ERIC Identifier: ED447726
Publication Date: 2000-12-00
Author: Curtain, Helena - Dahlberg, Carol Ann Pesola
ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Planning for Success: Common Pitfalls in the Planning of Early
Foreign Language Programs. ERIC Digest.
There has been a significant increase in new foreign language programs at the
elementary school level in recent years. Many of these programs, often referred
to as foreign language in the elementary school or FLES programs, have been
implemented to comply with state mandates, while others have been developed in
response to parental pressure for early language learning opportunities for
their children. The growing body of information about the cognitive and academic
benefits of early bilingualism will no doubt fuel the continued development and
expansion of these programs. Unfortunately, many will not succeed over an
extended period of time because of planning decisions that were not carefully
thought out or that were based on inaccurate assumptions about foreign language
learning. The purpose of this digest is to identify some common pitfalls in
program planning and to focus attention on issues that must be considered in the
planning stages if early foreign language programs are to succeed.
PITFALL: SCHEDULING FOREIGN LANGUAGE CLASSES TO INFREQUENTLY OR
IN SESSIONS THAT ARE TOO SHORT
There is a widespread misperception that
children learn foreign languages easily even with very limited exposure. As a
result, some programs operate on the assumption that a little bit of language
instruction is better than no language instruction at all. This perception
contradicts the recommendations of foreign language professionals and the
experience of successful programs (Gilzow & Branaman, 2000). A sequence of
instruction that includes sufficient instructional time is needed for students
to achieve proficiency in another language. Met and Rhodes (1990) suggest that
"foreign language instruction should be scheduled daily, and for no less than 30
minutes" (p. 438). A national group of experts, convened by Goethe House New
York, recommended a minimum of 75 minutes per week for any program designated as
FLES; they agreed that these classes should meet all year, during the school
day, at least every other day (Rosenbusch, 1992). More recently, the ACTFL
Performance Guidelines for K-12 Learners (Swender & Duncan, 1998) proposed a
higher standard: elementary programs that meet from 3 to 5 days per week for no
less than 30-40 minutes per class; middle school programs that meet daily for no
less than 40-50 minutes; and high school programs that equal four units of
PITFALL: TREATING FOREIGN LANGUAGES DIFEENTLY FROM OTHER
In most countries around the world, languages have the same
status as other academic subjects and are a regular part of the curriculum of
every school. Instruction usually starts no later than Grade 5, and often
earlier. Given that most of these countries are much more successful than the
United States at producing adults who can speak more than one language, we would
do well to follow their example. Foreign languages should be recognized as valid
academic subjects and be accorded the same status and priority for instructional
time as other school subjects.
PITFALL: OFFEREING ONLY COMMONLY TAUGHT LANGUAGES, WITHOUT
CONSIDERING OTHER IMPORTANT WORLD LANGUAGES.
Spanish is by far the most commonly
taught language in the United States, followed by French (Rhodes & Branaman,
1999). While there is no denying the importance of these two languages both
domestically and globally, there is a tremendous need for individuals who speak
many other world languages. The United States interacts with virtually every
nation in the world; the need for proficiency in the languages of these
countries has never been higher (Brecht & Ingold, 1999). It is impossible to
know which language will be most useful to any given elementary school student
or which will be most important for our country in the future. It is important,
therefore, to offer a variety of languages in order to provide choices for
individual students and to broaden the range of languages spoken by U.S.
PITFALL: IMPLEMENTING A NEW PROGRAM IN ALL GRADES AT THE SAME
There are many stresses in launching a new foreign language program at
the elementary school level. Unlike teachers in other curriculum areas, foreign
language teachers cannot turn to existing textbook series and standardized
materials as they plan a program. This is partly because elementary school
programs differ markedly from one place to another. Locating and adapting
appropriate materials is a formidable task even when the language is introduced
in only one or two grades at a time. If a new program is introduced in all
grades at once, the task is much greater. Although all students are beginners in
the first year, even introductory lessons need to be adapted to the different
developmental levels of students in different grades. In the second year of the
program, curriculum for every grade level after the first one needs to be
written. This process continues yearly until the entire program is in place. It
is much more effective to implement a new program in only one or two grades
during the first year, then add another grade each year until it is in place at
PITFALL: IGNORING THE NEEDS OF STUDENTS WHO ENTER THE PROGRAM
IN LATER GRADES
Students who enter the program after the second year require
significant support to catch up with classmates who have already had 2 or more
years of foreign language instruction. This support may be provided in the form
of supplementary materials and additional instructional time. Without such
support, newcomers are likely to experience considerable frustration and may
never reach the level of language proficiency of their peers. If the proportion
of newcomers to a program becomes too great, especially at more advanced levels,
the language experience for all students may be diluted in a misguided attempt
to make it comprehensible for the new students. Specific plans must be in place
to provide appropriate support for newcomers before the language program enters
its second year of operation.
PITFALL: FAILING TO PLAN FOR APPROPRIATE ARTICULATION FROM
ELMENTARY TO SECONDARY SCHOOL PROGRAMS.
Articulation issues, when postponed, can lead
to the eventual disintegration of an early language program (Abbott, 1998). No
child who has already studied a language for several years should be treated as
a beginner after moving on to middle school. Admittedly, bridging the middle
school years is a difficult challenge. Because middle schools typically receive
students from several elementary schools, they may have some incoming students
with extensive language experience in elementary school and others who have had
no prior language instruction. This presents a significant scheduling challenge.
Courses for students with prior language learning experience must be designed to
build on the learning that has taken place in elementary school. If elementary
school program planners involve secondary school teachers and administrators in
addressing these issues in the early planning stages of their program, the
potential for long-term success is much greater.
PITFALL: HIRING TEACHERS WHO DO NOT HAVE BOTH LANGUAGE AND
There are two misconceptions that sometimes influence the hiring
of foreign language teachers: that a native speaker is always a better choice
than a teacher who has learned the language as a second language, and that
teachers at beginning levels of instruction do not need the same degree of
language proficiency as those who teach at more advanced levels. In reality,
teachers at all levels need to be fully proficient in the language they teach.
But native or near-native language proficiency is not the only requirement.
Language teachers also need to be knowledgeable about second language
acquisition, especially in children, and about appropriate second language
teaching strategies and practices.
Teachers who cannot comfortably use the target language for classroom
purposes will not be able to surround learners with language, an essential
component of an effective language learning environment. They will also find it
difficult to develop and create curricula and activities in the target language.
Even fluent speakers of the language may be ineffective in the classroom if they
are not knowledgeable about second language acquisition, child development, and
teaching strategies for American elementary school students.
PITFALL: PLANNING AND SCHEDULING THE FOREIGN LANGUAGE PROGRAM
IN ISOLATION FROM THE GENERAL CURRICULUM.
An isolated foreign language
program can justifiably be perceived as an intrusion on precious time in the
elementary school day. By contrast, a content-related program can reinforce the
goals of the general curriculum, provide additional practice with significant
concepts, and give learners a second chance at understanding material from other
curricular areas. A common characteristic of seven model early foreign language
programs examined in Gilzow and Branaman (2000) is a close connection with the
general elementary school curriculum.
Effective language instruction is thematic and builds on topics and contexts
that are relevant to the students. These topics or contexts can vary greatly,
from activities based on the regular school curriculum, such as those found in
content-based or content-related instruction, to other activities typically
found in early language programs, such as drama, role-play, games, songs,
children's literature, folk and fairy tales, storytelling, and puppetry. All of
these activities contribute to the other content areas and to the basic mission
of the school, because they all contribute to the child's learning.
PITFALL: PLANNING SCHEDULES AND WORKLOADS THAT LEAD TO TEACHER
There is currently a shortage of qualified teachers for early
language programs. To rectify this situation, it is imperative to build programs
that are good for children and also good for teachers. With this in mind, the
Georgia Department of Education stipulated that FLES teachers in state-supported
model programs should teach no more than eight classes per day, leaving time for
the many additional responsibilities of a FLES teacher: interacting with
numerous classroom teachers, developing curriculum and materials, communicating
with parents and community, and building public relations for the program.
If language teachers work under unfavorable conditions, they are likely to
burn out and leave the profession or opt for regular classrooms. There are
dangers in the proliferation of early language programs when attention is not
given to the stress factors involved in typical teacher workloads. Elementary
school language teachers may find themselves teaching as many as 14 classes in a
single day, seeing as many as 600 students in a week. Their classes are often
scheduled back to back, and they rarely have their own classrooms. They often
lack professional support and opportunities for in-service training, and their
schedules rarely allow them time to collaborate with other language teachers.
While it is not possible in this short space to
address every issue involved in planning an early language program, this digest
identifies a number of important considerations that program planners need to
address. Many of the issues discussed here may sound familiar--they are similar
to the obstacles that plagued the early language learning movement 40 years ago:
a shortage of qualified teachers, a tendency to establish programs without
sufficient planning or careful selection of teachers and materials, a lack of
clarity about the connection between program goals and the amount of time
allocated to the program, and a willingness to promise whatever the public wants
to hear. In order to avoid the mistakes of the past, it is critical that program
planners have a clear understanding of all of the components necessary to create
a positive environment for early language teaching and learning.
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Gilzow, D.F., & Branaman, L.E. (2000). "Lessons learned: Model early
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IL, and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.
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elementary school curriculum--proceedings." Munich, Germany: Goethe Institut.
"Standards for foreign language learning in the 21st century." (1999).
Yonkers, NY: National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project.
Swender, E., & Duncan, G. (1998). ACTFL performance guidelines for K-12
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