Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2019

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Build a better bilingual education program

If you ask family members whether they want their children to know at least two languages, my sense is that very few would answer that question with a “no.”

There are many advantages to being bilingual, such as better prospects in the job market and even delaying dementia. The benefits are wide and advantageous, so how can we make sure bilingual schools succeed in the Las Vegas Valley?

In the Clark County School District, there are more than 150 languages represented in the student population. As of 2010, Nevada was the state with the second-highest percentage of English-language learners. This data shows how we have the demographics and population to make bilingual schools work.

When we think about bilingual education, we often think about that two-hour Spanish or French class that we were forced to take in high school. This class is taught as a subject and the language is not used as the medium of instruction. I know many people who took those classes and yet they can barely ask where the bathroom is in the second language. This model of teaching a foreign language does not work, but we continue to adapt it.

On the other hand, there are bilingual language programs that do work and have shown great success in other places. As someone who completed her graduate studies in San Antonio, Texas, I was immersed in how bilingual schools operated there. One of the programs that I observed is “two-way dual language.” In this type of program, whenever possible, a classroom consists of 50% Spanish speakers and 50% English speakers. The students have two teachers — one who teaches in English and one who teaches in Spanish. The content areas are also divided, with subjects taught explicitly in Spanish and others in English.

Having native Spanish students work with native English speakers means that both groups are elevating each other’s language skills. They are able to collaborate in both languages and develop their cross-cultural awareness. As the student progresses through this model, the amount of Spanish and English taught decreases or increases. One thing is certain, though: Students who go through this program are likely to outperform their peers in mainstream monolingual classrooms. Additionally, research has shown that in many occasions, the reading and math skills of these students are enhanced.

The Clark County School District is developing its dual language bilingual schools. The ELL Master Plan published by the district shows the different types of models that will be implemented to benefit different student populations. To prepare future teachers to work in these bilingual schools, the faculty at Nevada State College has developed a bilingual endorsement which will start to be offered during fall 2019. As the only bilingual endorsement opportunity for teachers in the valley, Nevada State College strives to prepare holistic educators to not only teach in both languages, but also build on students’ background and experiences.

The efforts to create successful bilingual schools in Las Vegas includes having support from the community, school district and institutions of higher learning. Given that Las Vegas has such growing language diversity, we need to see this as an asset and continue to look for ways to support the development of language programs in our valley.

Vanessa Mari is an assistant professor of teaching English as a second language at Nevada State College. A former English high school teacher in Puerto Rico, she has worked as an English language fellow in Perú and is a Fulbright scholar in Uruguay.