Why I’m Passionate About Early Literacy

Patricia Garcia-Arena

Imagine you are three years old. While you have lived in the United States for your entire life, your parents are immigrants, and you only speak Spanish at home. At school, everyone speaks English. You understand some things, but not everything. You don’t feel like you fit in, so you remain quiet most of the time. Instead of interacting with your classmates, you sit along the outsides of your classroom and you observe.

Image of Patricia Garcia-Arena as a childThis was me. My parents, both physicians, emigrated from Paraguay to the United States during the Vietnam War. They were the adventurers in their families—the only ones to ever take a trip or fly on a plane. At the time, the U.S. needed physicians, so they were able to get their residency and green cards rather easily, compared to the process now.

South Bend, Indiana, where my family eventually settled, didn’t have many immigrants or people who spoke a language other than English at the time. We were different from the very beginning. My parents spoke English in their work as physicians, but at home, we only spoke Spanish and ate Paraguayan food. To us, this was like living in a small South America of our own making. This was also one of the ways my parents kept ties to the family they had left behind in Paraguay.

While I was soft-spoken and shy in preschool, I was a chatterbox with my mom as we drove home from school, telling her about my day. Thinking about it now, I probably talked so much so I could get out everything I’d been holding in during those four hours in school. Considering that I had so much to say, I now know that I was learning in preschool, even if I never said very much while I was there.

I had many positive experiences later in my education. When I went to elementary school, I met my best friend, a classmate who was Mexican and spoke Spanish. We played together a lot, finding common ground with our families both speaking a language other than English and having different cultures than other students. Any time we would learn about other cultures in school or get to bring something from our home culture to the classroom, I felt a lot of pride. When we celebrated holidays and had a chance to bring food from home, I would feel like, “This is my chance to really show how special my family is.”

Yet, especially in those early school years, I lacked confidence in my reading and literacy skills. I didn’t like reading aloud. I didn’t have fluency. But at the beginning of fourth grade, something just clicked. I was suddenly able to decode text and comprehend complete sentences and see how the sentences were connected. I could write complete sentences and get the right answers to questions from context clues.

Providing a Solid Foundation for English Learners

Research shows that it takes three to five years for an English learner to be on par with native English speakers, so it’s not surprising that it took me that long. Even so, I always worked hard—and I have never given up easily. I followed directions and did the extra credit assignments. I had a lot of support from home. My parents read to me and my brothers every night at home, mostly books in English. My favorite book at the time was Don’t Forget the Oatmeal!, about Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie going to the supermarket. In elementary school, my parents made sure I did my homework and checked my folder. They went to parent-teacher conferences. My teachers always cared about me and wanted me to do well.

About the COLLTS Program
Cultivating Oral Language and Literacy Talent in Students (COLLTS) is an evidence-based, research-backed, and classroom-tested language and literacy program. It includes six units in English and six units in Spanish that correspond to high-quality literary and informational children’s books, along with teaching guides, writing activities, picture cards with key vocabulary words, and family engagement activities. COLLTS builds in professional learning, so teachers can apply the program’s instructional strategies to any book.

In an intervention study, children who participated in the COLLTS program showed significantly larger gains in oral language than children in control classrooms.

Learn More
New Dual Language PreK Program

I’ve been thinking a lot about my early literacy experiences in my work as a developer, translator, and now marketing lead on AIR’s evidence-based early literacy program for three-year-olds, called Cultivating Oral Language and Literacy Talent in Students (COLLTS). What if my teachers back in the 1970s and 1980s had had the type of curriculum and training that the COLLTS program offers now? What if preschool teachers had a toolkit to help children like me make the connection between vocabulary words in Spanish and English—and help me better comprehend the texts we were reading? What if they could have understood and leveraged my strengths in literacy from my home language? Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so disconnected in those first few years.

That’s what always excited me about this project. Classrooms today have many English learners who speak many languages. Teachers recognize that being bilingual or multilingual is an asset. But the way I grew up, as the only English learner in the classroom, is not the norm today. It’s much harder for teachers now. They might have 20 of their 30 students speaking 12 different languages, coming from different experiences.

The COLLTS curriculum, targeted instructional strategies, and teacher-friendly materials give teachers a variety of tools to help children who might speak a language other than English at home or are coming into a completely new environment. The program embeds learning about other cultures into the curriculum, rather than as one-off special days or holidays. Those little things can make such a big difference in your social-emotional well-being and how you feel about yourself at such a young age—let alone the academic benefits.

The COLLTS program provides many strategies to adapt to the different experiences and needs of English learners, including interactive reading, singing, chanting, movement, and visuals. When teachers present content in a variety of ways, children have multiple opportunities to engage with and practice language. These strategies are just as powerful for native English-speaking children.

I was very lucky growing up. Both of my parents had good jobs and were in positions of power as physicians. And they had resources that many immigrants don’t have. But I have never met an immigrant family—regardless of their circumstances—who didn’t want their children to succeed. The story of hard work and perseverance is ingrained in every immigrant child’s head. And I know teachers care about their students, too, and want them to learn. The COLLTS program is a great tool to help them provide preschoolers with a solid foundation in oral language and literacy—a foundation they will carry with them throughout their lives.