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Teaching the Silent Student

Thousands of children are entering school with a daunting, yet little-studied problem--they haven't learned to speak. Experts suspect language barriers and poverty play a role.


Jesy Moreno started school last fall, a lucky recipient of one of the limited public preschool spots in Los Angeles. But one thing immediately set the small boy apart from most of his classmates: At age 4 1/2, Jesy hardly spoke.

He could utter a few words--mostly names of family members--and he understood some of what was said to him. But carrying on a conversation was impossible, and he could not follow the simplest instructions.

There are thousands of youngsters like Jesy in Southern California--children who are not mentally retarded yet enter school lacking rudimentary communication skills.

They are called "non-nons" by the Los Angeles Unified School District--nonverbal in both English and in their native language. More than 6,800 students entering preschool, kindergarten and first grade scored at the "non-non" level last year. The volume surprised administrators of the 650,000-student district, who learned the scope of the problem only after a computer analysis of individual school tallies was requested by The Times.

The number of incoming non-nons has risen about 7% from two years ago, posing daunting problems for the already overburdened system.

Expressed simply: The less children speak, the more limited their comprehension and vocabulary and the harder it is for them to learn to read and write, not to mention navigate the social complexities of school.

Even now, after a year of concentrated effort by his teachers at Fenton Avenue Elementary in Lake View Terrace, Jesy cannot count to 10 or name the colors in the classroom's crayon box. When another boy stole the wheels from a truck he had built, Jesy could not find the words to tell the teacher what had happened.

"Tell me, Jesy, what's wrong?" Maria Dolinsky asked in Spanish, crouching to his level and over-enunciating her words, a practice everyone in the classroom follows with him.

"Ah, ah, toda llanta," he answered haltingly. Um, um, all tire.

Although non-nons have never been studied formally, educators across the nation say students with similar problems are arriving at schools in other large urban areas--including Miami, Chicago and New York--as well as in smaller districts along the Mexican border.

They characterize children like Jesy as the extreme of a more commonly recognized decline in early language development, which they blame on a combination of problems related to poverty: family illiteracy, poor prenatal care, malnutrition, neglect and sometimes abuse.

They acknowledge that the size of the phenomenon remains unknown. More than 8% of students entering Los Angeles Unified preschool, kindergarten and first grade tested as nonverbal last year. There undoubtedly were more because the language assessment that identified them is given only to non-English speakers, since it is intended to determine whether students need bilingual education.

Observers believe the problem may be more severe among immigrant children, who face language confusion and other obstacles.

"You sometimes also have the double jeopardy of parents trying to teach them in English when they don't speak it well. Those parents limit their conversation and the topics they speak about with their kids," said Mercedes Toural, director of bilingual programs in Dade County, Fla., where individual schools are dealing with nonverbal youngsters but do not report their numbers to the district.

Teachers who have worked with non-nons believe the triggers often are less deliberate: The students tend to live in multifamily households, where making sure children are seen and not heard is a matter of courtesy if not sanity. No adults converse with them at the dinner table or read them books at bedtime. No one is building on whatever vocabulary they absorb from overhearing conversations, communicating with siblings and watching television.

"The problem is they have struggling parents who do not talk to them very much," Dolinsky said. "They have the language in their brains, but they haven't been able to share it."

Some linguists doubt that being ignored is enough to seriously hinder speech development, which many consider a natural process that only can be thwarted by brain damage, a speech impediment or a learning disability.

But others open that theoretical door a crack, or more.

In pioneering research on language development published in 1992, psychologist Janellen Huttenlocher, a University of Chicago professor, found a wide verbal chasm between infants whose mothers spoke to them a lot and those whose mothers were less talkative. Huttenlocher chose only educated, middle-class mothers, she said, so the results could not be discounted as simply a measure of poor parent literacy or low socioeconomic status--factors, she said, that would widen the gap.

Huttenlocher called Los Angeles' nonverbal tally "a huge number and very disturbing--they are seeing the very extreme."


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