Spread the Word: As Support for Foreign Language Learning in Elementary Schools Grows, Experts in the Field Urge Districts to Look, Listen and Learn-Since a Well-Planned Program Is the Best Recipe for Success. (Early Education)

Article excerpt

It's not uncommon for administrators to look back on their own educational experiences when making decisions. But when it comes to the experience of foreign language classes, the memories often shed dark light over a bright idea.

"I took four years of French and I can't speak a word of it!" is a common initial reaction when educators initiate a discussion on longer foreign language sequences.

Research has confirmed the many benefits of starting language learning early, which include the ability to develop near-native fluency of another language, improved overall school performance, and a competitive advantage in today's international workplace. While most administrators claim to be supporters of the subject, foreign language experts find themselves fighting an uphill battle for recognition, funding and support. Adding the shortage of qualified teachers to the mix, districts thinking of implementing a foreign language program at the elementary level discover that they have lots to learn.

The past vs. present

You're not likely to come across anyone pining away for the good ol' days of word-ending memorization drills in language class; foreign language horror stories abound. Those who learned foreign language in elementary school in the `50s and `60s may not be surprised to learn that the methodology was derived from the way military personnel were taught a second language. Dialogues and word inflection recitation were the methods of the day.

These methods, needless to say, did not hold the interest of young children. Other reasons the programs disappeared were a lack of language teachers qualified to teach in the early grades, inadequate instructional materials, unrealistic program goals, lack of articulation among grade levels, not enough funding, and lack of evaluation methods for programs, students and teachers.

When early foreign language learning started its comeback in the late `80s, teaching methods reflected what educators now know about how children learn. "The new methods are sensitive to different learning styles and the emotional aspect of language learning," says Patricia Paulsell, co-director of the Center for Language Education And Research at Michigan State University. Teachers move around the classroom during lessons, engaging every student in the learning process.

For example, students are given commands in the target language ("Touch your nose," "Sit down," etc.) that they respond to with actions. Or they might brainstorm ideas related to a particular topic, and then break the final list into categories.

Props are big, too. Charlene Polio, associate professor of English at Michigan State and a CLEAR summer workshop teacher, encourages language teachers to use authentic materials--such as songs, storybooks, advertisements, product packaging or pictures of street signs--in the classroom to help motivate students. Christine Brown, who is foreign language director for Glastonbury (Conn.) Public Schools, explains that a teacher might bring in a basket filled with fruit to share for a unit on taste. For a clothing unit, a clothesline might be strung across the classroom. In fact, foreign language classes are typically so much fun that teachers in neighboring classrooms have been known to complain about the noise level, says Jane Smith, who teaches K-8 Spanish in the New Hampshire district SAU 13. In a language classroom, noise is welcomed--it signals excitement about learning.

The National Language Standards developed in 1995 by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reflect the changed views of language learning. Curriculum arranged by grammar concepts is yesterday's news. Today's content is centered around the "five C's"--communities, communication, cultures, connections (to other subjects) and comparisons (with other cultures and languages).

Elementary schools have three general program model options: immersion, FLES (foreign language in elementary schools) and FLEX (foreign language exploratory). …