Wendy Motoike was teaching her fourth- and fifth-graders about owls. The ideas were sophisticated but her words and phrases were as simple as a parent's to a toddler.
As the teacher enunciated the words, she sometimes moved her body in pantomime.
"The owl eats the mouse whole," she said.
She held up a picture of an owl gobbling a mouse. To show digestion, she made a churning gesture on her stomach.
"Twelve hours later the owl coughs up one of these," Motoike said.
She displayed an egg-shaped bundle of undigested mouse fur, bones and other debris called an owl pellet. The children had been taught pellet earlier in the lesson and had seen it written on the overhead projector. They repeated it now as they sat with their eyes glued on the weird, wonderful object.
Then they were handed owl pellets of their own to pick apart with tools made from large paper clips. They clamored for attention as they discovered tiny mouse parts.
"Teacher, I don't know what's this--a teeth?" a 9-year-old girl asked excitedly.
At the end of 30 minutes all eight students obviously understood a great deal about owls and mice. They knew precisely which was the predator and which the prey.
The students, recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia, had mastered the lesson despite limited proficiency in English. Their language problem was obvious when Motoike asked them what more than one mouse is called. Eight small voices answered triumphantly: "Mouses!"
Motoike taught the science lesson using "sheltered English," a new, rapidly spreading technique that allows English-speaking instructors to teach demanding subject matter, notably mathematics and science, to students who are not yet fluent in English.
As Motoike, who teaches at Encinita Elementary School in Rosemead, explained, sheltered English is not a language. It is a collection of teaching strategies that makes course material more comprehensible and also seems to help students learn English in the process of learning other things. These teaching strategies usually include simplification of the teacher's speech and the lavish use of visual aids and other nonverbal clues to the meaning of a particular lesson.
Sheltered English is being used in more and more California schools as educators grope for ways to teach half a million children who speak little or no English using teachers who, by and large, speak nothing else. Such students now make up 14% of the total in the state. About 10% to 15% of those non-fluent children are now receiving some classroom instruction in sheltered English, a state Department of Education official said.
Use of the technique is expected to grow as a result of the endorsement of English-only Proposition 63 in November. Sheltered English is an unusual approach to bilingual education in having advocates on both sides of California's emotional language debate.
Proponents of the English-only initiative such as state campaign chairman Stanley Diamond say that sheltered English appears to be an acceptable method for teaching immigrant students. "Our goal is to have children in an English-speaking environment as soon as possible," Diamond said. "We do not necessarily approve of (English) immersion--sink or swim--and we totally disapprove of teaching the child in his native language."
Some of the original supporters of sheltered English are made uneasy by the growing acceptance of the technique by the English-only camp. A major theoretician of the sheltered approach declines to comment on the subject for attribution because, he said, "sheltered English is being used as an excuse to dismantle bilingual education. It is being used by the dark side of the force."
The dark side, he said, consists of linguistic extremists, whom he described as being of the "speak Spanish, go to jail" sort.
However widespread sheltered English becomes, it will not solve all the complex educational problems created by California's multilingualism, according to state bilingual consultant Norman Gold.
But sheltered English is a valuable component within a good bilingual education program, especially for children making the transition from classes in their native language to regular English-only classes, Gold said. And it is often the only alternative to sink-or-swim English-only classes when instruction is not available in the child's native tongue.
As Gold pointed out, 75% of the state's 567,564 linguistic minority children speak Spanish. But there are more than 85 other languages, from Afghan to Visayan (one of the languages of the Philippines), spoken in the homes of California schoolchildren.
In this educational environment, sheltered English is often the only practical common language, according to Alfredo Schifini, a reading and language arts consultant in the Los Angeles County Office of Education. The need is especially acute in Los Angeles County, which is home to half the non-English-speaking children in the state.