ERIC Identifier: ED456673
Publication Date: 2001-09-00
Author: Tucker, G. Richard - Donato, Richard
Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Implementing a District-Wide Foreign Language Program: A Case
Study of Acquisition, Planning, and Curricular Innovation. ERIC Digest.
Recent federal legislation has called for American students leaving Grades 4,
8, and 12 to demonstrate competence in challenging subject matter, including
foreign languages. If American students are to complete these grades with
demonstrable proficiency in a foreign language, language programs at all levels
will need to be significantly expanded and improved. This is particularly true
at the elementary school level. The importance of including foreign language
study in the elementary school is supported by research on the amount of
instructional time required to develop functional proficiency in a foreign
language (Carroll, 1967) and by the widely held professional view that language
competence can only be achieved by children who follow articulated, sustained
sequences of foreign language instruction (Donato & Terry, 1995).
This digest describes the implementation of a successful district-wide
elementary school foreign language (FLES) program that resulted from the
superintendent's vision to have all students in the district study a common
foreign language throughout their schooling. This vision was based on the
superintendent's belief that American secondary school graduates in the 21st
century will be competing for positions in which bilingual language proficiency
will offer a considerable advantage. This digest highlights five overarching
themes believed to be key to the success of the program.
In 1996, the Chartiers Valley Public
School District in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, implemented a FLES program
in all 11 of its kindergarten programs. The school system is relatively small,
comprised mostly of students from European-American working-class families.
The project began when researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the
University of Pittsburgh met informally with the Chartiers Valley County School
superintendent in May 1995 to discuss his vision for foreign languages in the
district. A number of questions were raised at the meeting: Was the vision
plausible? Which language would be offered? Was there community support? Could
the school district and the universities work collaboratively to their mutual
benefit? Would the school board provide the necessary budgetary authorization?
The meeting marked the beginning of a mutually beneficial university-school
district partnership and resulted in the formation of a foreign language program
committee that would oversee the planning and eventual implementation of the
program. Two of the committee's initial tasks were to decide which foreign
language to choose for instruction and at what grade level to begin the program.
"Choice of language." Several options were considered, including French,
German, Japanese, and Spanish. A number of factors were evaluated, such as the
availability of certified teachers and appropriate materials, potential
community support, and perceived utility of proficiency in the target language.
For pragmatic reasons, the committee opted to select only one language and to
make its study compulsory for all children. The committee agreed to conduct a
community survey to determine the level of support for such a program and to
gather feedback concerning the choice of a foreign language. The survey was
administered to a representative sample of parents and to all members of the
school board. Results of the survey indicated broad general support for a
foreign language program and specifically for the teaching of Spanish. Data also
showed preference for a program that aimed at developing cultural knowledge,
engaging students in the excitement of language learning, and building basic
"Where to start." The second major question was whether to begin the program
from the bottom up--that is, from kindergarten--or from the top down, working
backwards a year at a time from Grade 9, where foreign language instruction in
the school district then began.
After considerable discussion on issues such as scheduling, teacher
availability, and the necessity of developing long-term articulation, the
decision was made to propose to the school board the implementation of a Spanish
FLES program that would begin in September 1996 for all district kindergartners.
The proposal recommended extending the program one grade level each year. That
is, all kindergartners and first graders would be required to participate in the
program in the 1997-1998 school year; all kindergartners, first and second
graders in the 1998-1999 school year; and so on. The Board of School Directors
formally approved the plan and authorized a 5-year pilot project.
The next steps involved recruiting an appropriately certified teacher for the
first cohort of students, planning for curriculum development activities,
informing community members about the new program, and systematically providing
other teachers and administrators working in the system with information about
INCORPORATING THE SPANISH PROGRAM INTO THE CORE
The Spanish program began in September 1996 in all kindergarten
classes in the district, comprising a total of 223 students. Each class met for
20 minutes a day, 5 days a week. The Spanish specialist, who was certified in
both foreign language education and elementary education, worked with students
in their regular classrooms, and in effect team-taught with the regular
classroom teachers. In the first year, a strong collaboration between the
kindergarten teachers and the language specialist developed almost immediately,
a collaborative style that has continued with each grade that has been added.
The curriculum was developed following the school-district template for
planned courses of study; that is, each thematically organized unit was
specified according to (1) student learning outcomes; (2) content, materials,
and activities; and (3)procedures for assessment. The main focus of each lesson
was on vocabulary building and comprehension. Every attempt was made to
integrate Spanish with ongoing activities in art, music, library, physical
education, and the computer curriculum.
EXPANSION THROUGH THE PRIMARY, INTERMEDIATE, AND MIDDLE SCHOOL
The foreign language program committee continued to meet quarterly to
discuss various aspects of the program and to plan for its expansion in the
1997-1998 school year. Plans for the second year followed the same model used
during the first year, namely 20 minutes of instruction in Spanish 5 days a week
with a specialist teacher who came to the classroom. The curriculum for the
second year built on concepts and vocabulary learned during the first year and
retained its integrated, thematic focus, but moved toward greater oral
participation by the students. The same model was followed for the 1998-1999
school year with the addition of a second dually certified (in elementary and
foreign language education) teacher as the program expanded to include all
students from kindergarten through Grade 2. During the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001
school years, the committee addressed a number of issues, including the
expansion to Grade 3 and Grade 4 and the need to begin the process of thinking
carefully about the expansion that will occur in 2002-2003 into the middle
THEMES OF SUCCESS: A MODEL FOR OTHER DISTRICTS AND THE
Several features of the program at Chartiers Valley are considered
key to its success.
"Careful and collaborative planning and evaluation." A hallmark of the
program has been the overarching concern for careful and collaborative planning
and evaluation each year as the program expands. Advance planning has been a
distinguishing characteristic of the program, one that is often lacking in the
implementation of FLES programs (see Curtain & Dahlberg, 2000).
"Gradual program expansion." Consonant with the theme of careful planning,
program expansion occurs one year at a time. This allows for the development of
a well-articulated curriculum based on annual assessment of students' expanding
"Attention to progress in proficiency." An overriding concern of the program
is this: that as students progress through the program, they should also
progress in their linguistic and cultural knowledge. Observations of early
language programs often reveal that children are faced with repetitions of the
same content presented in the same way from one year to the next. The program in
Chartiers Valley has been careful to avoid this problem.
"High quality foreign language faculty." Each year, as the program expands to
another grade, an additional teacher is hired with certification in both foreign
language and elementary education. Hiring only high quality, well-prepared
teachers who understand both second language acquisition and how children learn
helps to ensure the success of the program.
"Reflective practitioners." Closely related to teacher qualifications is
teachers' orientation to their work. Teachers in the Chartiers Valley program
are reflective practitioners who make instructional decisions and modifications
based on classroom observation and practice.
COLLABORATING ON CURRICULAR INNOVATION
To gain insight into
the opinions of those who collaborated in the design and implementation of the
program--the superintendent, school board members, principals, regular classroom
teachers, and Spanish teachers--an interview protocol was developed to examine
their perspectives on their experience. All participants expressed remarkable
enthusiasm and considered the program a success. During analysis of the
interview data, several overarching and consistent themes emerged.
"Articulating a shared vision." The superintendent wanted a foreign language
program for the Chartiers Valley School District, "because of a sense that
American education was behind [the rest of the world] with regard to exposure to
foreign languages." From the time he first proposed the idea of a foreign
language program as part of the district's plans, his vision resonated
positively throughout the committee overseeing implementation of the program.
"Careful planning." The success of the program has been due in large part to
the careful planning devoted to its development and implementation. Crucial to
this planning was the involvement of all stakeholders, who were continually
encouraged to voice their opinions and concerns.
"Empowerment." There was a unanimous feeling of ownership for the program
among survey respondents. This empowerment felt by teachers, department heads,
principals, and others was attributed to the superintendent's strong leadership.
"Support of and for the teachers." Another central thread woven throughout
the interviews was that of support of and for the teachers. For example, there
was a continuing search for teachers with dual certification in elementary
education and Spanish. A great deal of attention was paid to ensuring that the
Spanish program was incorporated into the regular curriculum of the primary
school with a minimum of disruption. Care was taken to provide assistance to the
Spanish teachers through continuing linkage with the university partners and for
classroom teachers by the systematic provision of in-service training.
Respondents noted that the Spanish teachers also had the support of the
"Concerns for the future." Concerns for the future. The most resounding theme
reflected a realization that issues of articulation from elementary school to
middle school and from middle school to high school will be critical if the
district is to have a coherent and viable foreign language program across 13
years of instruction. Several respondents mentioned the need to re-think the
language curriculum in the middle school (Grades 6-8) and high school (Grades
9-12) to accommodate students who have studied a foreign language throughout
elementary school. As the chairperson of the high school foreign language
department stated, "there will need to be drastic changes in the curriculum in
the later years of schooling," but she hastened to add that she sees this "as a
By telling the story of one district's lived
experience with FLES, this digest has described key elements in the development
of a successful educational innovation. The direction and decisions of this
district rested on concerns of several important constituents and reflect
Markee's (1997) observation that innovative projects are affected, positively or
negatively, by complex sociocultural variables, such as cultural beliefs;
political climate; historical and economic conditions; administrative attitudes;
institutional support; and technological, sociolinguistic, and language planning
factors. When viewed globally, the themes of vision, planning, empowerment,
support, and future concerns described above reflect all of the sociocultural
variables listed by Markee and attest to their importance, as well as the need
to acknowledge and address openly these factors when designing and implementing
new programs. Others in the process of contemplating the development of a
program such as the one presented here, or in monitoring and evaluating current
FLES programs, might well be advised to benchmark successes and failures against
Carroll, J. B. (1967). "The foreign language
attainments of language majors in the senior year: A survey conducted in U.S.
colleges and universities." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Graduate School
Curtain, H. A., & Dahlberg, C. (2000). "Planning for success: Common
pitfalls in the planning of early foreign language programs. ERIC Digest."
Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.
Donato, R., & Terry, R. M. (Eds.). (1995). "Foreign language learning:
The journey of a lifetime." Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.
Markee, N. (1997). "Managing curricular innovation." New York: Cambridge.