All students learn and produce language differently; there is no set formula for how students will acquire language. As a bilingual teacher, it is important to encourage any kind of communication through reading, writing, evaluations, assessments, and social situations that will allow students the opportunity to use all of their skills. It is significant for a bilingual teacher to understand the levels of writing in Spanish and English because all of these stages may be found in one classroom alone. It is then helpful to identify the level that each student is in so that the teacher can adjust the assignments individually and increase learning.
Yvonne and David Freeman examine the process of writing development in their book,
Teaching Reading and Writing in Spanish in the Bilingual Classroom
; they believe that it is important for a teacher to understand the “normal patterns of writing development,” so that the teacher is capable of decoding and supporting student’s written work while helping students achieve standard forms (145).
For example, when Diane entered third grade, her records indicated that she was at a second grade level in reading and writing. She was able to speak, read, and write in her second language of English at a level appropriate for a beginning third grader. In contrast, her classmates were still struggling with language acquisition, reading comprehension, and basic writing skills. Their records indicated levels, for them that ranged from kindergarten to first grade. These students did not have many experiences with reading and writing in either Spanish or English. Diane is an avid reader and writer in Spanish she is able to use the skills she has already acquired in her first language towards her second. Once she acquired the necessary vocabulary and spelling skills in English she was able to improve her reading and writing because she already understood basic grammatical structure and realized that her writing allowed her to express herself and be heard. While other students, in many cases, the bulk of the class, whose oral skills where high enough to produce lively discussions, were unable to clearly articulate their ideas in writing because of their lack of reading and writing experiences in either of their languages. The challenge of my unit is to get these students to start writing and encourage those who write, like Diane, to continue. It is important to identify each student’s level and continue to assess the student’s achievement throughout the year, so that the lessons can be adjusted accordingly.
I also had a small group of students who had no experience with English or very little. It was difficult for these students to produce written work in English even though they were capable of expressing themselves in their native language of Spanish. I encouraged these students to write in their first language or to illustrate their responses to build their confidence and support their participation in the classroom. It is important to allow students to gain a comfort level in expressing their thoughts. As students acquired more English language skills in spelling and vocabulary they were able to use these skills to begin producing written work in English.
Iván arrived from El Salvador ten days before school started. He had no English instruction from his previous school. He was placed in my third grade bilingual classroom. Communicating with his peers was no problem because all of my twenty-one students spoke Spanish, but one of the goals in third grade is to prepare students for the Connecticut Mastery Test, which is taken in fourth grade and is given in English. Luckily, my goals of preparing the students for this test and other requirements and aspects of third grade were in line with Ivan’s strong desire to learn English. He also had his parents support at home. For students like Iván I took several steps to ensure that they were able to participate in the classroom while acquiring English language skills. In the beginning of the year classroom discussions were conducted in both Spanish and English; later as students acquired more English and became more confident, including Iván, they would choose to discuss topics in English. Even though, classroom discussions were bilingual the curriculum was taught in English. Iván was seated with a strong bilingual student so that he could receive translation without disrupting the class.
Books for units would be available in English at all levels, from picture books, beginning reader texts, to chapter books, so that students could acquire information at any reading level. This flexibility not only supported Iván, who was a grade level reader in Spanish, but also helped the lower English readers. Iván was encouraged to take home books in Spanish so that his first language was maintained--parents could read to him--and further discussion could continue at home. Home support also included review of spelling words that Iván would take home, to look up in the dictionary, find their meaning, and then use in sentences. This word drill helped him with acquiring vocabulary, pronunciation, and spelling. Iván had no problem writing in Spanish and by the end of the year he was able to write a good page response in English. This was a great accomplishment, after much hard work.
Students like Iván have a limited English vocabulary and can write simple sentences. This level can be helped along with lots of opportunities in reading and writing. This is also an important stage to develop because it is when the student gains the confidence and begins to enjoy the writing process. At this level students need guidance in interpreting their thoughts. Modeling is also very important. I found that my students did not have a lot of experience with the writing process. It was important to show them many examples of types of writing as well as using a variety of weekly writing styles.