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Bilingual Students Strenthen Schools in NSD

  • Written by Dagmawit Kemal | UW News Lab Student Journalist

With than 90 different languages spoken in homes of students in the North Shore School District some might find that situation daunting, but North Shore educators see it as not only a challenge but also an opportunity to building understanding and community.

Susan Hadreas, who is Woodmoor Elementary School (Bothell) first-grade teacher, has a classroom of 23 students in which 13 are English language learners -- called ELL students.

“I had a kid last year that spoke no English, but we used an iPad and had a program where we used Google Translate. We also had parent volunteers that spoke Spanish come in and help,” said Hadreas.

When students enroll in the district, they fill out a survey that asks about primary languages spoken by family members. They also take a screening test to assess  English proficiency. The test covers listening, reading, speaking and writing.

Hadreas said she likes having a big group of ELL students because the schools get to know the families more. It pushes the families to understand the school system and to build community with one another.

Community is a huge aspect of schools like Woodmoor. Hadreas likes teaching in classrooms where students come from families that speak different languages because students help one another.

“Within the school, we’ll have Spanish speakers in older grades come down and mentor the students,” said Hadreas.

They read with the students in English and then have conversations in Spanish. Hadreas said it’s good to have them practice in their native language and then write out their answers in English.

Julia Herschensohn, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington who does research in language acquisition, said it’s easier for children to learn a new language than it is for an adult.

“Children, when they’re just exposed to a new language, pick it up pretty automatically,” said Herschensohn.

First-language acquisition is the language that is acquired by babies from birth. Second-language acquisition, by contrast, is when a person is consciously aware he or she is  learning a language.

What usually happens in the classroom is that the younger children aren’t as good at learning a second language because “the formal classroom is oriented toward conscious learning and rational strategies, which are skills used by adults,” said Herschensohn.

Herschensohn said instructed learning is very different from naturalistic learning, and children learn the most when they are in immersive environments.

“That’s why general education classes are perfect,” said Hadreas, who has been teaching for 18 years. “It fosters those natural friendships, and we are exposing every one to the same high-level academic instruction.”

For the parents of students who speak a second language, schools in the district provide workshops that deal with topics such as graduation requirements and sponsor talks about the U.S. college system.

There is also support for teachers.

ELL teachers meet districtwide a few times a year where they’re able to get new information and training, said Elizabeth Meza, the Northshore School District ELL program coordinator. Meza said they’re able to discuss common problems that they may be facing.

Each school also has its own meetings and support systems.

Within each school there are also bilingual family liaisons, who reach out to parents who have limited English proficiency. They help them understand the U.S. school system and provide communication between the teacher and family.

“Our bilingual students come with a set of skills that help them academically, and, actually, having a second language helps you with problem-solving and decision-making skills,” said Meza.

Hadreas is passionate about her ELL students.

“What ELL students need is additional time, not different time,” Hadreas said. “Targeted support with additional time.”

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