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May 16, 2007

Ravenswood English seeks to expose English-learners to rich language

By Chelsea Anne Young

"We always are asking the schools, 'We want your neediest, your most difficult students who've just arrived and have zero English,'" says Guadalupe Valdes, professor of education and of Spanish and Portuguese.

Valdes, the Bonnie Katz Tenenbaum Professor of Education, specializes in bilingualism of Latinos in the United States. She is the founder of Ravenswood English, a volunteer program on campus that seeks to expose elementary school English learners to extended interactions in English. Begun in 2003 as a collaboration between the School of Education and the Haas Center for Public Service, Ravenswood English integrates volunteer service and research to support children whose English skills are the most limited.

Ravenswood English started at Green Oaks Elementary School in East Palo Alto, with Stanford undergraduate and graduate students serving as the volunteers. The program generally attracts around a dozen volunteers per quarter, with some returning several times. In February, Valdes began a new program at Belle Haven Community School in Menlo Park and is seeking adult volunteers to be tutors there.

For 98 percent of students at Green Oaks, English is their second language, according to Valdes. "If it's 98 percent Spanish speakers, everybody speaks to everybody else in Spanish. Why? Because that's the language that you speak the best and because you're thought of as really weird if you go around trying to speak to your friends in English," explains Valdes, who once followed a group of middle school students for two years to observe their daily interactions.

The students come from families that recently relocated from Spanish-speaking countries, such as Mexico. Although many of their parents attend language classes, they often make little progress because they commonly work with other Spanish speakers and have little exposure to English. Conversations in English are commonly limited to financial transactions, such as buying an item at a store, or other brief exchanges. "No one really talks to them in rich language because they are always surrounded by other learners," says Valdes. "Even though they go to classes, their language develops very slowly."

Furthermore, immigrant families tend to live in areas where housing is most affordable, which can further isolate them and their children from English exposure.

Valdes compares the situation of an immigrant in California to that of a Stanford student going abroad. "If they go to Florence, if they cluster with all the American students they don't make as much progress in Italian as they might have wished," says Valdes. Without real-world, everyday exposure to a language, a person's skills develop slowly.

Although the children served by Ravenswood English live mainly in a Spanish-speaking world, their classroom teachers are required by law to speak only in English—and that may prevent students from reaching their full academic potential. "It could be that intellectually those kids could grasp those concepts," Valdes explains, "but there's a language barrier."

"As a country, you have two choices if the children don't speak the societal language," asserts Valdes. "You either don't educate them, and that's not a choice for us, or you try to make do with the fact that children do not speak the language and they're going to need support."

Ravenswood English seeks to provide that by pairing native English speakers, known as English buddies, with students recommended by their teachers. Volunteers use simple books, songs and games to expose students to English and encourage them to practice their speaking and listening skills. English buddies may ask questions requiring one-word answers, such as, "What color is this dress?" The volunteers frequently repeat words, talk in theatrical voices or use exaggerated gestures or facial expressions to keep the students engaged. Volunteers generally speak only in English and are not required to know Spanish to participate in the program.

To maximize their effectiveness, Valdes requires her undergraduate volunteers to attend training sessions every other week and frequently videotapes them interacting with their students. "There's a whole lot of training to be done preparing students to talk the way they were spoken to when they were very little children by their moms," she explains.

Furthermore, Valdes and her team of doctoral students, who are former elementary school teachers, take detailed notes on each of the volunteers during school visits. Based on their observations, the team suggests ways in which the volunteers can better support the children in their English-language development.

Unlike many volunteer programs, Ravenswood English also involves a research component. Participating children are given a pre-assessment and a post-assessment, and some are tracked through the program for several years so that their improvement can be measured. Valdes believes that the program does play a positive role in developing students' English skills, although this has been difficult to determine because little comparative data exists regarding bilingual education in California.

Doctoral students Sarah Capitelli and Laura Alvarez, who are closely involved with the program, prepare tutor coordinators to work with volunteers and carry out the training sessions.

For the new program at Belle Haven, where Valdes says 80 percent of the kids are English language-learners, she wants to recruit local adults to serve as English buddies.

"The children really love the young people," she says. "But we now are at a point in our project where we need to also work with people who will be there long term, so that they can stay with the children for a whole year."

Valdes expects that parents, who may have learned how to engage young children while reading to their own sons and daughters, could be very effective in working with young English-language learners. Currently, the Belle Haven program has three adult volunteers. One of them, Patricia Adams, began volunteering with Ravenswood English after reading a flier in a coffee shop at the Sharon Heights Shopping Center. "I just go and have a good time," she says. "It's just like playing with my grandchildren."

Adams, who works with a young girl named Kenia, emphasizes the importance of constantly trying new activities to keep the students engaged. "She's pretty easily distracted," Adams says. "A lot of it's just kind of indirect teaching. You can be creative. It's more fun that way."

While Kenia was originally very shy, Adams says she has begun to open up. "I think maybe she's not naturally shy," she says. "It's just in the circumstances of speaking a foreign language."

Valdes wants to encourage this kind of personal connection. From the point of view of the student, having a close connection with an English speaker can make a world of difference. "You realize that these are really good people and they really care about you," she says. "I think both sides really benefit from spending time together," added Capitelli.

Exposure to volunteers allows the students to connect with members of society with whom they would otherwise rarely interact, Valdes says, adding, "They now know what a U.S. English-speaking American is like. That's going to change their lives, I think in significant ways."

Adults interested in volunteering with Ravenswood English should contact her at

Chelsea Anne Young is a science-writing intern at Stanford News Service.

Editor Note:

Science-writing intern Chelsea Anne Young wrote this release.



Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224,


Guadalupe Valdes, School of Education: (650) 725-1469,

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