Divided We Learn

TEACHER VOICE: What we’re all ignoring about the stubborn achievement gap for Latino students

Classroom methods that won’t fail our English learners

Modesto, California — Afternoon kindergarten teacher Margaret Peralez helps, from left, Cesar Mackan, Monserrat Mendoza and Cristian Bustamante with Spanish reading while morning class teacher Maria Mota leads intensive English vocabulary instruction in the background.

Modesto, California — Afternoon kindergarten teacher Margaret Peralez helps, from left, Cesar Mackan, Monserrat Mendoza and Cristian Bustamante with Spanish reading while morning class teacher Maria Mota leads intensive English vocabulary instruction in the background.

The achievement gap for Latino students has persisted for many years because we are ignoring the solution to early language and reading acquisition.

A recent article in The Hechinger Report (Latino college students are falling behind whites and blacks, new research shows by Meredith Kolodner) invites a discussion of what this solution does, and does not, entail.

The solution is not a billion-dollar national initiative. It is not a computer program. The solution is in the classroom and it is happening between the teacher and the student. It happens when our youngest English Language Learners receive the mentoring they need in decoding their new language.

Related: Latino college students are falling behind whites and blacks, new research shows

Early language acquisition is complex. But teaching can be simplified so that the most elementary beginner can acquire the basics. After the basics, learning accelerates.

A major barrier is the “cognition gap” that a disadvantaged child brings when entering first grade. First grade curriculum presumes that students have pre-reading skills.

This foundation is often not provided at home due to the low literacy of the parents. We must fill the cognition gap, or the development of the reading skill does not progress; the gap widens and they are on a path to failure. There is an answer, and it is not a mystery.

One way teachers can help students acquire these skills is through the process known to language educators as syntax.

Syntax teaches students the structural differences between languages. In the ideal English lesson, the teacher and student work out the syntax of a sentence in Spanish and then in English.

For instance, the direct Spanish translation of the English sentence “Did you hand homework in to me yesterday?” would be “To me homework did you hand in yesterday?”

Together, the teacher and student explore this sentence and others. What is happening is complex, but the teaching and learning processes are not, if presented in a simple, cumulative, sequential process.

Related: A Spanish-English high school proves learning in two languages can boost graduation rates

Concerns arise in middle school and high school as students have difficulties reading and understanding textbooks. Efforts for remedial help, such as after school support programs, target symptoms rather than the problem. Students are given a book, which they can’t read.

Let’s look at a class of high school students in an Advanced Placement class: We could reasonably say that they have high I.Q.’s and excellent reading skills. Yet if we gave them documents on solid fuel propulsion, nuclear medicine and astrophysics, they would become struggling readers.

The issue of described here is one of background knowledge.

Vocabulary deficits are another reason students can struggle.

A lack of decoding ability also hurts. Decoding requires the skills of phonics: phonemic awareness, or isolating small groups of sounds that form words; converting sound to text, or being able to write what you hear; and converting text to speech fluently and with correct pronunciation.

The phonemic vs. the syllabic approach is a key issue. A current method of teaching the sounds of the language is the phonemic approach.

After the failure of the “whole language” approach to reading, researchers identified over 260 sounds and combinations of sounds. This led to myriad programs and games with a large and complex array of cards and booklets. It was difficult to set discrete objectives and difficult to teach and assess.

Related: Rising popularity of dual-language education could leave Latinos behind

Other linguists focused on the smallest unit of speech, the syllable, and the foundation of the syllable, the vowels. From this more defined approach I developed a syllabic phonics program of eleven two-page lessons that cover target vowel and consonant sounds and words. The program is easy to teach and learn.

National initiatives to close the Latino achievement gap have been wanting because standard business procedure calls for clear and realistic plan and the tools to achieve it. National initiatives do not use these procedures.

We may have a vast array of reading and language programs. But these programs do not identify or address the users’ deficits in pre-reading skills. The failure to address these deficits can inhibit reading fluency and perpetuate illiteracy.

Teacher training programs do not provide training to deal with the challenge of illiteracy.

Curriculum and testing services are provided by publishers who do not have direct accountability and do not provide appropriate materials.

This is not a problem without a solution. This is a problem with a solution that we are ignoring. The answer is in the classroom. With the teachers.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter

An elementary, secondary and post-secondary school teacher, Patrick D. Herrera is also a literacy-program consultant and the founder of www.phonicstoliteracy.com.

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Patrick D. Herrera

An elementary, secondary and post-secondary school teacher, Patrick D. Herrera is also a literacy-program consultant and the founder of www.phonicstoliteracy.com. See Archive

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