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‘Learning in a language’ – MCISD rolls out biliteracy program

Various elementary classrooms in Mission CISD are color coded in red and blue as part of a new dual language program – red for Spanish, blue for English.

The program, which was initiated in prekindergarten, kindergarten and first grade at the start of the school year, is designed to have biliterate students by the time they reach fifth grade.

20150306 MCISD Dual language 6437Math and science are taught in English with hands-on activities, while reading and social studies are taught in Spanish. Primarily, the class is geared at native Spanish speakers, but first-language English speakers can also be enrolled in the class.

“When you have program that aligns that biliteracy you’re going to have kids that are able to read, write, listen, speak in English and in Spanish,” said Bilingual ESL Director Edgar Ibarra. “(They’ll) be ready for all instruction once they hit the secondary grades and have that successful academic life.”

Ibarra has seven years of experience in dual language programs and has studied the research behind the initiative. Some of the benefits of a dual language classroom include a better grasp at concepts, more job opportunities and a stronger resistance to Alzheimer’s disease, according to The Dana Foundation, a brain research organization.

The No. 1 advantage, according to Ibarra, is cognitive development.

“The brain is like any other muscle. The more you work that muscle, the stronger it gets,” the ESL director said. “So the brain makes more connections because you are handling two languages.”

A human’s language synapse starts to wane after about nine months from birth, according to a 2013 Time magazine article. But the ability to learn a second, third or fourth language is still strong in early education.

The dual language strategy used in the elementary classroom is different than one used in a high school Spanish course. Students in high school become “tape recorders” that spout phrases as opposed to actually knowing the language, Ibarra said.

“The difference with the dual (language program) is that you’re not learning a language, you’re learning in a language that you’re going to acquire,” he said. “So there’s meaning behind that, there’s accountability behind that and the teachers will know how to track it.”

Pearson Elementary teacher Jessica Puente said she sees progress in her students from the beginning of the year and the confidence they’ve built from the learning environment.

“Sometimes you’re teaching and you can overhear somebody in another group talking to their buddy, and they’re speaking the language and it’s like ‘Wow, you did get it,’” she said with a smile. “That’s exciting. For a teacher, that’s the world. That’s why we’re here.”

Puente and her first-grade teaching partner Marisol de la Rosa went through training before working in-class with the biliteracy agenda, along with the rest of the teachers in the district. Changes in the teaching technique include the teacher becoming more of a facilitator, shifting the classroom from teacher-centered to student-centered.

In addition, Ibarra said the teachers are urged to pair students ­– one who is stronger in English, the other with a strength in Spanish.

Puente and de la Rosa said they haven’t come across any challenges with the program and are just excited to see students grasping the concepts.

“They’re being exposed to a second language but it gives them the comfort of still having their native language, and they feel a little bit better to learn a new language,” de la Rosa said. “Hearing them speak the English and say a complete well-said sentence, I love that. When they can read to me in English, know and understand, I feel great when that happens.”

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