Word by word

Friday, September 26, 2003

"Puh, puh, puh."

Six-year-old Manuel Villasenor sounds out the letter "p" as he practices his spelling words.


He recognizes the word, knows from a recent lesson in American folklore that it's what Johnny Appleseed wore on his head. But when it comes to actually writing the letters, a barrier presents itself.

At home, the round metal object with a handle is not a pan. In his Spanish-speaking family, it's a "cacerola."

For the first five years of Manuel's life, "pan" was bread.

Now in first grade at Clippard Elementary, Manuel represents a fast-growing population in the Cape Girardeau School District -- students whose native language isn't English.

Two years ago, Cape Girardeau had 20 students who were "limited English proficient," the term used by the state to describe a student whose was not born in the United States, or whose primary language is not English.

This year, there are 43 and counting.

It's a statewide trend that shows no signs of dissipating. Since 1997, the number of students with limited English in Missouri has risen from 6,891 to 13,121 in 2002.

"There's a migrant stream running through Missouri," said Craig Rector, director of federal discretionary grants with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "We're finally beginning to recognize that these folks are here, and we're beginning to take steps to meet their needs."

Rector said DESE is in the process of establishing a regional support system for schools with growing populations of limited-English students.

School officials believe employment opportunities through places like Biokyowa, Procter & Gamble and Chinese and Mexican restaurants account for the local upsurge.

The majority of limited-English students are Hispanic, but there are also students from Japan, China, Bulgaria, Russia and Korea.

"It's not an easy path, but they're dependent on learning the language because they have to have it for survival here," said Lana Andrews, one of two teachers with the Cape Girardeau School District's English as a Second Language program.

Clippard Elementary is home to 12 limited-English students, the largest population in Cape Girardeau schools. There, in Brenda Randolph's first-grade classroom, Mexican-born Manuel struggles with his vocabulary and numbers.

Although he's been in Cape Girardeau for over a year now, Manuel still reverts to his native language from time to time in the classroom setting.

"Here, you must speak English," Randolph firmly tells him.

A few rows behind Manuel sits Hong Suk Kim, a limited-English student from South Korea. Hong Suk, the son of an exchange professor at Southeast Missouri State University, arrived at Clippard a few weeks after school started in August.

Already, he is one of the top readers in his class, but there is still a language barrier to overcome. His teacher and classmates often must act out words in order for Hong Suk to understand.

Confusion over the word "hug" this week led to embraces from his classmates. He discovered dirt Thursday when another student took him out to the playground and pointed out what it was.

When he comprehends something new, he throws his hands into the air and shouts "yesss!"

First-year experience

It's Randolph's first year to teach students whose native language isn't English. Earlier this week, she learned that her class will soon gain a third limited-English student, a Hispanic girl.

The experience has spawned an ad-lib teaching style for Randolph, who speaks only English.

"At first, I had a tendency to talk louder and slower so they'd get it," she said. "Well, that doesn't work."

With the help of picture dictionaries and lots of hand gestures, her relationship with Manuel and Hong Suk is growing.

The students spend most of their time in a regular classroom, but an hour and a half each week they work with a special teacher through the school district's English as a Second Language program.

Most limited-English students do not come with school records, so the first hurdle is finding out their academic level.

Linda Sacha, a Cape Girardeau ESL teacher who works with 28 students, including Manuel and Hong Suk, said the process requires patience from both students and teachers.

Often students go through a phase known as a "silent period," sometimes going as long as a year speaking little in either their native language or English.

"The students do get frustrated when they can't make themselves understood," Sacha said. "And the older they get, the more they're afraid of making mistakes."

Sacha said students usually leave the ESL program once they're reading on grade level. Until then, the extra time spent in the special classes is designed to close the learning gap.

After 14 years as a speech pathologist, this is Sacha's first year as a full-time ESL teacher. One of the most surprising things she's discovered is the lack of a social gap between students.

"Somehow, language isn't a barrier for kids," Sacha said. "They don't have to speak each other's language to play together. They always get their meaning across."


335-6611, extension 128

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: