Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Nicely Balanced Wheels: My experience as a one-way DL teacher

My first five years of teaching were in a transitional bilingual program.  The percentage of Spanish or English that was taught depended upon the students that were in my classroom as well as other influencing factors.  Percentages were always a funny thing for me though.  I mean, how do you really factor 30% of your day for English in second grade versus 40% of the day when you loop up with your students to third grade?  Despite my own efforts and those of my fantastic fellow teachers, at times it felt like we were spinning our wheels.  We were working very hard and with the best of intentions but I wonder if those language wheels that we equipped our students with looked more like the fourth bicycle than the third.

This picture is from Dr. Joan Wink's website filled with SO much useful research and resources regarding language education.

During my fifth year of teaching, I went on one really good blind date.  Ten months later, I was married and living in another city working as a bilingual teacher for a new school district!  I'm telling you, that was one really good date! :)

During my interview, the bilingual coordinator explained that this district was newly implementing a one-way dual language model of bilingual instruction.  I would be teaching all subjects in Spanish on Mondays and Tuesdays, all subjects in English on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and Friday would be a split day.  This was the schedule of language instruction that was to be followed by all first through sixth grade bilingual teachers.  PreK and Kindergarten teachers alternated languages every day.  

My first year teaching in this model was a huge adjustment.  I had never before taught English phonics or spelling but I learned along with my students and was amazed that they were able to learn twice the amount of spelling patterns than their monolingual peers next door.  For the first time in my teaching career, I really felt like I had begun to equip my students with solid ESL instruction.

Time management was a struggle and, as the only second grade bilingual teacher at my campus, I longed for a teaching peer who could commiserate and problem solve with me.  My own trial and error process led me to draw some conclusions about the dual language process in my district:

  • Students can learn spelling patterns in both Spanish and English in the same week but I had to be sure that I was using the very best instructional strategies for them to learn and practice those patterns.  There was no time for fluff or spelling busywork!  As we told the students' parents, this was an accelerated enrichment program and NOT a remedial program!
  • Doing Writing Workshop in a 50/50 classroom can be tricky.  If students are given a choice about what they are going to write about, they should also be given a choice about what language they are going to use.  It doesn't make sense for a student to start a piece on Tuesday in Spanish and then have him stop working on it on Wednesday or, even worse, continue the piece in English.  I did eventually give the students a required minimum of pieces in English and pieces in Spanish to insure a balance.
  • Self-Selected Reading is similar to Writing Workshop.  It just didn't feel right to tell a student to put down that English chapter book just because it was a Monday or Tuesday.  So, when given a choice about what to read, they could also choose the language of the books to read.  Again, if some students showed a tendency toward only one language, I would conference with them about establishing some goals for both languages.
  • With the exceptions of those choice times (WW and SSR), I tried to be as faithful as possible to the language of the day in all of my instruction.  Well, there was one more exception...Fridays!  Fridays were just messy!  I tried having a magical shift from English to Spanish at the stroke of noon but it just never worked.  Because Friday was typically a day of assessing how students could independently demonstrate their mastery of objectives in each of the subjects, I began the practice of providing the assessments in both languages printed on the front and back of the papers.  That way, the students could choose which language they wanted to demonstrate their understanding of the objective.  
I have more conclusions but I will save them for another day.  My goal was to create wheels that were fully balanced and well-inflated that would move my students forward in their language proficiency AND in their academic achievement.  While not perfect, the 50/50 model of dividing language by day did become a workable structure for me that I learned to enjoy.  

I can't wait to learn more about other models and structures that work for teachers around the country!  Please join our Speaking in Tongues Linky Party to share your dual language classroom description!


  1. I have so much to say about this, and I don't even know where to begin!

    I started off also in a transitional program. I taught kinder and then later third, fourth, and fifth. Especially third grade was tough because we didn't know what the heck we were doing! There was no district program model design-some people were teaching all english, some people 50% etc. At the time, the coordinator misinterpreted Jim Cummins (when he said that a high threshold in both languages yields cognitive benefits) and she told us to NOT teach any formal English reading, writing and phonics until students were at a level 25. Supposedly it confused them (which later I found out that it didn't).

    Years later we got a title 7 grant and implemented a one way developmental maintenance that was 90/10 but 50/50 starting in fifth grade. It was so hard to figure out what to teach and when at first. I tried the every other day thing-but writing was too hard, reading was too hard. So then we eventually just went to half a day Spanish/English. At my local district, I've come up with a plan that I will also share with you later.

    When I began as coordinator, I started telling people to teach phonics (although in context, like pointing out spelling patterns in a poem), reading and writing in both languages starting in kinder. I got a big push back from two way teachers at the time who thought that it should just be oral language development. It's been 8 long years and now we have moved past that. BUt the transitional bilingual teachers in my district often still get caught up with the mindset that it should be oral language development or it will confuse them. It's hard to build a new mindset on the transitional program that started in the 70s in our district and just over the past eight years or so has had a systematic program design.

  2. I just discovered these posts about dual-language. I am so excited reading how you do it. I will have myself prepared to link to you this same afternoon.
    It's 8 in the morning here in Spain and I'm leaving to school.
    Thanks for organizing this! I'm really curious on how you do it.


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