Strengthening Spanish to improve English

María Elena Orozco teaches 7th and 8th grade heritage Spanish and Spanish language arts at Benjamin Harrison Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A teacher in her fourth year, María was nominated for the From the Heart recognition by veteran teacher Janet Montoya of Albuquerque Public Schools, who cited María's passion and excellence as a teacher.

Meet María Elena Orozco

María recently spoke with Colorín Colorado about ways to improve reading comprehension among her middle school students.

Can you explain what heritage Spanish is and why it's being taught at Harrison?

It's a language class for New Mexican students who are at risk of losing their heritage language, Spanish. It's part of the language and culture revitalization efforts that are going on across the country.

Spanish has always been offered as a foreign language, but in our population we have students who may speak it at home, but are not proficient in reading or writing it.

In order for them to learn the language, it has to been taught using strategies that take into account their background knowledge of the language and culture.

One of the big goals is that they improve their English literacy by developing Spanish literacy.

So it's not like a foreign language class?

No, but it takes the place of a foreign language class. It's an elective.

How many of your students are proficient?

There is a whole variety of what students' proficiency might be. Some of their parents speak Spanish, and some of their parents don't, but their grandparents speak it. They hear it and understand a lot of it, but there's maybe a small handful of students who read and write proficiently in Spanish.

The goal is to move from oral comprehension to reading and writing - and making the language comprehensible without translating to English.

What's the population of Harrison?

We have about 800 students at Harrison in grades six through eight. About 40 percent are considered ELL students. There are a whole bunch of ELLs who are in straight English-only programs. We have a bilingual teacher per grade, but some of my students may be ELLs, but have tested out. So there's more than the 40 percent who have the heritage background.

What kind of strategies do you use to increase your students' comprehension?

One of the things I do is use pictorials. I'll put up a big chart paper and draw on it, like a mural, and write vocabulary words next to the pictures.

For example, we'll talk about traditions that students have during the winter. If they don't quite know what the word "tradition" means, I'll ask "what are the things that your grandparents do year after year? What are the things they eat? Places they go?" As they're telling me, I'm drawing pictures and writing the words in Spanish next to the picture.

If they tell me in English, I'll repeat the word in Spanish and write it down in Spanish. If later they say the word in English, I refer back to the pictorial so they know that it's a word they already know. So we end up with one big pictorial with everyone's traditions on it.

Are you good at drawing?

I try! I'm not a good artist, but you don't have to be. You can have a student draw the pictures if you don't think you can draw well enough.

What other strategies do you use in the classroom?

We also do a lot of collaborative group work, where students scaffold one another. A lot of them speak bilingually. Some words in English and some in Spanish.

I put them in groups of mixed ability so they can help each other. I teach parts of the language, like prefixes and suffixes and cognates and how they're consistent between English and Spanish. I teach them to analyze the relationship between English and Spanish.

Whenever we're writing anything down, I'll always point out the cognates, the words that look the same between the languages. I'll also provide a lot of visual cues. The instructions for student assignments have symbols, so if they have to read, there's a book; if they have to listen, there is an ear.

There are different commands we use throughout the year that they become used to, so instead of me having to translate every time, they watch my actions and know what I am saying. Or students will model an activity as I'm explaining it in Spanish.

How do you address reading directly?

With reading, I start the year out with pronunciation of syllables, these are strategies to use in both English and Spanish, breaking words up into syllables and looking for words they recognize inside a word.

We read on a daily basis. I have objectives written on the board. They write them down and have to discuss what they're going to do today.

How do you incorporate culture into your reading work?

We read a lot of poetry about the importance of land in the New Mexican culture. I give them questions in Spanish, If the students can't read them in Spanish, I'll read them in English quietly and then have them read them in Spanish again to see if they can get the meaning.

With the higher level, more complex literature, something that they have to tear apart like a poem or a song where the meaning isn't always clear, I have them read out loud to their small group.

What's the significance of land in New Mexican culture?

When the Spaniards came into New Mexico, they divided land up into communities, and the native Americans were part of that. All the laws and land measurements were written in Spanish. When the English speakers came into New Mexico, they threw out the land owners' paperwork and said, "We're going to change the divisions of the land." There was a lot of conflict over that -- and still is - like a revolt against the Anglo Saxons who came in and took over. The native New Mexicans wrote a lot of songs about the land as a result, so we study the songs and poems, the land forms, the treaties, what the land is used for and how it's valued -- that's how I integrate culture.

What kind of writing instruction do you use?

The students write essays of what culture means to them or about traditions in their families. I tell them to write as much as they can in Spanish, and I help them by pulling out key works that they know in Spanish, maybe from a pictorial that we did.

I take them through the writing process and editing processes, pushing them toward using a dictionary and thesaurus.

A lot of your strategies are similar to strategies used to teach English. Do you know whether teaching heritage Spanish is helping with English literacy?

Students can take my class for two years. I did a little study on a group of kids to see how students in this class improved compared to students who did not take the class.

I matched students with others who had similar language backgrounds and similar reading and proficiency levels.

Nearly all of the students who took my class had a three-grade-level jump in reading in English, compared with students who did not take my class and did not have a jump in reading.

The only student of mine who did not make a gain in English literacy over her matched partner was a student who had poor attendance.

What are some of the challenges you face?

Sometimes I have to help cultivate the motivation for learning. Many students don't see the value of being bilingual until it is pointed out to them. I understand that because when I was growing up, I heard Spanish at home, but I never responded in Spanish. I responded in English. I had to take Spanish in school, too.

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