Earlier Learning, Not So Foreign Dist. 203 Exploring Ways to Teach Kids Languages

Article excerpt

Byline: Melissa Jenco Daily Herald Staff Writer

From weekly classes to intensive all-day programs, a growing number of DuPage County school districts are finding ways to teach foreign language to elementary students.

Those models may prove extremely helpful as Naperville Unit District 203, one of the region's largest school systems, studies options for expanding foreign language instruction for its own young students.

While varying resources, schedules and interest levels have dictated the types of programs districts offer, area educators are quick to agree foreign language instruction is key to preparing students to compete globally.

And, they say, it's never too early start.

"There's plenty of research to back up that foreign language taught at an earlier age is more beneficial than when taught at a later age," says Superintendent Diane Cody of Winfield Elementary District 34.

What isn't always so clear is the best way to provide that instruction.

Two approaches

Naperville is considering two main approaches: teaching foreign language as a distinct subject, or teaching it as one of three types of immersion programs in which students spend half or all of their school day learning other subjects in a foreign language.

District 34 and Hinsdale Elementary District 181 both opt for a traditional foreign language class during the school day.

In Winfield, that means first- through fifth-graders take a mandatory 42-minute Spanish class once a week. While that's less than in some districts, Cody says the program is getting favorable results.

"Reports we receive back from high school Spanish teachers are very positive of the level of achievement from our students," she says. "So we believe it's very effective."

Foreign language is also mandatory in Hinsdale, but it's offered only to fifth-graders, who take either Spanish or French for 25 minutes a day four days a week.

"Optimal would be to offer it at a younger age, which we want to look at, but we're balancing different requirements and programs and subjects we have to offer," says Warren Shillingburg, assistant superintendent for instruction.

Finding time in an already packed school day is a common challenge for districts, including Naperville's. Days are already filled by basics such as math and science along with art, music and electives.

Some districts have circumvented the problem by offering language classes before or after school.

The drawbacks, though, are that not all students can attend after-school programs and, in some districts, parents have to pay additional fees.

Bensenville Elementary District 2 has an optional after-school program for third- through fifth-graders that is outsourced to Spanish Quest but funded by the district.

Michael Heggerty, assistant superintendent for instructional services, says 86 students - roughly 13 percent of the pupils at that grade level - participate. It's worth noting, though, that the district already has a high percentage of Spanish-speaking students. One way to get around the time crunch is to offer an immersion program that involves a partial or full day of learning other subjects in a foreign language. Some districts offer a dual, or two-way, immersion in which native English speakers are in class with students who speak another language. …