Imagine going to a place where everybody speaks a language you barely know, if you know it at all. This is the place where you will spend a large portion of your day, five days a week. You know Spanish, but most everyone around you speaks only English.
This is what life is like for Hispanic children who need English as a Second Language, or ESL, instruction when entering their first U.S. school.
“It’s all about making them feel comfortable in the classroom and building a relationship with them,” explained Ashley Sabitsky, an ESL instructor in the Middletown Area School District. “If they feel comfortable, then they’re willing to take risks in their learning. ESL is all about reading, writing and speaking. It all ties into the reading block, which I love.”
Alberto Hernandez-Ortiz, an eighth-grader at Allen Middle School in the West Shore School District, was born in Mexico but has lived in New Cumberland for most of his life. His mother, Magali Hernandez-Ortiz, said the family came to the United States “so we can have a better life.”
Alberto, 12, started English as a Second Language instruction while in kindergarten at Mount Zion Elementary School in the West Shore School District. Until then, he had spoken Spanish at home with this family.
His ESL instructor began teaching him with letters and words from books and through the use of a computer. By the time Alberto was in the first grade, he began understanding English and could speak it in sentences by the middle of the school year, he recalled.
“The hardest part was learning how to read in English and learning subjects in English like science,” Alberto said.
“It can take up to six months to two years for a student to master social language,” said West Shore ESL instructor Brandy Kanode, who taught Alberto. “Academic language can take up to four years.”
Throughout elementary school, a portion of Alberto’s school days were spent in mainstream classrooms, where English was the primary language. For language arts instruction, he was pulled out for ESL instruction for a 50-minute period each day.
“The approach we take (with teaching) depends on a student’s age level,” said Kanode. “I had one student in seventh grade who had never been in school. At first, we were communicating through visuals and gestures. For Alberto, we would teach him similarly to American kids with phonics and letters.”
By the middle of sixth grade, Alberto had become fluent enough in English to take language arts in his mainstream classroom. He no longer needed ESL.
Although Alberto has acquired an English tongue, his taste buds still favor Mexico. His favorite foods are tamales, beans, rice and “spicy food.” His family continues to observe Mexican customs like celebrating Cinco de Mayo.
Despite his fluency in English, some things in the United States have been a little hard for Alberto. His first Thanksgiving feast is an example.
“Turkey was really strange,” he noted with a grimace.
Kanode’s ESL classes usually are comprised of fewer than 10 students, with Spanish being the predominant language, she said. During her 17 years as a teacher, she also has taught students with native tongues that have included Arabic, Ukrainian, Somali and Vietnamese.
Kanode spent five years as a French teacher but then “kind of gravitated” toward ESL students, she said.
“I noticed that the kids didn’t have a lot of ESL help, so I asked what certification I needed to become an ESL teacher,” she said. “This was right around the time when the No Child Left Behind Act (of 2001) increased English language requirements in schools, so it seemed to fit right in with things.”
Kanode said she addresses her students in class using English instead of their native tongues “because that’s the language we’re learning.”
Altogether, the West Shore School District has 201 ESL students beginning the new school year. The district has a total of eight ESL teachers and four classroom aides. Of those, three teachers and three aides speak Spanish fluently.
They Just Soar
Luis Gonzalez Bravo of Middletown is an ESL student entering the third grade at Kunkel Elementary School in the Middletown Area School District. His mother, Rosa Bravo, was born in Mexico and came to the United States 13 years ago. Like Alberto’s family, Luis’ mother said she came to this country “for more opportunities and for work.”
Before Luis, 8, started school, he spoke a mixture of Spanish and English at home, the same as his sister Heidy, 5, who is just starting kindergarten. Heidy, who attended preschool and had “lots of (social) exposure,” already is fluent enough in English that she won’t need ESL instruction, instructor Sabitsky said.
As for Luis, he “almost passed” the district’s highest-level ESL screening test for the upcoming school year. Sabitsky doesn’t expect that he will need ESL instruction for much longer, she said.
Luis said the most difficult part of English for him is writing the language, especially the spelling of homonyms like “to,” “too” and “two.” Reading is the easiest part of mastering English, he said.
Sabitsky has taught ESL in Middletown schools for two years and expects to have around 25 students this year, she said.
Of those, about one-third speak Spanish, with other students’ native languages including Chinese, Burmese and Arabic. However, Sabitsky only knows how to speak Spanish and English.
“I think that really helps with the Hispanic kids,” she said. “If I make a mistake in Spanish, the kids laugh, and it lightens the mood.”
Sabitsky said that ESL students whose native language is Spanish tend to learn English quicker than ESL students with other native tongues.
“Spanish and English have similar alphabets, plus some English words are derived from Spanish,” she said. “Once Spanish-speaking students feel comfortable and feel that they’re getting a grasp of English, they just soar.”
Sabitsky said her favorite part about teaching ESL is “the growth and smiles. The way the students’ faces light up when they speak their first sentence. Also, the gratification of their parents.”
Kanode said her favorite part of teaching ESL is working with families.
“I like the families,” she said. “It’s important for parents to have a relationship in American schools so they can advocate for their kids. The parents are great, the kids are great.”