Effective Approaches to Teaching Young Mexican
Immigrant Children. ERIC Digest.
by de Atiles, Julia Reguero - Allexsaht-Snider, Martha
Of the 22 million children currently enrolled in schools in the United
States, more than 2 million have limited English proficiency (Macias, 2000).
Preschoolers and elementary-age children make up the greatest proportion
of the immigrant student population. Given these demographic trends, many
teachers need support in educating young children from diverse linguistic
backgrounds (Soto, 1991). The following review outlines strategies for
working with Mexican and other immigrant children. The effectiveness of
these research-based approaches has been affirmed by teachers.
MYTHS ABOUT THE SECOND-LANGUAGE LEARNER
A teacher's limited experience with second-language learners may lead
her to believe that using the child's home language interferes with the
child's ability to learn English (McLaughlin, 1992). Well-educated and
less-educated bilingual parents frequently relate stories of well-meaning
teachers who advised them, "You should stop speaking Spanish at home so
your child can learn English." Because language and culture are intimately
related, Byrnes and Cortez (1992) note that disregarding a child's native
language is denying a part of who the child is and the cultural background
the child brings to school. In addition, parent-child communication can
be eroded if parents are persuaded that speaking in their native language
is not in their child's best interest (Fillmore, 1991). Research literature
indicates that bilingualism is in the best interest of children; the intellectual
experience of learning two languages contributes to concept formation and
mental flexibility (Cummins, 1991; Garcia, 1986; Genishi, 2002). When teachers
respect and promote the development of the first language and encourage
maintenance of the home culture, children feel cared for and connected
to their family, school, and community (McGroarty, 1986).
LANGUAGE ACQUISITION PROCESS
Language acquisition is a complex process that may take a minimum of
12 years (Collier, 1989). Even when children seem to understand and express
themselves in a second language, they may not have mastered more complex
uses of the language that incorporate content knowledge in different subjects
(August & Hakuta, 1997). The National Association for the Education
of Young Children (1996) advises that when we set unrealistic expectations
too early, school assessments of seemingly proficient children may identify
them as lacking vocabulary and problem-solving skills. Misreading the language
development process can result in immigrant children being over-referred
to special education (Baca & Cervantes, 1998; Harry, 1994).
TEACHING STRATEGIES FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD TEACHERS
Encourage development of the first language. As we encourage children
to maintain their first language we also support the development of the
second language. When students feel relaxed and confident, language learning
is maximized (Krashen, 1992). We know that literacy developed in the first
language will transfer to the second language (Ada, 1993; Garcia, 1986;
Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Teachers and families can use materials,
such as children's books in Spanish, to build children's confidence in
their literacy skills (U.S. Department of Education, 2002).
Provide visible signs of children's first language, and learn Spanish.
Teachers can label classroom objects and areas in Spanish. Authentic materials
that incorporate labels and texts should be provided (for example, signs,
catalogs, toys, household objects, newspapers, and menus). Teachers may
also serve as role models by learning and using a few words of Spanish,
thus demonstrating that taking risks in learning another language is valued
Learn about Mexican culture, and teach acceptance. If teachers share
knowledge of the Mexican culture, all children in the class may benefit
from opportunities to learn about language and cultural differences and
similarities (Lindholm, 1994; Wyner, 1989). Teachers can influence the
motivation of their Mexican immigrant students by creating an accepting
social environment (McGroarty, 1986). Classmates can be challenged to understand
what it feels like to be somewhere where people speak a language different
from their own and, thus, not understand what is going on around them (Kubota
et al., 2000).
Be sensitive to children's struggles, and follow a routine. Entering
a new class can be intimidating for an immigrant child who may be faced
with social isolation and linguistic constraints. Establishing and following
predictable routines can be helpful. The routines allow children to concentrate
on the language and what they are supposed to be learning, rather than
on figuring out what is happening (Garcia, 1992).
Acknowledge children's strengths, and use portfolio-style assessment.
We tend to emphasize what the child does not know, forgetting to allow
children to display their interests and knowledge that often surpasses
the limitations of language. When we regard children as capable, we are
more likely to see their unique strengths and build upon them. Teachers
face the challenge of fairly assessing the knowledge of immigrant students
(O'Malley & Valdez Pierce, 1996). Observational notes recording children's
abilities as demonstrated in the flow of classroom activities can be combined
with samples of student work in a portfolio. This approach can supplement
report cards in conveying evidence of students' progress (Genesee &
Hamayan, 1994; Leone & College, 1995; Tabors, 1998).
Plan real-world language lessons, and provide a print-rich environment.
Field trips, lessons with animals and plants, role-playing, and demonstrations
of real-life activities can form the basis for language lessons (Krashen,
1992). Conducting pre- and post-discussions, writing a story together about
the experience, cutting out sentences and rearranging their order, and
changing the story by changing some words are game-like activities that
enhance language and literacy learning.
Communicate clearly. Teachers can maximize learning by speaking clearly,
using concrete references, repeating and rephrasing, and utilizing gestures
and visual aids. Speaking more slowly at first and using simplified English
without distorting the language are also recommended (Freeman & Freeman,
Allow for the developing stages of language production. Teachers working
with children in the initial preproduction or silent stage may help the
children "take in" the language by including music, movement, and dramatic
play. Teachers may respect the silent phase by not requiring a child to
speak, as well as by accepting forms of communication such as writing,
drawing, and nonverbal responses. Children in the second stage of language
acquisition (early production) may be asked questions that require a "yes"
or "no" response, or that require them to identify a familiar object or
finish a statement. Subsequently, in the final expansion or production
stage, teachers can motivate students to be more descriptive (Krashen,
Aim for comprehension. Communicating meaning should always be the aim
for teachers of a new language. Parroting teachers' speech does not promote
language acquisition. A great deal of trial and error takes place as a
young child learns a language. In addition, there are individual differences
in language-learning time frames. Teachers may be supportive by having
accepting attitudes during the trial and error phases. Instructional practices
that emphasize grammar and construction are not recommended as they may
interfere with the developmental progression of language acquisition. Songs
and chants are excellent for reinforcing pronunciation and correct word
stress (Freeman & Freeman, 1998).
Allow children opportunities to practice their language skills with
peers, and encourage student participation. It is important for children
to practice their language skills with peers. Teachers should structure
interactions to ensure that second-language learners do not become socially
isolated. Shared reading, cross-age activities, cooperative learning groups,
peer tutoring, and community inquiry are valuable for all children (Slavin
& Fashola, 1998).
In the preceding paragraphs, we have outlined effective strategies for
facilitating immigrant Mexican students' language learning and cultural
adjustment. Second-language learners benefit from contextual experiences
that allow them to construct meaning for what otherwise would be merely
words. Teachers hold the key to making the learning of young Mexican immigrant
children a success through research-based, developmentally appropriate
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