¡Hablo Espanol! Spanish Immersion Program teaches the language to kindergarteners

¡Hablo Espanol! Spanish Immersion Program teaches the language to kindergarteners

Typical foreign-language lessons start with words or simple phrases – ¡Buenos días! ¡Buenas tardes! ¡Buenas noches! – gradually building into sentences, and reinforced with tiresome drilling on verb conjugation, noun genders and the like.

But imagine walking into a classroom for the first time and discovering that the entire curriculum – including textbooks, signs and even the teacher’s instructions – is in another language.

Intimidating, right? Now picture yourself as just five years old and facing that challenge!

That was the scene last year when Moravian Academy launched its kindergarten Spanish Immersion Program (SIP). It’s made a positive impact on the little ones – and may lead to even bigger benefits as those students mature.

The roots of Moravian Academy’s immersion program reach back to former lower-school director Ella Jane Kunkle.

“About 10 years ago, Ella Jane added 15 minutes of daily instruction in Spanish to the pre-K school curriculum,” said Susan Parent, the current director. “We were amazed to see how well they understood the language and culture by the time they reached first grade.”

Parent later discovered that multi-lingual students tended to develop better reasoning and conflict-resolution skills, and were better able to multi-task. She also found that a child’s facility for learning a new language grows until the age of six; at age 12 – the time when most schools start foreign language programs – it’s
dropped considerably.

And that prompted her to start the new program, which uses nearly-total immersion in the language. (The only exceptions are “specialty” classes, such as gym, art and music.)


A special perspective

Melika Matlack is the lead teacher for the SIP, and she brings a special perspective to the task.

“In 1989, I was in the second group of first-graders to go through the SIP at Liberty Bell elementary school [in the Southern Lehigh School District],” Matlack said. Although she faced a definite initial learning curve, the struggle was absolutely worth it.

An assessment three years into the program determined that the SIP students actually scored higher on standardized tests than the English-only group.

“Sounds great!” you might say. “I’ll bet they were all little Brainiacs!” you might say.

But you’d be wrong. “The nice thing about our program was that the cross-section of students was like any other public school classroom. The only common factor was our parents’ decision to enroll us in it,” Matlack said. “It was the best gift my parents ever gave me!”


Plenty of challenges

The first few weeks of the Academy program were challenging for teachers and for students. “At the beginning, the children just listen and watch. But after a few weeks, magic happens – they start understanding instructions, and helping each other comprehend,” Parent said.

She [Parent] also found that a child’s facility for learning a new language grows until the age of six; at age 12 – the time when most schools start foreign language programs – it’s dropped considerably.

It’s no walk in the park for the instructors, either. They use full-body communication – gestures, facial expressions, even motions – with plenty of repetition, all day long.

“Our destination is content, such as learning the alphabet or the names of colors, and language is our vehicle for getting there,” Matlack explains. “Because it’s all in Spanish, we rely on different teaching strategies and methods.”

For example, you can tell most five-year-olds to pick up a square piece of paper and cut it corner-to-corner. But in the SIP, teachers must physically demonstrate the activity while instructing, so that the kids will better understand the task.

“They have to pay close attention and be more independent,” Matlack adds. “And now they have another reason for being engaged – they’re not just excited about the activity, but they’re also learning a new language!”


Parents’ reaction

And after just one year, parents’ reactions are overwhelmingly positive.

Emmy John’s daughter Vivian was mentally exhausted at first – but it wasn’t long before Emmy spied her daughter at play, casually speaking Spanish to her toys!

“We have two older daughters at Moravian Academy,” Johns said. “When it was time to enroll Vivian, we learned about the SIP; it’s an amazing extra benefit to the school. The program uses exactly the same curriculum, just in a different language.”

For example, the K class learns the alphabet, and sometimes dresses to illustrate a particular letter. While the elder Johns sisters wore stripes for the last letter of the alphabet (“zebra”), Vivian dressed in orange clothing. “It was for ‘zorro,’ the fox!” Emmy explained.

In just a year, Vivian’s become so proficient that her parents now can switch all kids’ movies to Spanish audio tracks – with Spanish subtitles. “It’s a way to blend her school work with home life,” Johns said.

Tjasa Ritchey of Hellertown also has three children in the school – and her experiences were similar. Her son, Oliver, started kindergarten at the age of six, already able to read English. “Halfway through the year, I realized his English phonics skills were improving. When I praised his teacher, she showed me his English- and Spanish-language journals – and the phonics were accurate in both languages.

“I think the SIP makes the students more adaptable, because they’re just thrown into it. They form tight bonds with each other, too. I’ve already decided that my two-year-old will eventually go into the SIP class as well,” she said.

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