ERIC Identifier: ED392246
Publication Date: 1996-02-00
Author: Met, Myriam
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Middle Schools and Foreign Languages: A View for the Future.
During the last two decades, active innovation has characterized the design
and implementation of foreign language instruction in the elementary grades. In
this same period, serious steps have been taken to improve secondary foreign
language programs through a communicative approach to language instruction. This
shift to an orientation toward proficiency, particularly at the high school
level, has had widespread implications for what is taught and how. In contrast,
middle school foreign language programs have received relatively little
attention. Increasing emphasis on early and long sequences of instruction in a
foreign language, combined with the impact of the conversion of junior high
schools to middle schools, necessitates that we take a new look at how foreign
languages are taught at the middle school level. Foreign language instruction in
middle schools will be critical to the success of long sequences in the coming
years, yet little of the foreign language professional literature has addressed
practices appropriate to the middle level.
MIDDLE SCHOOL PHILOSOPHY AND ORGANIZATION AND THE FOREIGN LANGUAGE PROGRAM
Philosophy. Central to the middle school philosophy is
the belief that middle school is not merely a continuation of elementary school,
but rather a unique entity with a mission of its own. Middle school philosophy
also views early adolescence as a time of exploration. In an attempt to design
middle school curricula around the developmental needs of students, the role of
exploratory courses has gained wider support among educators, including an
increased interest in foreign language exploratory courses. Such courses can
play an important role in the foreign language sequence, but many issues remain
to be addressed. Within the foreign language professional community, there is
debate over the role, value, and desired length of exploratory programs. For
contrasting viewpoints, see Kennedy & De Lorenzo (1994) and Knop & Sandrock (1994). For students entering middle school with previous foreign
language experience at the elementary school, there have been questions
regarding how and whether students should enter the exploratory program, yet
still be given opportunities to continue foreign language study in an
articulated, sequenced course. In some areas, administrators have interpreted
middle school philosophy to exclude sequential courses or have substituted
exploratory programs for long-standing sequential programs.
Organization. Unlike elementary schools, where students spend most of their
day with one teacher, or high schools, where students follow individual
schedules with six or seven teachers a day, middle schools are most often
organized around interdisciplinary teams. Teams usually consist of four or five
teachers who serve 100-200 students. Generally, the core team consists of
teachers of mathematics, science, social studies, and English/reading/language
arts. These teams meet daily to plan and deliver instruction to meet the
requirements of the curriculum. Often, foreign language teachers are not
included in the team, and many feel excluded from the heart of the school's
mission. Some schools have worked to rectify this problem by including foreign
language teachers as part of the core team.
INTERDISCIPLINARY UNITS AND THE FOREIGN LANGUAGE
Interdisciplinary instruction is increasingly popular at the
middle school level because of growing recognition that learning is improved
when students are able to understand the underlying relationships that connect
what they are taught from one class period to the next. When objectives and
content can be integrated, it is likely that greater student learning will be
attained. Among the strategies for integrating instruction in different
disciplines are thematic units, curricular connections, and thinking skills
Thematic Units. In this approach, the most common in middle schools today,
all teachers on the team organize the content and skills of their discipline
around a predetermined theme. Team-wide thematic units have caused concern for
teachers who see certain themes as incongruent with the objectives of their
discipline. This is particularly true in subjects such as mathematics and
foreign languages, where teachers tend to view their objectives as sequential
and hierarchical, with little flexibility about what should be taught and when.
Nonetheless, many creative teachers are finding ways to contribute to thematic
Curricular Connections. Teachers can make connections when two or more
disciplines coincide. For example, Spanish teachers may teach certain culture
objectives when social studies teachers are working on a unit on Latin America.
The teachers may agree to teach their individual yet complementary units at the
same time, or they may plan jointly to ensure mutual reinforcement and
While curricular connections are apparent in some subjects, others are less
obvious. Many innovative foreign language teachers are creating curricular
connections as a viable approach to interdisciplinary instruction. For example,
to connect foreign language and mathematics objectives, students who are working
on a food unit in French can calculate the average and median price per pound of
meat by comparing prices in grocery ads.
Thinking Skills Development. Teachers from two or more disciplines may focus
on teaching students designated learning strategies or thinking skills as part
of the content of each discipline. For example, both foreign language and
English teachers can use a process approach to writing to ensure that students
draw on the same skills and strategies when composing in either language.
MIDDLE SCHOOL FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNERS
students are characterized by a number of developmental change--physical,
social, emotional, and cognitive. These changes and the feelings they bring
about have implications for foreign language instruction. Great care should be
exercised in activities that require students to generate physical descriptions
or comparisons. Students may feel awkward about their appearance, may be
reluctant to stand before the class for individual presentations, and should be
allowed more sheltered opportunities such as small group or student-teacher
interaction. The need for movement necessitates activities that physically
engage students. Hands-on materials and manipulatives provide opportunities for
movement while addressing the needs of kinesthetic and tactile learners. Group
work allows students to move about the room. In middle school classrooms, it is
not unusual to see small groups of students stretched out or seated on the
Piaget has suggested that the middle years are the time children move from
the stage of concrete to formal operations. How new concepts are acquired will
be influenced by maturational development. The difficulty many middle school
students experience in mastering abstract grammar concepts may not be as much a
reflection of aptitude as of cognitive maturity. These students will benefit
more from concrete experiences, such as vocabulary presented through direct
experiences, manipulation of real objects, and pictures, all set in a meaningful
MIDDLE SCHOOL STRATEGIES
Curriculum trends across
disciplines affect instructional strategies for teaching foreign languages in
middle schools. Two important trends are performance-based instruction and
Performance-Based Instruction. This type of instruction focuses on what
students can do with what they know. The proficiency movement, which has driven
foreign language reform in the last decade, is performance based. In middle
school foreign language settings, classroom activities that engage students in
meaningful and purposeful language use should predominate.
Anecdotal reports suggest that in middle schools where a proficiency-based
approach is used, a larger and more diverse population of students is
experiencing success. In one school district where proficiency-based curriculum
instruction was introduced in the 1980s, enrollment of middle school students
had climbed dramatically. In 1993, the National Council of State Supervisors of
Foreign Languages adopted a position statement on foreign language programs. The
appendix of the document advocates proficiency-oriented language instruction,
calling for proficiency-oriented goals and techniques and proficiency-based
curricula, including content-based teaching.
Constructivism. Constructivist theory emphasizes the importance of the
learner's active construction of knowledge and the interplay between new
knowledge and the learner's prior knowledge. Effective foreign language
instruction at the middle school level will provide opportunities for students
to construct and create their own understanding of how to make meaning from what
they hear and read, and how they use their understanding to construct and create
their own meanings in speech and writing. In order to construct knowledge of a
new language, students need exposure to the target language. This exposure makes
the transmission of meaning in second languages accessible and understandable to
students. Internalizing the relationship between meaning and the forms used to
convey it is essential for production; students cannot spontaneously produce
language they do not understand. In the first phase of internalization, students
learn to understand what is heard by matching meaning with language. Learners
need to notice features in the input (vocabulary, syntax, discourse markers) to
which they can assign meanings. Through a carefully implemented sequence of
instructional activities, students can be assisted to move through the
construction of meaning. Students should be provided with comprehensible
examples of new structures as used in authentic situations and extended spoken
and written texts, as well as many opportunities to hear, understand, and match
language with meaning.
CURRICULUM AND MATERIALS FOR THE MIDDLE SCHOOL
for middle school foreign language programs should reflect the developmental
characteristics of learners and be consistent with current trends in
instruction. Textbooks and materials should set accessible goals that provide
students with a sense of accomplishment and closure. In addition:
* Materials should be age appropriate and flexible enough to accommodate the
diversity found in middle schools.
* Materials need to reflect a variety of learning styles, interests,
abilities, attention spans, and backgrounds.
* Activities should reinforce positive aspects of students' self-image.
* Learning should be made concrete through contextualized vocabulary
presentations and the extensive use of visuals such as pictured vocabulary,
videos, and charts.
* Exercises and activities should involve hands-on student involvement,
whether through the use of manipulatives or other forms of physical interaction.
* Instructional experiences should emphasize the development of understanding
rather than the decontextualized memorization of vocabulary lists and grammar
* Abstract concepts should be made accessible through concrete experience and
scaffolding of complex tasks.
* Interaction with peers should be integrated into these materials to provide
for the cognitive and social benefits of pair and group work.
* Materials should be seen by students as relevant to their interests.
Middle schools are an important new direction in
the education of adolescents. It is important that foreign language educators
understand the philosophy of middle schools, their organization, and their
instructional underpinnings. Given the new national foreign language standards,
and the need for longer sequences of foreign language instruction, recognizing
the role of foreign languages in the middle school will be more important than
Kennedy, D., & DeLorenzo, W. (1994). Point:
The case for exploratory programs in middle/junior high school. Foreign Language
Annals," 27, 69-73.
Knop, C.K., & Sandrock, P. (1994). Counterpoint to the exploratory
approach. "Foreign Language Annals," 27, 74-76.