Foreign-born students blossom in English class


Jun Lee isn't afraid to raise his hand in class this summer or to converse with the teacher, despite his limited proficiency in English.

That's because the Korea-born youth and the other 15 students in a four-week class that ends today share a goal: All are foreign-born or have lived most of their lives abroad and need to improve their English skills.

The summer course, offered by the county schools, has been helping them do that by giving them more instruction than they typically get during the school year.

"The teacher here makes sure each person in the class, no matter where they are from or how old they are, understands the assignment," said Jun, 11, who speaks Korean at home and will enter seventh grade at Wilde Lake Middle School in the fall.

Crowded classes during the school year, filled with students fluent in English, "makes it a lot harder for those like us who don't speak English so well," he said.

Only a tiny fraction of the 600 or so in the school system's English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program during the regular school year enroll in the the voluntary summer study.

During the regular school year, many elementary and middle school students receive as little as 45 minutes a week in actual class time with an ESOL teacher, said Patricia A. Hatch, director of the Columbia-based Foreign Born Information and Referral Network (FIRN).

At times, students who have only begun to learn English find themselves bumped from language programs long before they're ready because their seats are needed for new arrivals.

And if FIRN is correct, the ESOL population will continue to grow. The group projects there will be more than 30,000 Asians and Hispanics living in the county by 2000, compared with roughly 12,000 in 1990. And many of these new arrivals might participate in ESOL classes.

All of that makes it crucial for students who speak little English to follow up on their instruction during the summer, said Celeste Carr, supervisor of the school system's foreign languages and ,, ESOL programs.

Skills lost in summer

"So much language is lost during the summer break from early June to late August for students learning English," Ms. Carr said. "Because many ESOL students usually come from homes where their language is spoken around-the-clock, the increased access English in a classroom during the summer helps them tremendously."

The school system offers the four-week summertime ESOL course for students entering grades one through nine. In addition, 10 older high school students are enrolled in three separate six-week ESOL courses offered by Howard Community College.

The county's four-week program, based at Burleigh Manor Middle School this summer, costs $80 and offers eight hours a week of instruction in spelling, grammar, writing and speaking skills.

"This is not a thing where the students come in and make up an entire year of school," said Dan Desmond, who teaches the course.

Instead, he said, students come to practice and improve in areas where they have trouble during the school year. None of the students in Mr. Desmond's class -- not even the older ones -- is reading at the level of the third-grade materials he uses.

"In this class, the pressure is off," he said. "It's a low chance of embarrassment because they are not struggling to keep up with the curriculum that's being taught all in English -- something they are still learning."

The challenge during the summer is to find activities and skills that can engage both a first-grader and a ninth-grader in the same class, says Mr. Desmond, who teaches English during the school year to ESOL students at Centennial High School.

This summer, his students include Roy Quiroga, who will enter seventh grade this fall, and his brother Alejandro, who will enter sixth. Both moved to the United States from Mexico a month ago and until now have never been in an American classroom.

Others include Jina Han, soon to be a fifth-grader at Worthington Elementary School. She was born in the United States, but has moved back and forth between Ellicott City and Korea over the past few years and still has trouble with English.

Mr. Desmond tailors his teaching to the individual student's skill and developmental level.

During one recent class, for example, he asked Patricio Schmid, a shy 11-year-old from Ecuador, to point to the image of a fox's whiskers on a television screen. Then he asked Jun, the Wilde Lake Middle School student, to write a sentence on the board using the word "fox."

The students later broke into elementary- and middle-school groups to focus on vocabulary and grammar for their specific grade levels.

More than language

For those in an American classroom for the first time, even such concepts as walking in a line with classmates or calling a teacher by his last name were new. Others needed help with grammar and pronunciation, said Alexia Gaudio, Mr. Desmond's assistant.

"They can hear the directions, understand them and then follow them, while also learning how to interact with other students," she said of the summer instruction.

Parents and students say this summer's classes have helped them.

Jina, for example, no longer just memorizes vocabulary words but sounds them out and correctly pronounces them, a skill her )) mother, Jennifer Han, 35, says Jina acquired through the summer course.

Anne-Sofie Lemb, 11, and her sister Caroline, 9, from Denmark, have accomplished what Mr. Desmond calls "half the battle" for ESOL students -- "readiness," or being prepared for using English in school among their classmates and teachers in September.

Rogelio Quiroga, 42, the father of Roy and Alejandro, said the program was well worth the money.

"We want to make sure the children can get a chance to learn as much English as possible and practice it in the next few months, so that they don't just get thrown into the swimming pool of school and learning among English-speaking students," he said.

To the students, the best part of the course has been the chance to focus on just learning English.

"During the school year, we don't have time to really learn English well, because we are continuously going from one thing, like violin lessons, to a math class where English is used," said Jun.

Ayako Kosuga, 11, from Japan, said: "Here, in summer school, things are slowed down instead of the teacher going faster to teach us. Here, the gas pedal slows up, and we have a chance to learn and understand."

Despite such attractions, school officials say many students who could benefit from the summer course don't enroll. The reasons vary from a reluctance to ask for a waiver of the $80 fee, which is available; a lack of transportation; or overlapping family vacations, said Ms. Carr. Otherwise, everyone is accepted.

Duyen Dam, 17, and her sister Lieu, 16, two Ellicott City students from Vietnam, are two such students. For the past three summers, county teachers have recommended that they take a summer course to improve their writing and reading. But until this summer, the sisters had no way to get to the class.

"This will help me to write better in my classes, like biology and English, when I return to school," said Duyen, who will be a junior at Centennial High School.

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