Spanish-speaking students learn English with help of in-class translators

Spanish Language Internship Program tutor Victora Reackhoff translates for seventh grader Brian in his science class at Slauson Middle School. SLIP tutors are University of Michigan students who provide in-class translation for AAPS students who are learning English.

By Tara Cavanaugh, AAPS News Service

The Spanish Language Internship Program at the University of Michigan provides student translators in many local organizations, such as health clinics, Head Start, and now the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

In a new partnership between AAPS Partners for Excellence and SLIP, U-M students provide in-class translation for some elementary and middle school students who are learning English.

Those AAPS students spend part of their week in ESL instruction, but they also spend time in regular classrooms. English-only instruction can be confusing for students who are still building their English language skills, so the U-M translators sit with the students in class and help them follow along.

“That way the students are able to grasp what the teacher’s doing and not just sit there, not understanding anything during that bridging period,” said Teresa Sanchez-Snell, SLIP coordinator.

The student translators come from many academic disciplines, and some of them are native speakers.

Jennifer Pisonero, a pre-med student who hopes to be an ophthalmologist, moved to Michigan from Cuba when she was in high school. She remembers sitting in a classroom and not understanding the language or the lesson.

“It was really hard to follow the teacher, what they were talking about. To have someone there to explain what you’re supposed to do is so convenient,” Pisonero said.

That’s why she jumped at the opportunity to translate for the SLIP program. Pisonero, a busy student carrying an 18-credit load, goes to Pattengill Elementary for a few hours every Tuesday to help a fifth grader who recently arrived from Mexico.

“She really needs this one-on-one with someone,” Pisonero said. “In the classroom it’s so hard for her to pay attention. But if she has someone there telling her what she’s supposed to do, she does follow.”

Pisonero uses translating as a teaching tool, not as a crutch. “She’s learning the English at the same time,” she said.

The translators are especially helpful in math and science classes, where technical terms are often used. Kristen Workman, a seventh grade science teacher at Slauson Middle School, said her student Brian Maldonado has been greatly helped by his SLIP tutor Victoria Reackof.

“In science, you’re using other languages too, terms in Latin and Greek,” Workman said. “I couldn’t imagine trying to learn another language in that setting.”

The U-M translators also benefit from participating in SLIP. “It’s a two-way street,” Sanchez-Snell said. “You give and you get back.” Many of the student translators improve their Spanish skills, and they can translate in increasingly difficult situations as their language skills improve. Each semester they provide tutoring services through SLIP, they earn class credit.

The partnership between AAPS and SLIP began with one student last semester, and now five district students benefit from the translating services.

“I’m really happy about this new partnership that we have with the schools,” Sanchez-Snell said. “It’s another way for our students to really engage and give back to the community.”

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