As I entered a bilingual preschool classroom I found myself filled with excitement, but also a little bit nervous. It was a new group of students, a new program I had never been in before, and a new teaching model I had never experienced before. I was to be one of two English language models in the classroom that also had two other teachers that were Spanish language models. This is the classroom version of what Baker calls “The ‘one-person – one language’ parental approach in a family,” which he describes as “a well-documented and often successful route to bilingualism” (Baker 2011, p. 113).
It wasn’t long before I found myself well-adjusted in the classroom and fitting in with the language model well. However, as Baker describes, “there is often a difference between formal policy and the informal practice of codeswitching, with ‘center stage’ and ‘back stage’ choices” (Baker 2011, p. 287). While I spoke primarily English in the classroom as per our official policy, I would occasionally code-switch into Spanish for a variety of reasons with both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking students. I noticed this trend among all four teachers in the classroom.
Baker reveals that “codeswitching is a frequent behavior among bilinguals, with a variety of valuable purposes and benefits” (Baker 2011, p. 112). For myself, I relied on code-switching with Spanish-speaking students to help build a connection with them and help them feel more at ease around me, and also to insure understanding of difficult concepts or during times of stress. I code-switched into Spanish with my English-speaking students to increase their exposure to Spanish, particularly during times of the day when we were doing a small group activity without one of the Spanish-language models. After all, Baker tells us that “understanding (and speaking) a second or third language quickly grows once there is sufficient exposure and incentive” (Baker 2011, pp. 104-105), and by using more Spanish with my English-speaking students I provided that exposure.
However, the incentive seemed to be lacking. The children knew that I was an English-language model and that, if they didn’t understand me at the time, they could rely on me for English a short time later when I switched back into my official role as English-language model. As Baker states, “If language mixing by the teacher occurs, students may wait until there is a delivery in the stronger language, and become uninvolved at other times” (Baker 2011, p. 228) Several months into school the year we noticed that the English-speaking students were not progressing in their Spanish as rapidly as we were expecting. Most of the children were very reluctant to tell stories that included any Spanish, and even when they did they limited themselves to a handful of words. For example, by late January Sally’s attempt at telling a story in Spanish included only three words:
My Little Pony Babies
Once upon a vez there was a princesa. And her name was Aurora. And another one was a mermaid. And her name was Ariel. Then another day there were 3 princesas. They were ponies, but not people or princesses. Then there was 10 My Little Ponies. Baby ones. Baby Applejack, baby Twilight Sparkle. And then there was Rainbow Dash and Pinky Pie and Fluttershy. And then so don’t forget Spike. And then that’s The The End.
Baker reveals that “education cannot be separated from issues of power that affect the lives of bilinguals” (Baker 2011, p. 335). In our society in general, it is the English language that is the language of power. One of the reasons we conjectured for the difficulties of the English-speaking students related to the fact that, for a successful bilingual program using our language model, “The numerical balance of native speakers and learners of a minority language is important, possibly tilted to a predominance of minority language speakers” (Baker 2011, p. 305). Our program, however, was tilted to a predominance of majority language (English) speakers. While fifteen of the 32 students in the class listed Spanish as being spoken at some level in the home, only three students had Spanish listed as the primary home language.
We needed to do something to offset this balance toward English, and Baker gives us a clue as to the solution when he states, “the dominance of a majority language outside school can be complimented by a corresponding weighting towards the minority language in school” (Baker 2011, p. 223). The teachers-as-language models approach in our classroom provided equal exposure to both languages in the classroom. What we needed to do was change the model to favor exposure to the minority language (Spanish). We did this with a time-based model, using Spanish three days a week and English two days a week.
An unforeseen, yet perfectly logical phenomenon resulted almost immediately from this change. I began to notice the children engaging in more collaborative language exploration. As Baker tells us, “Language learning is partly about becoming socialized through interaction with other language speakers in particular social contexts” (Baker 2011, p. 133). Amanda, one of the quietest and most reserved children in the classroom, but one who also loved to tell stories, had never created a story that included any Spanish. The day after the new language model officially went into effect, she created a story together with Ammon, a child who had recently begun exploring Spanish in his three most recent stories. Though this was an English day, Ammon continued his exploration of Spanish by including it in this story as well, while all of the parts that Amanda told were entirely in English:
The Lion Ate the Bunnies
Once upon there was a little bunny. And then there was a lion. And then the bunny ran away. And then there was a tiger. And then the tiger ate the bunny. The lion saw a other bunny and ate it. And then uno conejo y pues una lion. Then there was 100 bunnies. And then there was another bunny. And then there was a lion. And then there was eleven bunnies. And then the lion ate the bunnies. The End.
Sally quickly latched onto the idea of creating stories together with other children, and the following day, Sally and Amanda created a story together:
Cat [Sally] [Amanda]
Hoy a gata. And then it went all the way to [Sally]. But [Amanda] was the owner. But [Sally] was the mom. And dos gatos came. And una vez una flower bought there was a big grande monstruo named Teacher Jeff. But uno vez and dos gatos came again. And then there was a kitten, a baby one. And it went to its mommy [Sally] mamá cat. And they love each other. And the baby kitten was named [Amanda]. But dos más grande Teacher Jeff. Love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you, love you.
A word count reveals this story to be a whopping 16.67% in Spanish, a huge leap from Sally’s high of 6.78% from before the shift in language model, and Amanda’s 0.00%, and this time both children were using Spanish during the parts of the story they told. In fact, by the time a month had passed from when we announced to the children that we would change the language model, Sally was creating collaborative stories that were as much as a quarter in Spanish, with herself contributing a great deal of the Spanish (as with the following story she created with Brandon, a child with less experience creating collaborative stories, in which the only Spanish word Brandon contributed was “plantos”):
Plants Versus Zombies
Once upon a time there were zombies. And then there was plantos. Then a cherry bomb came and explode the zombie. Then there were sunflower with sun. And una vez una grande monstruo como [Brandon]. Then there were still more bombs and explode the bad guys. Then one hundred zombis como se llama [Brandon], [Brandon], [Brandon], [Brandon], [Brandon]. Then [Brandon] came and eated all of the zombies. Then [Brandon] comió todos monstruos. And they save everyone from the zombies and monsters. To be continued…
The striking thing about this story is not just the quantity of Spanish used, but the sentence structure. She’s using descriptive language (i.e. “grande monstruo como [Brandon]” – big monster like Brandon) and verbs conjugated appropriately for past tense (i.e. “[Brandon] comió todos monstruos” – Brandon ate all monsters), while at the same time continuing with the flow of a story that is engaging, with a clear beginning setting the stage, heightened tension in the middle, and an ending that resolves the conflict and sets the stage for the possibility of more in the future.
As for Amanda, the collaborative language exploration she was doing with other children helped her Spanish growth so much that she too, like Ammon, began including Spanish in her stories, even on English days.
Elsa and Anna
Uno vez Elsa. And then there was Anna. And then Elsa froze Anna. And then there was Hans. And then Hans got killed by Anna. And then Anna and Elsa married with the prince. Then Elsa said it was Anna’s birthday party. And then there was Kristof. And then Anna and Kristof married. And then Olaf ate the cake.
By changing the classroom language model, we implemented an effective tool toward helping children on their road to bilingualism. Baker tells us that “To allow students to make progress in both languages, there needs to be strategic classroom language planning” (Baker 2011, p. 288), and our conscious adoption of a new method served as that planning.
Next month I will most likely be looking at the book From Lullabies to Literature (Birckmayer, Kennedy, & Stonehouse 2008). If there is a book you would like me to discuss in my blog please comment on the Recommended Reading page.
Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism, 5th edition. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Birckmayer, J., A. Kennedy, & A. Stonehouse. (2008). From lullabies to literature: Stories in the lives of infants and toddlers. Washington, DC: NAEYC.