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Literacy program taking off in Westside Costa Mesa

2013-09-24 09:42:08
One of the biggest obstacles in teaching English to Latino immigrants
is that many have a low literacy in Spanish, said Patrick Herrera, an
adjunct languages professor at Chapman University.
Herrera says he has a solution: a simple yet effective language
development program that aims to boost the literacy of Spanish
speakers learning English both children and adults who might
never have attended school.
Herrera's curriculum is gaining traction in Westside Costa Mesa's
primarily Latino neighborhoods such as Shalimar, Center Street and
Wilson Street.
We finally got what we needed something simple, said Olga Parra, director of Wilson Street Learning
Center, an after-school program at Harbor Christian Church.
Right now, the program is delivered through Costa Mesa-based Mika Community Development. Mika, a
Christian-oriented nonprofit that works with neighborhood leaders to improve neighborhoods, enlists
volunteers to teach the program at various sites in Costa Mesa.
Unlike many language programs, Herrera's program isn't based on a grade level.
Almost all language programs go by grade, he said. This is not a scope and sequence' curriculum, he
said. It is to fill that cognitive gap to give them the skills to prepare for reading.
Adults and kids use the same curriculum. The learning process is the same at any age, he said. Once
they start reading, then the reading content has to be age appropriate, he said.
Herrera's six-phase program uses phonics to help the learner link sounds to letters and words. Key to the
language program: illustrations.
They like it because it's simple. It's not a big book. It has visuals, Parra said.
If students can't read words on a page, then it's difficult to learn how to read, Herrera said. That's why he
uses pictures. The words on the page are represented by the illustrations. Herrera enlisted the help of a
Westside Costa Mesa artist to draw the pictures, which are simple enough to visually convey meaning.
Initially skeptical
For many years, Mika has struggled to find ways to effectively teach English, said Christine Brooks Nolf,
executive director and co-founder of the group. When we met Patrick, he had this whole system for
English learning, she said. What was great about that is he was willing to train our volunteers to do it.
Mika volunteer Emma Craig said she and her colleagues were skeptical when they first saw the curriculum.
Craig teaches English to Spanish-speaking adults on Monday nights on Center Street.
There are a lot of pictures. It looks really juvenile, she said. These are adults and we didn't want to insult
them, she said.
But the adults took to it, she said. The results were immediate.
Her class of four women expanded to 18 men and women through word of mouth. The women began
bringing their spouses.
Craig said most of her students are from Mexico, have been in the U.S. for about 10 years, and have about
a third-grade education. Their main motivation is to communicate better with their children, Craig said.
cognition gap'
Herrera, who has done more than 10 years of research leading up to the language program, said the low
literacy rate of school-age kids from Latino immigrant families stems from a cognition gap that occurs
before first grade.
The students lack the pre-reading skills needed to read classroom texts, he said. Cognition can't happen
without language.
The National Education Association estimates that 42 percent of Latino children entering kindergarten
have low reading-readiness skills compared to 18 percent of white children.
Typically, parents give pre-reading skills to their children just by speaking and reading to them, he said. But
a significant number of Latino immigrant parents aren't equipped with more than an elementary level of
education, he said. Many who come to the U.S. for work are from impoverished areas, where education
Schools have begun to address the low literacy rate in third grade, but the problem needs to be tackled
earlier, he said.
Another big hurdle to reading is cultural, said Parra of the Wilson Street Learning Center. In Mexico,
reading books for pleasure is unpopular. My culture, Latino culture, we don't like to read, Parra said.
They come here not knowing how to read in Spanish, she said. It's a very big challenge to teach reading
in our culture.
lengthy observation'
Herrera has developed his language program over the span of his teaching career, which includes
teaching in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
I saw students come into middle school and high school classes unable to read at grade level or write the
simplest of assignments, he said. In one class, he had nine students of 28 who had never been in a
When he taught English as a Second Language at TeWinkle Intermediate School in Costa Mesa, he
analyzed student papers and asked himself questions: Why were they misspelling words? Why was their
sentence structure wrong? It was a lengthy observation and a study of papers that they handed in, he
As Herrera's Achieving Literacy language program expands, he has been training new Mika volunteers to
teach the curriculum.
Herrera first helps the volunteers, who don't need to have teaching credentials, understand why people
have troubles reading and writing. The training is critical, he said.
He hopes to put a dent in the problem, neighborhood by neighborhood.
It's taken a long time to make something very simple, he said. What we're accomplishing is highly
complex, but the steps to accomplish it are very simple.
1. The alphabet
Objective: To introduce the pre-K and kindergartner learner to the sounds of the alphabet and the
formation of the letters. Knowledge of the alphabet, and the motor skills to form the letters of the alphabet,
need a high level of proficiency so that the first-grader is able to access the texts provided by the typical
first-grade curriculum.
2. Alphabet practice and introduction to phonics
Objective: Continuation of motor skills in forming the alphabet and single syllable words that introduce the
sounds of the vowels and consonants.
3. The phonics program
Objective: To achieve proficiency in developing a cognitive link between the sound system and the
corresponding written code, the alphabet. The lack of this skill inhibits the development of literacy.
4. Building vocabulary and phonics practice
Objective: To begin the foundation for reading. For the very young learner or the learner with low literacy, it
is helpful to take an interim step that introduces them to visualized vocabulary. This phase incorporates the
skills of phonics and phonetics (pronunciation) to begin building vocabulary in reference to an illustration.
5. Expanding vocabulary and introduction to syntax
Objective: To expand vocabulary, incorporating key words used in the formation of a sentence. Familiar
illustrations are used to expand vocabulary and construct sentences that relate to an illustration. The
activities build the skills of decoding, reading with comprehension and constructing sentences in the basic
structures of English.
6. Applying basic language skills to the four domains
Objective: To advance the learners to activities that add the skills of reading and writing to the skills of
listening and speaking.
Adapted from
Patrick Herrera's curriculum
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