Tying the Knot: From Curriculum Planning to Teacher Collaboration across and within Grade Levels, Articulation Keeps a District Foreign Language Program Together. (Focus: Foreign language)(Cover Story)

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The foreign language steering committee at Chartiers Valley School District in suburban Pittsburgh has a lot to talk about. In fact, to describe a typical monthly meeting agenda as ambitious would be an understatement.

A recent meeting opened with a group of K-5 language teachers outlining a proposal for the timing of assessments. Also on the agenda: an update from the middle school principal on the curriculum writing project for her school; an update from the high school foreign language department head about teacher preparation efforts for incoming students; planning for the summer curriculum writing project; and an elementary teacher sharing content-based curriculum strategies with high school teachers.

Katherine Gori, the district's director of instruction whose duties include overseeing the foreign language program, explains that the committee members are fully committed to their goal of ensuring that students learn a second language, and learn it well.

Considering that the committee has been meeting regularly for seven years and some of its members only speak English, this ongoing excitement is no small feat. "I chair this committee but I don't have to remind other people of their responsibilities. They all put their heart and soul into this," Gori says.

The committee formed in response to a vision of the administration, school board, staff, parents, students and community: students need to know a second language. Superintendent Bernard Sulkowski says, "An early bilingual education offers our students an incredible competitive advantage. As we move to a global business environment, our students will be sought after in almost any career field they enter." Besides Gori and Sulkowski, the committee includes principals, foreign language department heads and other language teachers, Richard Donato from the University of Pittsburgh and Richard Tucker from Carnegie Mellon University.

Why such a mix? The district wants a well-articulated program, one where student achievement is based on logical steps to proficiency. And articulation, experts say, should be at the forefront of any district's foreign language program.

Stepping Stones

Articulation has many angles. It means the program is structured for student achievement of the district's goals. Vertical articulation helps students progress logically in fluency as they move through the school system--or as they move to a higher level of the program within their grade. Horizontal articulation is about ensuring teachers of the same grade across a district are teaching similar content in similar ways, so students progressing to the next grade level are in sync.

Articulation issues are especially prevalent in larger districts with more schools, more teachers and more levels within each grade. These districts may also have a large population of students who aren't native English speakers, which in itself requires an articulation strategy.

"Our research has found that it's very easy to start programs in the early grades," says Donato, an associate professor of foreign language education. "As kids progress through the years, getting them up to functional levels of proficiency becomes a challenge. All the little songs kids did in grades 2 and 3 aren't as cute in grades 4 and 5."

And then there's the jump to higher education to consider. Tom Lovik, a professor of German at Michigan State University, says, "There's been an age-old discussion between high school and college programs about articulation. Some of us have tried to bridge the gap over the years." Colleges and universities don't want students who have taken a foreign language for years to start over in that language. Pursuing advanced studies to increase fluency or building on second language learning skills by studying a new language will serve them better.

The bottom line also values articulation. …