EAST PROVIDENCE — While students attending St. Mary Academy-Bay View’s new pre-kindergarten for 3-year-olds continue to develop their English-speaking skills, they are learning a second language.
"Help me find my friend that flies!" asked Dora, a bilingual doll that speaks English and Spanish, and is used to teach basic vocabulary skills at Bay View.
The eight children smiled and joyfully replied “mariposa” as they sat on a colorful learning-center rug covered with symbols and words in Spanish and English.
The children laughed, clapped their hands and rolled around on the carpet as their classroom teacher Nancy Parella smiles and Spanish teacher Mercy Sister Sheila Harrington cheered on.
Sister Harrington then took a collection of stuffed animals, including "la mariposa," "la estrella" and "el pajarito" out of a white shopping bag, and the children took turns putting the butterfly, the star and the baby bird on Dora's hand. The 3-year-olds energetically pointed to "la luna," the moon, "diez," ten and "la casa," house on the rug, which is shaded with assorted colors.
Spanish immersion into Spanish has been an important part of the Bay View elementary curriculum for many years. Cynthia Lorincz, principal of the elementary and middle schools at Bay View, said most of the school's students have a solid foundation in Spanish reading and composition skills by the time they reach fifth grade.
"The goal for the 3-year-olds is for them to know their colors, count, learn the Spanish alphabet and letter recognition," said Lorincz. Lorincz said Bay View's students are taught Spanish in the middle school, and then could select from Spanish, Italian, Latin, French, Portuguese and Arabic in the high school.
Sister Harrington said her hands-on, visual and animated approach in teaching Spanish to the 3-year-olds keeps them attentive. The students attend Spanish class twice a week, and lessons last a half-hour each day. "I try to use the natural approach, because that is the job parents do. Using vocabulary is a common experience for children. I am trying to speak lots of Spanish to them — even if they don't understand it," said Sister Harrington.
The religious sister has taught Spanish at Bay View to the elementary school students for eight years, and previously served as a missionary in Honduras for 12 years.
Sister Harrington said Bay View introduces Spanish to its pre-kindergartners with visuals and short stories. As the students mature, they are introduced to flash cards and videos, and begin reading in the second grade.
She added that first-graders learn the Hail Mary and Our Father in Spanish.
"Most studies say the optimum time is in childhood to learn a second language, because the brain takes sounds in as it hears it then. The best time to teach them another language is when they are 3- to 6-years-old," said Sister Harrington.
The classroom walls are adorned with Spanish-language posters. A tabletop display proclaimed that September is "La Herencia Hispánica" — Hispanic Heritage month. "We are trying to educate kids with experience and to celebrate cultures. Part of the Bay View mission is to teach girls to become part of the global community, and learning a second language creates an entrance in the world to them," said Sister Harrington.
Lorincz said she speaks Spanish with the 3-year-olds as well so they understand how important it is to learn a second language. "Toddlers' brains are engaged in learning languages. There are language sounds called phonemics, which are the essential sounds of language," said Lorincz.
Sister Harrington said the goal for the 3-year-olds is to learn basic commands such as “buenas días” by June.