot of training, but the job is hard. She needs to teach them to read in English — to get them excited about school.
Espinosa: You know what this is one of my favorite stories, too.
Ms. Espinosa: You know, for many of them, kindergarten is their first experience in their educational career. You make this a bad experience for them, you're gonna ruin some of these kids.
Rita: In spite of her worries, Ms. Espinosa has jumped in with both feet. She starts each day with an explicit lesson in oral English — listening and speaking.
Espinosa: What's my job? Am I a race car driver?
Rita: Ms. Espinosa's class is riding a wave of national change. Escontrias Elementary — in El Paso, Texas — is like may schools across the country. They need to teach a significant number of their young learners to listen, speak, read, and write in English.
Dr. Claude Goldenberg: We probably have as many as 5 million, close to 10% of the school-aged population are English language learners in this country. By and large, if you are an English language learner, your achievement tends to be lower than kids who are English speakers.
Rita: That's mainly because English language learners have to do a lot of extra work. Just following what the teacher is saying can be hard at first.
Ms. Espinosa: You need to make sure they are understanding every word that comes outta your mouth. Then once you have that connection then work on the concept.
Espinosa: Then he puts it in the car.
Daniella: And takes them home.
Rita: Because the kids need to learn so much, it's vital that they have a skilled teacher. And the stakes are high.
Dr. Calderon: The Latino dropout rate is one of the highest in the nation, because we have not invested our intellectual resources in preparing teachers to work effectively with ELLs.
Espinosa: Top, and…mop. Top. Mop.
Rita: At Escontria, principal Ron First is making sure the story will be different for his kids.
Ron First: Spanish-speaking students who are English language learners absolutely can learn how to read and speak and write English well. It takes, number one, a committed teacher that has a passion for her students, and they need good tools, a good curriculum, something that is scientifically research-based.
Rita: Ms. Espinosa is working on phonemic awareness. That's an understanding that words are made up of individual sounds — and the ability to manipulate those sounds.
Espinosa: What two words rhyme? Daniella?
Daniella: and bees.
Espinosa: and bees.
Dr. Calderon: It's really important to teach ELL students phonemic awareness because that's where they learn to distinguish the sounds. What's the difference between "no" in Espanol and "no" and how do you place your mouth? What happens to your jaw, the lips?
Rita: She also spends time every day on phonics, the relationship between letters and their sounds.
Rita: This may look familiar. It turns out that many of the methods we use with native English speakers work well with ELL kids, too.
Dr. Goldenberg: But there are some adjustments that are necessary, primarily because they don't know the language. So that you have to, for example, make instruction extremely clear. You need to give nonverbal cues — hold up signs, make gestures. You need pictures. You need to provide additional support — sometimes called "scaffolds" — for the English language learners, to make sure they understand the message.
Rita: Ms. Espinosa's got a lot of work to do, but her kids are catching on.
Ms. Espinosa: The first picture is an ant.
Ms. Espinosa: We just had parent-teacher conferences two weeks ago, and there's a parent that was really concerned. Luckily, the little boy came with mom to the parent-teacher conference. I pulled out some of my words, and I told him, "Can you sound this word out for me?" He sounded it out, and he put it together. Mom was in tears. "My son is reading. My son is reading."
New Kid in Town (Arlington, Virginia)
Rita: Eight-year-old Marlon Escobar-Lopez has an important appointment today. He's checking in to his new school system in Arlington, Virginia.
Dad: Marlon Escobar.
Rita: He's at the Arlington Intake Center, where staff will figure out exactly what he needs from his new teachers.
Silvia Koch: The Intake Center is the place where children who speak another language, or have another language background enter school.
Rita: The Intake Center stays very busy. Arlington's English language learners speak 104 languages and come from 122 different countries. Most of the children speak Spanish, but those kids are very diverse, too — both culturally and economically.
Dr. Calderon: Children from the middle-class have had certain experiences that other students may not have had. They've been to museums. They have been read to in their own language.
Rita: Marlon is from Honduras. He looks like he's ready for school, but will the school be ready for him? The process starts with his dad.
Ms. Koch: Parents are just that part of the learning equation that we cannot do without, and that's the child, the parent, the teacher. They're the three, most basic components.
Rita: The interview gives Arlington some important information about Marlon — like the fact that he's been to school in the United States for a year already.
Staff: Is Spanish the primary language in your home? [in Spanish]
Ms. Koch: We look not only at the academic background, we also look at the whole child. We look at the health situation. We look at family history.
Rita: When his dad's finished with his questions, it's Marlon's turn. His teachers need to know how well Marlon can understand spoken and written English.
Staff: Put the girl behind the man.
Dr. Goldenberg: If you're assessing a child, you not only want to assess their knowledge of letters and sounds, and so forth in English, but you want to tap into it in Spanish, too.
Marlon: Gatitos, los gatos son animals.
Dr. Goldenberg: Cause whatever they know in Spanish, you can be quite certain you can use to help them acquire the skills in English.
Rita: Marlon can read a little bit in English already, and his comprehension skills in both languages are strong. So the Intake Center places him in a second grade class for English language learners.
Teacher: Short sound of "I" everybody.
Kids: /i/ /i/ /i/ /i/
Rita: His teachers at Abingdon Elementary have received all the information gathered at the Intake Center — both social and academic — so they know exactly where to start with Marlon.
Ms. Koch: Using time for instruction right away at the correct and appropriate level is important to us. We want all our students to achieve at a high level, to be challenged — regardless of where they started.
Parents as Partners (Chicago, Illinois)
Rita: Principal Kathy Mayer learned early on that one key to teaching young readers successfully is getting parents involved.
Kathy Mayer: To get parents into a school, one of the first things you have to think about is what would appeal to a family what would you want to see for your own child.
Goldenberg: Parents who come from other countries obviously aren't quite sure what the rules of the road are with respect to U.S. schools. So they might be reluctant to be assertive or aggressive as far as finding out information, but they care very much about their children's education.
Rita: Angelica Torres is the parent of three kids at Rachel Carson Elementary in Chicago. At first she was skeptical about getting involved.
Angelica Torres: I said, "Well, I'm gonna get into it to see what happens. If I don't like it, I just get out, and that's it."
Rita: She liked it. Now she's a dedicated parent volunteer. And she's part of a concerted effort to make parents partners in their child's education.
Singing: Las vocales, las vocals…
Dr. Goldenberg: Not only are the parents very motivated, but they're also in most cases competent, at least at the beginning levels, to help their children acquire beginning literacy skills.
AEIOU song; parents clapping and having fun
Rita: Rachel Carson Elementary has partnered with the Family Literacy Project at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Rita: The program trains Latino parents with limited English to become literacy models for their children at home.
Dr. Emma Violand Sanchez: Unfortunately many immigrant parents who do not speak English feel that they cannot help their children because they don't speak English. When I talk to parents I always say, the language that your child speaks and the language that you speak is a resource. I think that talking to the children and continuing to work on their oral language development is important.
Instructor: And this is how the A laughs…
Participant: Ah, ah, ah, ah
Rita: Today's session is about vowels. The group learns fun, engaging ways to teach their kids letters and sounds.
Ms. Torres: The literacy classes are real good. You know, they teach you how to teach your kids the alphabet, how to read to them. Once you go one time and you learn things to help out your kids, you know that you are doing something good.
Angelica presenting for her group and parents clap.
Rita: Now Angelica gets to put into action what she learned.
Angelica: /e/, /e/, elephant. /f/, /f/, fish.
Rita: At first, Angelica's son didn't like reading, but she found out how to change that.
Angelica Torres: Instead of telling him, "You have to read. You have to read," they told me, you know, you read one page, he reads one page. And I used to tell him, "Don't read those Clifford books, because they're for kindergarten kids," and those are the ones he likes to read. So, they told me, "It's a good idea if you let him read those. It doesn't matter what he's reading; he's reading something."
Boy: (reading) When the time came, Laura could hardly believe it was real.
Two Languages at a Time (Long Beach, California)
Rita: Here in Long Beach, California, Rose Gonsalves teaches second grade.
Gonsalves: That's a great thing!
Rita: Like most teachers at Webster Elementary, she has a mix of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers. But what's different about Ms. Gonsalve's classroom is this: in here, the two languages get equal time.
Ms. Gonsalves: Yendo a la "e", la "i", y la "u". ¿Qué decian?
Rita: Not every school can pull this off. But research shows it's one of the most effective ways to teach English language learners to read.
Rita: Ms. Gonsalves's goal is for all of her students to become fluent in both languages. Right now, during their English time, they're working on one of the most critical elements of learning a new language…vocabulary.
Student: Where do we find the glossary? Is that something we find at the middle of the book, the beginning of the book, or at the end?
Dr. Calderon: Unless students know from 90 to 95 percent of the words that they read, we cannot ensure that there's going to be comprehension.
Rita: Of course, reading itself can help build vocabulary, because seeing words in print helps children become familiar with their meaning, spelling, and sound.
Ms. Gonsalves: That's right!
Rita: When she's teaching a new word, Ms. Gonsalves uses every trick she can find to help explain meanings to the kids.
Ms. Gonsalves: When I wanted to teach them "vertical," I used what many of their homes have, which are vertical blinds. And I said, "Vertical — that was up and down" — the blinds that they had. And if they still don't get it, I will jump to something else that is in that same position. "The flagpole — in which direction does the flagpole go? From bottom to top, and that's vertical."
Rita: Some of the students are recent immigrants, like Cynthia. She's now discovering the concept of cognates. Cognates are words that are similar in English Spanish — like "museum" and "museo."
Cynthia: What is "dinosaur?"
Ms. Gonsalves: Oh, you'd like to know what a "dinosaur" is. Is there a word in Spanish that sounds kind of like "dinosaur?" Is there a cognate?
Rita: If kids speak a romance language, like Spanish, cognates can be a big help.
Dr. Goldenberg: English and Spanish have about 10 to 15,000 cognates between them, so that the average vocabulary of, say, 30 to 40,000, 45,000 - roughly a third of our vocabularies are actually Spanish cognates. Well, when you think of it, I mean that's quite a number. And one of the issues for teachers is to cash in on it, because the use of cognates is not automatic.
Rita: Cynthia and two other new arrivals, Pedro and Jonathan, get extra help from Ms. Gonsalves during small group time.
Gonsalves: Do you hear the /er/ sound in zipper?
Rita: Since Jonathan already speaks and reads Spanish well, it's easier for him to learn English.
Dr. Calderon: When the child already knows how to read in Spanish, they don't have to start from the beginning. They don't have to do phonemic awareness from the beginning. What also transfers are a lot of the comprehension skills. If students know what is cause and effect in Spanish, they will know how to find cause and effect in English.
Rita: Thanks to these shared skills, Ms. Gonsalves can spend most of her time teaching the differences between the two languages.
Dr. Calderon: The grammar will be different. The way questions are structured. The sequence of words in a question in Spanish is different from English. The noun-adjective combinations, different positions — those will be different between Spanish and English. And even the intonation…the intonation is different.
Rita: It sounds like it might be confusing to study two languages at the same time, but for young children it's usually not. If they have a good teacher, like Ms. Gonsalves, most kids can comfortably become bilingual.
Poet Francisco Alarcon
Rita: I'd like you to meet one of my favorite authors. Francisco Alarcon publishes his poems bilingually. "Laughing Tomatoes" runs right alongside "Jitomates risueños." It may look unusual, but to people like me, it's life…bouncing from English to Spanish and back again, thinking and dreaming in both. And Alarcon uses his work to get kids writing poems of their own, in whatever language they love.
Francisco Alarcon: I have a dog. His name is Choloto, and he's a bilingual dog. How many of you are bilingual? Raise your hands. Everybody's bilingual in this class?
Rita: Francisco Alarcon has happened upon the perfect audience for his poetry…a group of third grades at Oyster Bilingual School in Washington, D.C. These kids speak Spanish and English fluently, like Alarcon…and his dog.
Francisco: (reading) "Guau guau"…he first greets you in Spanish. And in case you don't understand him, then "bow wow"…he repeats barking in English.
Francisco: I write both in English and Spanish. I was born in Los Angeles. In the 1960s, my family moved to Mexico. For us the border doesn't really exist, that's who I am, you know? I'm a bilingual Mestizo Chicano American "Mejicano" writer, and a person that's a dreamer. Un soñador.
Rita: Alarcon is here to tap into the dreamer in these kids. He's here to help them write poetry.
Francisco: Les daban sabor [giving flavor]; A los frijoles [to the boiling pot]; De olla [of beans].
Francisco: There are about 40 million Latinos now in the States, and I think the majority of those Latinos are bilingual, they have this connection with the Spanish language. And each language, I believe, is a universe — is a window to the universe, and so the more windows you have, the more access to the universe you have, too.
Francisco: (reading) And make her laugh and cry at the same time.
Rita: Alarcon writes a lot about his own family. And it's not just because he loves them.
Francisco: If you go to a lot of libraries and bookstores, you will find a lot of books about cats, about dogs, but try to find books about Latinos. You know?
Girl: (reading) Mi mama es una rosa. Mi papa es un clave…
Francisco: It's OK to be American and to be bilingual.
Francisco: It's OK to be Latino, to be dark-skinned, to speak Spanish as a first language. It's OK. It's America. No problem with that.
Francisco: …esta niña. ¿Qué le está pasando?
Francisco: I believe poetry is about empowerment, and I think for children especially.
Boy: My Father…my father is strong, smart, and tall. Every time he sees me, his eyes pop open. I laugh when I see him.
Francisco: In no time, he was trying to communicate his feelings about his father. That to me is empowerment. And I think through poetry we can do that very fast. They can do it right there on the spot. Let's do it.
Francisco: So the idea here is to write a poem by improvising.
Francisco: The advice for young writers, there's no advice. Find your own voice. It's OK to write about your own dreams from your own perspectives and using your own language and for a child to discover this sort of magical way of looking at everything, I think that's the beauty of poetry.
Beyond Survival English
Rita: To reach Heritage Elementary School, you have to travel 30 miles south of Portland, Oregon, past Hazelnut Orchards and Russian Orthodox churches.
Kathy Larson: We have children who are ethnic Russians from Russia, from Argentina, from Latvia, Estonia, Tajekistan, Brazil, Turkey, China.
Rita: These kids can speak some English, but that's hardly enough to get by in school.
Dr. Violand-Sanchez: One misconception is that people feel that once a child starts speaking English and communicating with basic oral communication in the playground or at school, that child is able to succeed academically.
Rita: It's just not the case, because what some call survival English is a long way from mastering even the third grade academic curriculum.
Rita: For Liliya Zaltsman, part of the job is teaching the kids one word at a time…first in their native Russian, and then in English.
Teacher in Russian: What word is this?
Boy in English: "Plame" in English it means "tribe."
Rita: It's critical to be this explicit, because Russian is so different from English.
Rita: And the school is relentless in making sure their students understand what they read.
Conley: Today we are going to do a picture walk. No I'm not going to show you every picture in the book. I've chosen a few that thought would really help us to explore this idea of fire.
Rita: In Larry Conley's class, the kids are doing what's called a picture walk. They use the pictures and draw on their background knowledge to predict what the story will be about.
Larry: Well I've got a big question for you guys. What do you think this is a story about?
Darren: Don't use matches and lighters or else you're gonna get burned.
Rita: The work may seem painstaking, but heritage is committed to creating readers who will have a deep understanding of what they read.
Mr. Conley: So often the kids move so quickly through the story that they are not really understanding much. So we're using those cognate strategies as a way of slowing them down and getting them invested in the text.
A Welcoming Library (Washington, D.C.)
Laura Kleinmann: Numero uno: ¿Por qué ahora pensando en esta experiencia, se llama el niño de cabeza?
Rita: Back at Oyster Bilingual School, there's a place where kids can go to put it all together…everything they've learned about phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension.
Laura: Some people call the library the heart of the school. It's a place that's different than the classroom, than the hallway, than the soccer field. It's a place that's just dedicated to reading. And the minute that the children see me, they identify me with what they're reading — "Ms. Kleinmann, Ms. Kleinmann, I just finished reading my Harry Potter", you know… "Sra. Kleinmann, ya terminé de leer da-da-da."
Rita: Our young poets have traveled across the hall to visit with librarian Laura Kleinmann — and to check out some new books.
Laura: Ay, Andrea, ¡es uno de mis libros favoritos! Una Biblioteca para Juana.
Laura: At Oyster, we have a bilingual program. Our children learn to read and write and to speak and listen in Spanish and English from the time they arrive in pre-kindergarten.
Laura: Learning to read is not easy, it's especially not easy when you are learning to read in your second language. Libraries that are filled with exciting books are a great motivator for children. It's the place where the world opens up to them, and hopefully it will open up to them in both languages.
Rita: Of course, most American schools are not bilingual, but many do have children whose first language is not English and that presents an opportunity for a librarian.
Laura: Imagine how you would feel, you are walking into school where the words around you are unintelligible because you've only heard your family's native language and you come to the library and you see a book in your own language. I think that that could change a child's perspective on school and make a child maybe wake up and want to come to school in the morning.
Rita: And the benefits can be carried home in a backpack.
Laura: They can take books home that they can share with their parents and their aunts and uncles and grandparents and say, "Mira, mamá, un libro en español," and the parent feels like, "Wow, the school is valuing my culture, the school is valuing my language." The library is a perfect place to make that bridge. Even if the school isn't bilingual.
Laura: Muy bien. ¿En ingles?
Girl: (reading) The Desert is My Mother.
Close & Credits
Rita: In West Side Story, my character, Anita, once sang, "Here you are free to be anything you choose." And I guess that's true. I've been performing my whole life — singing, dancing, and acting. But there's one skill that's even more important to me: reading. Without that, I wouldn't have gotten past my first script.
Rita: Years ago, a special teacher reached out to a scared little girl from Puerto Rico and took the time to make a difference in my life. We can make a difference, too, but giving the children we care about the gift of reading. I'm Rita Moreno.
Marlon and father: Colorín, colorado, este cuento terminado.
Rita: For more information about teaching English language learners to read, please visit us on the web at PBS.org.
Rita: To order a DVD or videocassette of Becoming Bilingual — or to order the entire Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers series — please call 1-800-228-4630.