COLUMBIA — No English is spoken at Rock Bridge Preschool on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
One Thursday afternoon, teacher Natalia Prats was dropping gummy bears into the hands of a half-dozen preschoolers.
She made eye contact as she counted the treats: “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco.”
Patiently she waited for each child to repeat the numbers, then nodded emphatically. “Muy bien! Excellente!”
Prats, who grew up in Puerto Rico, started the after-school class in August. At the time, she was looking for a way to help her 2-year-old son, Adrian, improve his own Spanish skills.
“I was getting concerned that he wasn't talking in Spanish as I would have wanted him to,” Prats said. “And I wanted to create an environment where he could be in a social setting where people speak with him.”
Bilingual herself, she recognizes that fluency in languages offers future opportunities and is best learned as a child.
“I believe it creates cultural awareness and expands your possibilities of communication," she said. "I want my son to have that, and I'm sure a lot of parents want that for their children too.”
Numerous websites and studies quote an Associated Press report which found that 66 percent of children worldwide are raised speaking two languages — but only 6.3 percent of children in the U.S. are bilingual.
Advantages of teaching children another language have been documented in a number of studies, including one by the New York Times, which finds that there are advantages beyond giving students a broader world view.
A 2008 study by the University of Washington found that bilingual children are better able to manage competing demands. These children have a “significant” advantage when it comes to “tasks that appear to call for managing conflicting attentional demands.”
A 2010 study of bilingual children in Taiwan found that being bilingual fostered reading readiness. So-called phonological awareness improved reading skills in both Mandarin Chinese and English for these children.
Critics have argued that two languages can cause confusion in children. A 2009 study at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, determined, however, that even babies exposed to different languages recognize verbal cues better than their one-language peers.
Prats uses a natural approach to teach Spanish — a method pioneered by language-acquisition researcher Stephen Krashen. His techniques encourage children to speak Spanish through reading, dancing and singing.
Prats said she uses another technique called total physical response, devised by psychologist James Asher. After watching children learn a language from the parents, Asher discovered the interaction usually involved words from a parent followed by a physical response from the children.
In her class, Prats may call out a word or an action in Spanish, then ask the children to act it out. She learned these techniques while reading and researching for the class, but she said that the choice comes “instinctively” when teaching.
She credits the teaching team at the preschool for allowing her to pursue and develop the plan.
“I was lucky enough to have teachers here to sponsor the time and space for the program,” she said.
Originally from San Juan, 32-year-old Prats came to the U.S. in 2010 to marry an American she met in Puerto Rico. Both of her parents are educators.
She initially studied at Commonwealth-Parkville School, a private English-speaking school in Puerto Rico.
“I was introduced to this school because my father became a director there,” she said. “And my mother worked there as a kindergarten teacher. I was privileged enough to study there.”
She entered the University of Puerto Rico as a theater major, but soon recognized her passion for teaching and ended up with a degree in education and social studies.
“I had all these things I wanted to do in my mind,” Prats said. “But the core of them all was that I wanted to be around people, exchange ideas, and educate others and myself. That was what inspired me to go for teaching.”
She returned to Commonwealth High School, where she worked as a history teacher for nine years, developing courses in human rights and debate. She also taught English on weekends to children aged 4 to 6.
Prats met her husband, Jefferey Owens, in 2009, and the couple moved to St. Louis, where Owens' family lives, to get married.
After moving to Hartsburg, Prats thought about becoming a stay-at-home mom but discovered Rock Bridge Preschool. Christine McCollum, the director of the preschool, offered her a job. About five months later, Prats became a co-director.
“My son is in my class,” Prats smiled. “He knows there's a distinction though. At first it was difficult for him to understand that, but he's doing much better now.”
Darrin Young, a parent of 2 1/2-year-old twin girls in Prats' Spanish class, enrolled his daughters in the program this semester.
"My daughters actually go to a different preschool, but their little brother goes to Rock Bridge Preschool," Young explained.
Young said Prats' love for children and ability to relate to them seem to create positive energy in the class.
"I thought the Spanish class would be a perfect chance for the girls to learn new things," he said, "and also a second language."