Designing and Implementing an Innovative Foreign Language Program: Reflections from a School District -- University Partnership

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Recent federal legislation enacted in the United States, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, calls for American students to leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having "demonstrated competence over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, [and] foreign languages". Although every European country has a national policy for the introduction of at least one foreign language into the elementary school curriculum of every child (Dickson -- Cumming 1996; Pesola 1992), it is estimated that foreign languages are only offered in approximately 31% of the elementary schools in the United States (Branaman -- Rhodes 1997). However, studies indicate that, as a nation, we are generally receptive to teaching foreign languages in the elementary school. Forty percent of the American population believes that there should be a foreign language requirement in the elementary schools and seventy-five percent think that foreign language study should be an option available in the elementary school (Eddy 1980).

If American students are to leave grades 4, 8 and 12 with demonstrable proficiency in a foreign language, the number of foreign language programs at all levels will need to be significantly expanded and improved. This is particularly true at the elementary level. The importance of including foreign language study in the elementary school is also supported by the research on the amount of instructional time required for developing functional proficiency in a foreign language (Carroll 1967) and by the widely held professional view that language competence can only be achieved in well articulated, sustained sequences of foreign language instruction (Donato -- Terry 1995). By expanding foreign language instruction in the elementary school, students will have an extended opportunity to achieve the goals that have recently been developed and disseminated as the National Standards for Foreign Language Education (1996) and develop truly functional ability in a language other than their first language.

The major objection to incorporating foreign language instruction into the elementary school curriculum seems to be that there is not enough time in the instructional day (Baranick -- Markham 1986). Our present national concerns with systemic educational reform and with competitiveness make this a critical time to explore more fully factors related to the implementation of elementary school foreign language programs. A number of major issues are often raised when considering foreign language education in the elementary school (FLES) for majority language speakers in the United States, that is for speakers of English as a mother tongue: (1) which model of instruction should be implemented -- an immersion or standard FLES model; (2) at what age should foreign language instruction begin; (3) in what language(s) should instruction be offered; (4) what are realistic proficiency expectations for elementary school students studying a given language within a given model; and (5) how can we best assess the language pr oficiency of young children.

The goal of this article is to describe the systematic planning and subsequent implementation and evaluation of a new system-wide Spanish program at the elementary level in a small school district in suburban Pittsburgh, PA. (The system is a relatively small one comprising approximately 2,800 students who come from mostly European-American, working-class families.) In the sections that follow we will briefly discuss: (1) the active participation by all senior administrators including the superintendent in a year-long planning effort that culminated in choice of language, teacher selection, curriculum development and in-service training for all elementary school faculty members, (2) the ways in which the language program which is intended ultimately for all children in the district has been incorporated into the overall curriculum of the district, (3) the status of the current program which is presently nearing its second full year of implementation, and (4) plans for the future. …