Teaching With Joy

January 2004


A Perspective on Bilingual Education
by Joy Jones

     In today’s communities, one may find a multiplicity of cultures all over the world coexisting in one zip code. This means that you may have children from every corner of the globe in your classroom. How does one meet the challenge of educating students who may not speak English? Students are in ESL studies part of the day, but what can you do when they’re mainstreamed into your class?

     Esteban Morales has been on both sides of the desk. He is a teacher who has worked with difficult students and has himself experienced the difficulty of learning a new language in a new country. Morales was a special education teacher in his home, Chile, until 1995 when his wife prompted him to emigrate to the U.S. He arrived knowing no English but through intensive study, became fully bilingual within a year. Now, he is the director of the school at Psychiatric Institute of Washington, educating and evaluating emotionally disturbed children.

     “The biggest myth in education is to assume that because someone doesn’t know the language, they don’t know anything else,” said Morales. He laments the fact that too many children are mislabeled because educators misunderstand the process of language acquisition. “Sometimes it’s hard to discriminate between the language process and special education,” he commented. Immigrant parents often get misled, too. School officials may approach a mother or father saying “Don’t you want to help your child?” when asking for the authority to assign a child to special education. These parents seldom realize that this often means their children may now be permanently sentenced to a second class education. Frequently, even the other native speakers in such classes have poor English skills, thus further limiting the foreign born students' chance to interact with speakers of standard English.

     Morales believes in bilingual instruction because then the student can continue to gain content knowledge as he or she learns the new language, and because the student’s family can then be involved in helping the child with school work. The parents’ background and skills can be communicated to the child in the native tongue plus the child is able to transfer his or her prior knowledge when completing assignments.

     Morales also recommends that educators use content based testing in the native language to see what students really know, and teach learning strategies such as classification, finding the main idea, note-taking and outlining, thinking and planning skills. And he believes that teachers need more opportunities to talk and exchange ideas with one another. “I wish teachers had more time to create, collaborate and plan with each other. The main problem in education is teachers do their own magic in their own rooms and nobody knows what the other is doing.”


Joy Jones is a third generation teacher, a playwright and the author of Between Black Women: Listening With the Third Ear, the acclaimed children’s book, Tambourine Moon, and Private Lessons: A Book of Meditations for Teachers.  You may view her web site at: www.JoyJonesOnline.com.

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