The goal of a new program in Hillsborough schools: Read a book in English, discuss it in Spanish

Twins Giadah and Gamadiel Torres, 5, learn about the dual language program they will enter this year at Bellamy Elementary School.
Twins Giadah and Gamadiel Torres, 5, learn about the dual language program they will enter this year at Bellamy Elementary School.
Published July 28, 2017

TAMPA — Giadah and Gamadiel Torres are 5-year-old twins. "We were born at the same time," is how Giadah explains their birth.

Language will also come in twos when they start kindergarten next month. The twins are pioneers in a dual language program the Hillsborough County School District is introducing at Bellamy and Crestwood elementary schools, two largely Hispanic campuses in Town'N Country.

The approach is a slight variation on a dual language program that has operated at nearby Alexander Elementary for 12 years.

But there's a twist: Instead of having one teacher switch from Spanish to English, students will alternate between two instructors, one teaching entirely in English and the other entirely in Spanish, to guarantee that their speech will be evenly divided between the two languages.

They won't duplicate lessons, program leaders explained at an information session Thursday. Rather, the English-speaking teacher might give a lesson on bears, which the Spanish speaking teacher would follow with a talk about the habitat for bears.

Ideally, the child should be able to read a book in English and discuss it in Spanish.

"We do not water down the curriculum," said Melissa Morgado, the district's world languages supervisor.

Dual language instruction is, itself, a descendent of bilingual education, a practice that came under criticism decades ago. Older methods were accused of delaying students' acquisition of English and encouraging segregated classrooms.

Today's methods stress high standards of reading, writing, understanding and speaking in both languages. The object is to be not only bilingual, but also "biliterate." The state recognizes this ability with a Seal of Biliteracy that students can receive with their diplomas, giving them an edge in employment.

"It's a competitive world out there," said Crestwood principal Diane Sanchez-Aliakbarian. "A lot of parents are interested in their children becoming biliterate and bilingual. It's about career readiness."

Interest has come from Vietnamese- and Portuguese-speaking families as well as those who speak Spanish and English, she said.

For the most part, program leaders are aiming for an equal split in each pair of kindergarten classes — nine "English dominant" and nine "Spanish dominant" students in one and the same balance in the other, for a total of 36 in each school.

They plan to add a grade each year, and are asking families to commit to the full six years. Only kindergarten children can apply.

Morgado and Sanchez-Aliakbarian insist the research is entirely in their favor, showing that learning multiple languages promotes better academic skills, problem solving and critical thinking. Morgado told Thursday's group that Spanish speakers become more successful students overall if they are literate in both languages. "That's because you cannot perform better in a second language than you can in your own," she said.

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Confident that the program will succeed, they hope to offer it in other schools later on. Not only that: At Pierce Middle School, which is 78 percent Hispanic, a sixth-grade world history class will be taught this year in both English and Spanish.

Beyond the intellectual benefits, educators see the program as a way to show that being bilingual is an advantage and not a deficit, now that Hispanic students are the biggest demographic group in the district.

"It validates who they are," Morgado said. "I don't have to leave my culture behind."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or