Problems in the Teaching of Mexican Child

by: Mrs. L. A. Wilder Taylor
Posted: July 17, 2021

I recommend this 1936 article for two reasons. The reader will find it amusing for its condescending approach to teaching Mexican American children in 1936 how to learn English. But more importantly, I wonder whether any of those methods are still being used in any elementary schools around the country.  Dual-language advocates need to understand why their approach is so essential in certain communities and that disproved alternatives may be in the offing if dual language instruction is rejected.

Reprinted from Texas Outlook, August 1936

IN TEACHING Mexican children the biggest problem to be met is that of late enrollment and irregular attendance.

The first day of school here will be probably twelve children in the first grade.  They learn a few English words and are making rapid strides in learning to read when, at the end of two weeks, about six or seven new pupils enter school.  That does not seem so bad; just start another class.  Eighteen or twenty children in the first grade are not too many even if they are Mexican children who speak no English.

But now the trouble starts.  Each week until about the middle of January there will be a steady dribble of new pupils entering until the enrollment in the first grade alone has reached fifty or sixty or sometimes even seventy.  As if that isn’t enough, irregular attendance begins.  They apparently have legitimate excuses–out of town, sickness, bad colds, hunger.

At the same time there is a noticeable hesitancy in the forward march of achievement. What to do? Progress must not stop or even lag and the late entrants and those attending irregularly are causing just that to happen.  It is enough to drive the teacher frantic.

We have solved the problem partially in our school.  We place all the children in one of these groups, “A,” “B,” and “C.”  The “A” group is our best.  The “C” group is made up of beginners.  The “B” group is the balancing one.

If a child in the “A” group is absent he must report to group “B” when he re-enters school.  If he has not been absent too long he may read with both groups until he has covered the group gone over by the “A’s” during his absence. Then he may drop the “B’s” and be an “A” again.  The Mexican child cannot skip any work.  He cannot catch up alone and there is nobody at home to help him.  If he does not learn the new word and its meaning in the school drill, he simply does not get it.

If a child in the “C” group is precocious he is allowed to read with both the “B’s” and the “C’s” until he is able to keep up with the “B” group alone.  Sometimes a child will pass from the “C” to the “B” and then to the “A” group.  He is usually older than the other members of the groups or else speaks English in his home.

Our “B” group threatens to become a problem within itself.  We are tempted to make two divisions of it, but four groups would be bunglesome and might cause disciplinary problems to arise.

By giving each child individual attention and by shifting him from one group to another as often as is necessary we feel that he has a chance to advance as rapidly as he can without any serous drawback.

WHEN the Mexican children enter our school at the ages of six, seven, and eight, very few of them speak English.  Therefore, the first few days of school are spent in teaching them a few English words.  Action words are easier to teach and easier for the child to learn.

The first word we teach them is RUN.  The teacher pronounces the word several times very slowly and the children repeat it after her until they can say not “lun” or “wun”, but run.  Then the teacher or some child who can speak English says the word RUN and then runs.  Several children in the class are then told to run and also to pronounce the word.  Then the word card RUN is held before the class and is learned to be recognized by sight.  The letters “R,” “r” are printed on the board and the sound given.  The children never fail to recognize the sound of “R” whether it is a capital or small letter if these letters are printed on the board and called a big dog and a little dog that growl alike.

It has been found by experience that if the sounds of letters are taught to the Mexican children they will recognize the words more quickly and enunciate more clearly.  They will look at the word RUN and see that it starts with the sound of a dog growling and will not call it LUN but RUN.

All teachers of Mexican children are familiar with such pronunciation as “goman” (woman) “dis” or “these,” “dat” and “sestar,” and other words that make the English of the Mexican child difficult to be understood.  Teaching them the sounds of letters will overcome this handicap.

Our modern phonics books tell us not to teach sound of letters, and for the normal English-speaking child, for whom presumably the books are written, it is a waste of time.  For the Mexican child who is used to speaking his language with the tip of his tongue, the sounds teach him to use his lips in speaking and to open his mouth wide.  They are tools with which the beginner may work.  The sounds of the beginning letters of words are simply keys with which to unlock the English word.

Frequently children from non-segregated schools are enrolled in our school and we find they are handicapped because they have no knowledge of the sounds of letters.

The next word taught them is HOP.  It is presented in the same manner as was the word “run.”  The sound of “H” “h” is given as that of a tired little boy.  The word cards HOP and RUN are flashed before the children until they do not fail to recognize each readily.  The words dance, clap, walk, stop, sing, sit, fly, laugh, catch, look, march, cry, drink, sleep asleep, skip, stand and set are introduced exactly the same manner and one at a time.

The time element is not considered.  There are days when the children will learn as many as six words during a lesson.  On other days they learn only one.

When they have learned these action words, words from the pre-primer “Bob and Baby Pony,” are flashed.  After having mastered the action words, the words from the pre-primer are learned in a surprisingly short time.  The sentence strips are used next.

By the time the pupils complete the first pre-primer and are ready for the next one, they have acquired a very good working vocabulary.  When the second pre-primer is given them the sentence strips are presented first and a drill on sentences, phrases, and words follow.

When the children have completed three pre-primers, a number of primers and are ready for the first reader, they are taught phonics according to the latest methods.  Their pre-primer drill on sounds of letters is continued also during their stay in the first grade.

This may sound as if it is a slow, tedious process, and it is a case of making haste slowly.  It pays in the end, however, because pupils who enroll when school opens in September and who attend regularly during the year make good second grade pupils by mid-term of the following year instead of staying in the first grade two or three years.  They read rapidly and can tell the story they have read.  Visitors to the school have no trouble understanding them when they speak.

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Mrs. L. A. Wilder Taylor
Reprinted from Texas Outlook, August 1936

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