Portland Public Schools Supports Bilingualism

“For many students in the immersion program, bilingualism is simply a part of life,” explained Miles Rooklyn, a PPS mentor to new Spanish Immersion teachers. Immersion students use two languages in their everyday life. While this might not be the norm for the United States, it is more common in other areas of the world to learn a second language early in life.

PPS provides several different opportunities to help students become bilingual. Both for native speakers and non-native speakers, the district offers options to help increase their proficiency in the target language. Non-native speakers have two options to start learning the new language: World Language, which is what students are required to take in order to graduate, or Dual Language Immersion (DLI, sometimes referred to just as Immersion). For native speakers, PPS offers Native Language Literacy and again the DLI program. DLI is the only option for both native and non-native speakers. Starting off with Spanish as its first Immersion program in 1986, PPS now offers immersion in four additional languages: Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian and Japanese. The Spanish Immersion program is now offered at ten elementary schools throughout the city. These students then continue with the program in PPS middle and high schools.

PPS’s DLI program is a model of education that is meant to help a child become bilingual and biliterate by introducing them to the Spanish language early on in their education, and then continuing to build on both their Spanish and their English language. With 90% Spanish and 10% English, the students are fully immersed in the language starting in kindergarten. As they move through the program, 10% more English is introduced each year, so that by 4th and 5th grade the class is half Spanish and half English. Zola Thomas (10) started in Bridger’s Spanish Immersion program when she was in kindergarten. “When you’re learning Spanish [as a World Language] you’re learning Spanish in English, but in Spanish Immersion you learn Spanish in Spanish.” said Thomas. In other words, the usual kindergarten class is practicing their colors, numbers and days of the week just the same as the Immersion kindergarten class, but the teacher just happens to be speaking in Spanish. This benefits both the native Spanish speakers and those new to the language because it supports both academic growth and language acquisition.

This way of learning Spanish allows students to feel grounded in the language. “I think it is very effective, because it allows students to learn it in a natural way,” Rooklyn said. When a child learns their first language there are no translations. Similarly, in the Immersion program, students are not learning through translation. This helps both native speakers to reach a high level and the non-native speakers to learn the language and continue improving. Native Spanish speakers benefit from the education they get in their native language and are slowly introduced to instructions in English, which then are easier for them to understand. “A student who speaks Spanish at home, and is able to develop their Spanish to a high level of proficiency, will have a much higher likelihood of developing a high level of proficiency in English as well,” said Rooklyn. Non-native Spanish speakers benefit from this program also by having the immersive introduction to the language. “We got from me not being able to say ‘my name is’ or ‘excuse me’ to me being able to understand a lot,” Thomas explained. The point of this program is to get both native and non-native speakers at the same level in both Spanish and English.

“Mostly, language instruction is offered at the secondary level when most experts agree is not as optimal to introduce a new language to the brain,” shared Tanya Mead, an Education Instructor at Portland Community College and an Immersion parent herself. This is one of the reasons PPS has adopted and expanded this model which begins at kindergarten, as well as to reach the goal of serving traditionally underserved populations, specifically those who do not speak English as their first language. Nora Hugo (9), a Franklin Immersion student, stated “I really liked how we had teachers who spoke Spanish as their native language, this really helped because we developed an accent.” Having teachers from various Spanish speaking countries has the added benefit of cultural exposure. Along with native teachers, the program also strives to keep a balance of native and non native students.
Bilingualism is the norm in most of the world. PPS strives to offer students the opportunity to know another language. Rooklyn summarized the benefits of this model by saying, “For students that are motivated to develop their Spanish skills in DLI, many are able to achieve by eighth grade a level of Spanish that adult second language learners, no matter their motivation, will ever be able to achieve.”

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