Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Middle School Foreign Language Instruction: A Missed Opportunity?

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Middle School Foreign Language Instruction: A Missed Opportunity?

Article excerpt

Abstract: Multiple studies conducted over the past decade have suggested the motivational and proficiency-related benefits of commencing language instruction at an early age. Limitations in many of these studies, however, have prevented their results from being applied to the teaching of foreign languages in the United States. In response to calls for further studies examining the possible benefits of early-start foreign language instruction, the researchers used a mixed methodology to compare the oral proficiency and motivation of two groups of foreign language learners studying Level II French, German, Spanish, or Mandarin. One group consisted of primarily 14-year-old students who began their foreign language studies in middle school, and the other included 15-and 16-year-olds who postponed the onset of their foreign language instruction until high school. Quantitative and qualitative data collected from student surveys, tests scores, and individual interviews suggested both proficiency-related and motivational benefits of commencing language instruction at an early age. Equipped with these much-needed results, foreign language stakeholders should renew their argument to expand early-start foreign language programs in K-12 schools in the United States and to remove the optional nature of foreign language instruction at the middle school level.

Key words: advocacy, age, motivation, oral proficiency

Students in American public schools often have the option to begin foreign language instruction in middle school. Of the estimated 14.7 million students enrolled in a K-12 foreign language class in 2008 in the United States, about 2.3 million attended a middle school (Pufahl & Rhodes, 2011, p. 263). After being initially exposed to foreign language instruction in an exploratory program1 in sixth grade, many of these middle school students choose to pursue language studies for high school Level I credit in seventh and/or eighth grade: In some programs, students can, for example, choose to complete the first half of Level I Spanish in seventh grade and the second half in eighth grade, while in other programs learners can continue their language explorations in seventh grade, then complete the equivalent of a high school Level I course in a language of their choice in eighth grade. Upon successful completion of their middle school studies, these students can then continue with more advanced foreign language instruction at the high school level.

Unfortunately, the results of a national survey conducted by Pufahl and Rhodes (2011) revealed that fewer middle schools are offering foreign language instruction. While 75% of middle schools offered foreign language instruction in 1997, only 58% did so in 2008. In addition, due to the elective nature of foreign language studies in many middle schools, seventh and eighth graders often choose to postpone language learning until secondary school: Data showed that at public middle schools in which foreign language instruction was offered, only 36% of students took advantage of this language learning opportunity in 2008 (Pufahl & Rhodes, 2011, p. 263).

Students' decisions to delay the onset of foreign language instruction until high school raise a number of interesting questions, particularly since multiple studies over the past decade have touted the fits of language learning at an early age. For example, questions may be posed about the comparability of the American educational system to that of other countries. Highlighting that only 9% of American adults can speak more than one language fluently, compared to more than half of their European counterparts, tian, and Rhodes (2005, p. 226) investigated the policies and practices of language programs in 19 different countries. The results suggested that successful language programs in other countries consistently start before high school. In Thailand, for example, students begin studying English in first grade, and in Luxembourg, German is a mandatory subject in first grade. …

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