Professor giving a lecture to students in old main

Green wants to break language barrier

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Community of Scholars research helps young Hispanic students 

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - When Amber Green was a first-year student at Wofford College, her Spanish class visited a local elementary school – Arcadia Elementary. What she saw – children trying to keep up with classmates while learning English at the same time – blew her away. It also led directly to her research project in the Wofford Community of Scholars program this summer; Green is one of 19 student fellows in the program.

“I was always interested in Spanish because I wanted to do mission work,” Green, a senior from Union, S.C., says. “I saw it as a means to help people outside my country. This visit to Arcadia brought Spanish home. It makes me sad to think that children might not reach their potential, might not go to college, and have fewer opportunities in life, just because they struggle to learn the language early on.”

Yet that very thing happens every day in a country where young Hispanic children, through no fault of their own, are thrown into classes where Spanish is foreign to almost everyone else.

“I’m studying education and Spanish, so this is where my interests collide,” Green says. “It’s an area where a lot of research is being done. This language barrier is a challenge, something that educators have to overcome. How do you educate someone when they can’t understand you?”

Green has a unique appreciation for what the young Hispanic students go through.

“As someone who is learning Spanish, I can relate,” she says. “I recently visited Nicaragua, and I often found myself having to talk around what I really wanted to say because I couldn’t find the right words. It’s a challenge, but one that they definitely can overcome. It’s also a challenge for the teacher, teaching 25 students while making it work for those two or three who don’t speak English or don’t speak it well enough.”

Green has plenty of research under her belt already.

“Arcadia Elementary is 65 percent Hispanic,” she says, adding that programs there under principal Dr. Chuck Bagwell are becoming a model for others in the state. “I talked with him about what he’s doing. He’s doing a really good job there.

“They start their school day early and do breakfast for the kids. They have pullout programs. They use Rosetta Stone. They use summer programs so that the kids are immersed in English all year long. They also have a 4K program, so the Spanish-speaking kids can get a head start on kindergarten. They do testing, and the worst scores get accepted into the 4K class. They work with those students because if they don’t know their letters or numbers or colors, things we expect parents to teach pre-K, then they are starting with nothing.”

Green is studying ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) programs, too.

“That’s the popular program here,” she says. “They pull students out of the classroom to work on English, and the students are immersed in English all day. It works, but it’s a long process for them, and a lot of them get behind because they have to keep up with the curriculum of the rest of the students. There are other alternatives, like bilingual education, and afterschool programs. I’m looking at all of it.

“I’ve been talking to students at Arcadia. I’ve been talking to parents, teachers, even students here at Wofford who went through this experience.”

The more she studies this topic, the more Green cares about it.

“I think it’s really important for this country right now,” she says. “I love to teach, and I would love to work with students who don’t speak English yet. A lot of these students get mislabeled and they are overrepresented in special education classes. A lot of times they get called ‘at risk students’ because they’re at risk of not graduating on time or simply of not reaching their full potential. That’s the population I would like to work with, hopefully.

“How am I going to do that? How do I educate them? It’s great for me to be in a classroom and learn the strategies for teaching these students, but it’s even better to go. I’m talking with educators. I went to Columbia and met with the (officials) with the State Department of Education. I talked with the ESOL director at that level.”

It’s a very ambitious undertaking. Green, who says her project has no overlap with anything of the other Community of Scholars fellows are doing, still enjoys getting advice and “a fresh set of eyes” on her research.

“I entered this project with preconceived ideas that there is one model approach that should be implemented throughout the country,” Green says. “This project has been full of challenges to that hypothesis. From my library research, I discovered that a second language for all – or language immersion – program is best. All students can benefit from learning a second language. For English language learners this second language is English. This approach does not look at speakers of other languages as inept or needing special assistance. It empowers all students as the model speakers for their native language, while challenging all students to learn a second language. It promotes acceptance and understanding of diverse cultures. All students leave the program bilingual. This approach is especially beneficial for the local Hispanic population which in some schools makes up as much as 50 to 65 percent of the student population. A Spanish and English dual immersion program – where Hispanic students and English-speaking students are in a class together – will help bridge not only the language barrier, but the cultural barrier that exists.

“Although the needs of English language learners are best met in a language immersion program,” she adds, “this type of program is not possible in every school with every needed language. Thus, there is no single model approach that is optimal for every school or people group. To decide on an appropriate program, it is important to first look at the local English language learner population. Each community is different, and therefore each school must seek to meet the specific needs of their community.”

- Brett Borden