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Catherine Cavanaugh founds the Spanish Translation Project to help English Language Learners

by Stewart Gross

For the past year, students who are English Language Learners have had  tremendous support in passing high school from Catherine Cavanaugh’s Spanish Translation Project. The Project is a website hosted for free on Wix.com that translates science lessons for Spanish speaking students, and the ELL and subject area teachers who service them.

“I spent a lot of time around ELL students at North Penn High School and noticed that they struggled academically, especially with health and biology,” says the North Penn High School senior.

These science-based classes are a Pennsylvania graduation requirement for students to earn high school diplomas.

Catherine noticed that the science classes are very difficult for ELL students to pass, because the concepts and vocabulary do not readily translate from Spanish to English.

Catherine illustrates this difficulty with a one-word example.

“One good example is the word ‘photosynthesis.’ Photosynthesis is pronounced almost the same exact way in Spanish and English. ELL students have a difficult time with it because the explanation for it in their native language has no context for them in English”

The idea for the project came to Catherine as she began informally visiting the students at study hall and lunch.

“I went into classes during my lunch and study hall periods and began working ELL student. We would meet-up in the Spanish room of Mr. Alejandro Vidal.  The Spanish honor Society runs an ELL tutoring period in Mr. Vidal’s classroom during study hall periods. We have an excellent time. It is a lot of fun and very educational.”

“The first day I came into a session, I was matched with a student and noticed that he need help in biology. I used my knowledge of the Spanish and English vernacular to explain what the words meant. It was understanding the specialized vocabulary words that was most difficult for them.”

Another issue with all ELL students and their teachers is the lack of support provided in the subject area classroom with students throughout the country.

“It is very difficult for ELL students when they are in a classroom with no 1:1 assistance or aid and a teacher who speaks no Spanish. They are immersed into an English class with little in-class support. The North Penn School District is an outstanding school district. Unfortunately, this is the situation for ELL learners in almost all school districts.”

“I was working with a series of students and it really hit me last May that there were many students who needed support after school, because they could not meet in person and discuss in the ELL room. It was a desperate situation for them, because passing the biology and health classes became an issue of graduation or no graduation for these students.”

“I was visiting at my grandmother’s house and met my aunt’s mother, who is originally from Nicaragua. In talking with the family, I came up with the idea of putting translated content online.”

That is when Catherine posted the Spanish Translation Project website as a free domain on Wix.com. It was May of 2020.

“ELL students are able to review daily content lessons. These are posted as Power Point slides. Each lesson is translated into Spanish with diagrams, images, vocabulary lessons, and practice lessons.”

“The site also allows ELL students to sign up for free 1:1 tutoring.”

The tutoring is done with a combination of Spanish Honor Society and National Honor Society students. They do it because they both enjoy helping others and it fulfills requirements of their membership in the societies.

According to Catherine, “The Spanish Honor Society students have to go to at least one 1:1 tutoring session to be a member… National Honor Society students have to do 20 hours of community service per semester, so they do the tutoring if they are also proficient in Spanish. Students from the AP Spanish class who are in both Honor Societies love to do this and they have a blast. There are about 15 students who do this regularly, about once a week.”

The project benefits both ELL students and teachers.

“I estimate that there are 40 ELL users at North Penn High School including the students, ELL staff and staff members who teach the biology and health courses in English. Staff members will many times send me a lesson in English and have me translate it, so that they have it ready to go for in class instruction.”

“And the project is used outside of North Penn School District both nationally and internationally. After looking at our map of users and data we compile, we have users in five countries and 13 US states. In fact we recently had a chemistry professor in Malaysia and high school teachers from upstate New York reach out with requests for supporting their ELL students. There is a sign up form on the website for teachers to reach out and request our help on the Spanish Translation Project site. My Aunt’s mother, who inspired the project, just passed away and she remains the inspiration for continuing the project.  There is a memoriam for her on the site.”

Students and teachers wishing to reach out to the website for help can connect at https://cathcav908.wixsite.com/spanish.

PHOTO CAP: Catherine Cavanaugh (right) with her Honors Spanish teacher, Alejandro Vidal

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