Care and Feeding

Should My Daughter Stick It Out at Her Language Immersion School?

A girl wearing a mask and a backpack.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tomwang112/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

We’ve been pretty lucky during the pandemic. My two kids have two involved parents, both with flexible enough jobs to participate in remote learning. We are a house that reads A LOT, we get outdoors to ask questions about nature, we play lots of board games, and we have a wide array of discussions. Learning is happening here. Here is the but: My daughter is in the second grade in a dual language Spanish program, and we only speak English at home. We’ve done our best to get her through her schoolwork in Spanish but the lack of conversation is very obvious in her grammar and vocabulary in Spanish. When we started her in this program they went out of their way to say how it works perfectly fine even if parents don’t speak the new language because the kids get immersed in school. Well, nobody factored in a year and a half of remote learning. She is woefully behind in her language acquisition, and it seems like the dual language is the lowest priority for the school to address. Despite asking at multiple levels, we haven’t heard anything about plans to change the approach because of the unique situation. Do we cut bait and put her on the English track? Stay in dual language and hope that they figure out how to correct for pandemic setbacks? Turn her summer into a Spanish bootcamp to try to get her up to speed? Thanks for any input.

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—Un Padre Confundido

Dear Padre,

I think the important thing to remember here is that everyone in this language immersion program is dealing with the same challenges as your family, so it’s not as if your daughter will be returning to school woefully behind her peers. The program itself will undoubtedly be behind in terms of the material typically taught and expected levels of mastery, but that doesn’t strike me as a reason to abandon the program.

Most children in America and around the world are going to be behind in one way or another because of the pandemic. As teachers, we will be spending years working hard to ensure that this generation of children makes up for lost time.

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I suspect that you aren’t getting many details about the plans moving forward because teachers and administrators are still trying to determine what modifications will be necessary, but as long as your daughter isn’t the only student who has suffered a setback due to remote learning, I would keep her in the program.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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Are there reading milestones that should be reached by a certain age? My rising second grader can pronounce the correct syllables on the page, but there’s no comprehension. Even three word sentences in Bob books are rarely more than strings of sounds. Is there a chart of typical development versus what might indicate a child needs additional help?

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—Miles from Milestones

Dear Miles,

There are many assessments that teachers use to determine if a child is on grade level and meeting grade-level expectations. The Developmental Reading Assessment, for example, is a widely used assessment that yields a score aligned to grade level for both reading fluency and comprehension. Most often these assessments are used by teachers to identify areas of a specific need and guide instruction, but they can also be used to help determine if a student is in need of more intense intervention or should be tested to determine if the child has some kind of a barrier to learning.

I would ask your child’s teacher about the results of your child’s most recent reading assessment and specifically about their comprehension scores. They should be able to tell you if your child is meeting grade level expectations, and if not, what interventions are in place to assist your child. They can also give you some tips for what you can be doing at home to support that instruction.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

How can we influence our district to serve healthier foods for lunch, and also eliminate wasteful practices like disposable styrofoam trays?

—Waste Not, Want Not

Dear Waste Not,

Thank you so much for asking this, because we don’t talk enough about the shameful duality of food waste and food scarcity especially in schools. The sad truth is that for many districts food supply chains are decades old and are largely developed to provide the cheapest most calorie-rich foods for our children, which often is also the least healthy. Furthermore, when the food we serve our children is unappetizing, meals go uneaten, and resources go to waste. From a practical standpoint the answer seems clear—if you serve more fresh and flavorful food, less of it goes to waste. However, from a policy standpoint, that becomes increasingly difficult depending on your district’s geographical location and resources.

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So what can you do? I believe my home district of Seattle Public Schools is really moving the needle on this work. Our Nutrition Services Director Aaron Smith has revamped and revitalized what school lunch is and can be. When he arrived, he conducted focus groups to reimagine our menu and provide culturally responsive options. Over his tenure our school lunches have gone from chicken nuggets and fries to including items like veggie gyoza and southern barbeque brisket. So, I believe it can be done, but you must organize. I’m sure there are other parents in your community that feel similarly. You could start by assembling a group and drafting a letter to the superintendent. Be persistent, have members of your group go around to various PTSA meetings to build support. You could also engage local farmers to potentially support restructuring the supply chain to source locally grown food. Long story short—closed mouths don’t get fed.

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—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

My 8-year-old son is bilingual and goes to a Montessori school in the Netherlands. We recently had him son evaluated for possible autism or ADHD, because he has a unique way of looking at the world, has a fairly skewed skill set, and didn’t seem to be thriving in school. While he is exceptionally good at math, he struggles with reading and writing (and also really dislikes it). Today they told us our son is a “visual-spatial learner,” which is a diagnosis that doesn’t seem to be paired with a lot of obvious resources. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and unsure of what I should take as my next steps. Do you have any recommendations for how I should proceed with this information?

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—Overwhelmed Mom

Dear Overwhelmed,

“Visual-spatial learner” is a description of a learner, not a diagnosis. As such, it’s not an objective term that can easily be aligned with particular resources. It means exactly as it sounds—that your child learns best by seeing things laid out in front of him. Here’s an example of how that translates to learning: If your son is learning to compare fractions, it would mean rather than explain the concept verbally, a teacher should take out fraction tiles and line them up to determine which fraction is bigger. He needs to see it—he isn’t able to work in the abstract yet. That’s okay. Lots of adults are visual thinkers or visual learners, and need to write or sketch things out.

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I don’t know how to special education process works in the Netherlands, but you should definitely follow up with whoever did the evaluation. Most formal evaluations we use in the U.S. are done using at least a few standard tests that will determine how well your child performs skills compared to same-age peers. Then, when we are done with our tests and our observations, we write a report for parents (and for the Committee on Special Education) that documents all the results: “This test assessed the child’s ability to do such-and-such, and the child performed that skill in the slightly below average range” etc. If the evaluation was informal, then you may just have a meeting where the evaluator gives a verbal summary, and suggests next steps.

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On top of that, if you had the evaluation done privately (that is, not through the school system), I would suggest you contact the school. His school may have supports, such as an RTI (response to intervention) system in place to address students who are struggling to learn in the typical classroom environment. If the school does not offer a program to support him, I would look for a different school. Montessori schools can be great for visual-spatial learners, but they are not right for every student. He may need a more structured, systematic way of learning reading and writing, as opposed to the more exploratory models used in a Montessori system. The benefit to a special ed/RTI approach would be that targeted, systematic model of education, and if you are struggling to find those resources within your school, a different school might be an easy solution.

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Good luck. Once you’ve gathered more information from the test administrator, and contacted your son’s school, they both should be able to provide you with some additional resources.

—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

More Advice From Slate

My daughter is in first grade and has struggled with learning to read. She has made slow but steady progress under the guidance of a fantastic teacher this year. However, given the onset of remote learning, which is likely to continue until the end of our school year, I am growing very concerned about her being so behind at the beginning of second grade that it will be impossible to be even close to grade level again. I know her teacher is overwhelmed: Can I still bother her teacher to ask about her progress?

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