Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Does Beginning Foreign Language in Kindergarten Make a Difference? Results of One District's Study

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Does Beginning Foreign Language in Kindergarten Make a Difference? Results of One District's Study

Article excerpt

Abstract: Educators have generally believed that foreign language instruction should begin in kindergarten or earlier to promote optimum oral language development (e.g., Abbott, 1998; Curtain & Dahlberg, 2010; Rhodes & Pufahl, 2010; Rosenbusch, 1991; Swender & Duncan, 1998). This article describes two Spanish programs in the Westport (Connecticut) Public Schools district: their new, long-sequence K-8 program and the short-sequence Grade 5-8 program it replaced. A five-year study examined students' oral and listening comprehension proficiency levels in each program at the end of Grades 5 and 8. Results at these grade levels were compared to determine program effectiveness. Students who began in kindergarten attained statistically higher proficiency levels than those who began in Grade 5. This longitudinal study strongly supports school-based language instruction beginning in kindergarten.

Key words: Spanish, early language learning, elementary/middle school Spanish, K-8 articulated language program, language assessment, oral proficiency development

Introduction

In 1999, the Westport (Connecticut) Public Schools (WPS) district language program coordinators, with school board of educa- tion approval and with support from administrators, parents, and teachers, made plans to expand their Spanish lan- guage program to include all of the elementary school grades in an articulated K-8 program (Rice, 2006, 2009). Early in the planning stages, administrators decided that data would be gathered from both the new long-sequence program and the exist- ing Grade 5-8 program to determine whether the new program was more effec- tive than the short-sequence program in developing students' Spanish oral and listening comprehension proficiency.

The district's decision to begin language study in kindergarten was based on recom- mendations from experts in foreign/world language education with whom they had consulted. Recognizing that research had been inconclusive with regard to the question of optimum age to begin language study, the district administrators wanted to examine this question in the context of their own district (L. Shain, personal communi- cation, January 3, 2013).

Background

The Short-Sequence Grade 5-8 Spanish Program

In the early 1980s, WPS established a middle school language program that gave students the option of taking French or Spanish in Grades 6-8. In 1993, Spanish instruction for all students in Grade 5 in the five district elementary schools was added, resulting in the short-sequence Grade 5-8 program model that operated through 2008. At the middle school level, students could still choose between Spanish or French in Grade 6 and would then continue with their language of choice through Grade 8. Students in Grade 5 received 30 minutes of Spanish instruction every day; in Grades 6-8, classes met for 42 minutes daily. District staff designed a curriculum that integrated speaking, listening, reading, writ- ing, and cross-cultural understanding, with emphasis on communication.

The Long-Sequence K-8 Spanish Program

In the 2000-2001 academic year, the new long-sequence K-8 Spanish program began operation in the five elementary schools, beginning with kindergarten and adding a grade level each year through Grade 5. At no time did both programs operate at the same grade level. That is, the short-sequence Grade 5-8 program continued to operate while Grades Κ through 4 were added year by year. When Grade 5 in the K-8 program became operational in the 2005-2006 academic year as part of the long-sequence program, the short-sequence Grade 5 was phased out. This process continued in Grades 6-8 until 2009, when the long-sequence K-8 Spanish pro- gram completely replaced the short-sequence Grade 5-8 Spanish program. The first and second cohorts of the new long-sequence K-8 Spanish program as well as the final cohort of the short-sequence Grade 5-8 Spanish program are the focus of this study (see Table 1). …

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