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Reading Rockets' "Becoming Bilingual" Follows Growing Trend in U.S. Schools

Actress Rita Moreno Hosts New Documentary on Challenges of Teaching English Language Learners to Read

Washington, DC - El Paso kindergarten teacher Angelica Espinosa gets choked up when she talks about her newest young students. She has spent most of her career teaching native English speakers, but this year everyone in her class is an English Language Learner (ELL). Many of her students came to school knowing fewer than five words in English, and Espinosa feels her responsibility keenly. "I will not let them drown," she says resolutely. "I have 19 little bodies in here, and all 19 are going to come out of the water safely."

Acclaimed actress Rita Moreno hosts "Becoming Bilingual," a new documentary that examines the challenges of teaching children to read in a new language. The 30-minute program, the seventh episode of the award-winning PBS series "Launching Young Readers," airs on public television stations across the country beginning April 2005 (check local listings).

"Each year, U.S. schools welcome more and more students who do not speak English at home," says Noel Gunther, executive director of Reading Rockets. "Research is beginning to show which strategies work best in the classroom, and our goal is to share those strategies with parents and educators around the country."

"Becoming Bilingual" visits schools and programs in El Paso, Texas; Arlington, Virginia; Long Beach, California; Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and Woodburn, Oregon, to highlight the different ways schools are working to create bilingual readers. A segment celebrates being bilingual by profiling poet Francisco Alarcón, who writes in both English and Spanish and conducts school workshops on the power of poetry. The program also features several experts in bilingual education who discuss research findings and how those findings can be applied in the classroom.

"You have to make instruction extremely clear," says Dr. Claude Goldenberg, associate dean and professor of teacher education at California State University, Long Beach. "You need to give nonverbal cues - hold up signs, make gestures. You need pictures. You need to provide additional support ... to make sure they [students] understand the message."

At Webster Elementary in Long Beach, second-grade teacher Rose Gonsalves provides that additional support by teaching about cognates. Cognates are words that sound similar in different languages, such as "dinosaur" and "dinosaurio." "English and Spanish have about 10,000 to 15,000 cognates between them," says Dr. Goldenberg. "[That's] roughly a third of our vocabularies. ...Teachers [should] cash in on that, because the use of cognates is not automatic."

Heritage Elementary in Woodburn, Oregon, offers bilingual classes in Spanish and Russian, and comprehension is a critical part of the curriculum. "So often the kids move so quickly through the story that they are not really understanding much," says teacher Larry Conley in "Becoming Bilingual." "We try to slow them down and get them invested in the text."

At Rachel Carson Elementary in Chicago, parents become an integral part of the learning process through a partnership with the Family Literacy Project of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Workshops help parents with limited English become literacy coaches for their children. Angelica Torres learned ways to help her son overcome a reluctance to read. "Instead of telling him, 'You have to read, you have to read,'" says Torres. "They told me 'you read one page, he reads one page.' Once you learn things to help your kids, you know that you are doing something good."

"Many teachers feel overwhelmed because they have little or no training teaching ELLs," says Christian Lindstrom, Reading Rockets' senior producer. "But by using techniques that are good, basic teaching techniques and capitalizing on the children's strengths in their native language, teachers can go a long way toward being successful with the changing population in U.S. schools."

"Becoming Bilingual" is part of an ongoing WETA initiative called Reading Rockets (, which looks at how young children learn to read, why so many kids struggle and what can be done about it. Reading Rockets is funded primarily by a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Noel Gunther is executive producer; Christian Lindstrom is senior producer; and Keisha Dyson is co-producer.

WETA is the third-largest program producer in the public television system and the flagship public broadcaster in the nation's capital. Among WETA's productions, co-productions and presentations are "Washington Week," "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and "Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered." WETA is co-producer of documentaries by filmmaker Ken Burns, including "The Civil War," "JAZZ" and, most recently, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson." Sharon Percy Rockefeller is president and CEO of WETA. For more information on WETA and its programs, visit the Web site at

Updated February 24, 2005

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