Helping children develop their American and native cultural identities together.

L is for Literacy, not Language

Posted by bububooks on May 4, 2009

I attended the Fourth Annual Statewide (Illinois) Summit for Bilingual Parents on Saturday, May 2nd.  Parents, teachers and administrators gathered to discuss needs and actions within the bilingual education system. 

One of the central themes that seem to run throughout the conference was the importance of literacy before language: 

You only learn to read once. 

When studying a foreign language, you are not learning to read, but instead are transferring your reading skills to the new language.  Think back to when you studied a foreign language in high school.  You didn’t have to learn to read again, only the language components. 

While possessing the ability to speak English is powerful, a good academic foundation is most important.  Realizing and accepting that literacy leads to better academic performance and success essentially closes a Pandora’s box of problems.  When a child is thrown into an English-only program, all of her learning, acquisition of material and grades suffer.  How can she learn math in a language she doesn’t yet know well enough?  Then she is often branded with a learning disability and placed in special education programs while her true ability remains hidden.   In unfortunately common situations like this, her chances of finishing high school are significantly lowered (2 or 3 times by some accounts).  Additionally, Latina girls in Illinois have the highest teenage pregnancy rate among all the groups.

But teaching a child in his native language can prevent this downward slide.  A child can learn mathematics, science and to read in his native language while attending English language classes.  He can excel academically, acquiring the key concepts and foundations for a successful life while learning English as a language at the same time.  As we all know, children pick up languages very quickly!

When children enroll in an American school–regardless of age, they are not blank slates.  We need to embrace and leverage the language skills and culture they have already garnered to ensure their success as American and global citizens.


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