Model Early Foreign Language Programs: Key Elements.
by Gilzow, Douglas F.
Schools and school districts across the United States are establishing
and expanding foreign language programs. Although most programs are found
at the secondary school level, an increasing number are being established
in elementary schools. A survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics indicates
that 31% of U.S. elementary schools are offering foreign language instruction,
up from 22% a decade ago (Rhodes & Branaman, 1999).
In the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Education funded an effort
to identify early foreign language programs that could serve as models
for schools or districts interested in establishing or enhancing early-start,
long-sequence foreign language programs. Seven model programs were identified
through a nomination and selection process informed by the national standards
for foreign language education and by research on effective language instruction
for elementary and middle school students (Curtain & Pesola, 1994;
National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 1999). The programs
selected met specified criteria in the areas of curriculum, outcomes, ongoing
evaluation, coordination with content areas, articulation from elementary
to secondary school, accessibility, student diversity, professional development
opportunities, and community support. Although the seven programs represent
a range of program models and instructional strategies, they had a number
of critical elements in common. This digest describes these elements, which
are deemed key to the long-term success of early foreign language programs.
NATIONAL FOREIGN LANGUAGE STANDARDS
All seven programs have incorporated the five Cs of the national standards
(communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, communities) into their
curriculum. In some districts, the five Cs explicitly form a core element
of the foreign language curricula for all grades. In others, the content-related
curricula address the standards in an integrated, almost organic way. Interestingly,
none of the programs has adopted textbooks to form the core of its instructional
program. Rather, materials are identified or developed that connect language
learning to the immediate context or to specific lessons in the regular
A FOCUS ON CONTENT
All seven of the model programs use content-based or content-enriched
curricula that are closely tied to the general elementary school curriculum.
Content-based programs are those in which one or more subjects are taught
in the foreign language. Immersion programs, in which some or all academic
subjects are taught in the foreign language, are content based. Content-enriched
programs are those in which language lessons include concepts from subjects
such as math, science, and geography, mostly as reinforcement of subject
matter classes taught in English. Students in a third-grade Spanish class
in Toledo, Ohio, for example, learn about the growth processes of a plant
through a Total Physical Response activity conducted entirely in Spanish,
then read a Spanish news article on the same topic.
ARTICULATION AND ALIGNMENT
Language instruction in the elementary grades frequently emphasizes
creative activities that involve oral communication; there is not a strong
focus on accuracy or written language. As a result, there can be a disconnect
when students move to the higher grades, where there is more emphasis on
grammar, writing, and formal assessment. The challenge is compounded in
decentralized districts, where a school-based management approach may favor
institutional autonomy at the expense of articulation with programs in
other schools. The seven model programs address this challenge through
meetings, teaching exchanges, and standardization of curricula and assessment.
In Glastonbury, Connecticut, for example, curriculum goals for languages
are standardized across all eight schools in the district. Meetings are
held not only with the district's foreign language teachers and administrators,
but also with staff at the University of Connecticut to enhance the transition
to higher education for secondary students. Another way in which this district
strengthens articulation and alignment is through an innovative program
of exchange teaching. From time to time, the foreign language teachers
trade classes-elementary school teachers move to a high school and vice
EFFECTIVE TEACHING METHODS
Teachers in the seven programs keep their students motivated through
age-appropriate, enjoyable lesson activities, many involving pair- or small-group
work. In the elementary grades, songs are popular, especially those that
fit new lyrics to familiar tunes. Most activities have a strong focus on
communication and student interaction and a minimum of "listen and repeat
after me" instruction. Teachers have devised creative guessing games and
simulations that educate, entertain, and motivate learners and that bring
together students from different grade levels. Fourth graders at Ephesus
Road Elementary School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for example, help
first graders review French numbers, animals, colors, and verbs of motion
by leading them in a guessing game using numbered animal puppets. In a
fifth-grade class at the same school, the French teacher tells the story
of a mother moose in eastern Canada traveling to the west coast to be united
with its baby moose. Students in small groups move a moose figure across
maps and answer questions about geographic regions and time zones as they
listen to the story.
APPROPRIATE USE OF TECHNOLOGY
Training staff in the effective use of computer-based resources is a
major focus of in-service staff development in nearly every one of the
seven programs. Districts are also increasing younger learners' access
to computers. Ephesus Road Elementary School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina,
is notable in its use of interactive Web-based communication with other
French language programs around the world through "Ethnokids" (www.ethnokids.net).
This is a joint effort of teachers and students at dozens of elementary
schools in countries around the world, including Belgium, Vietnam, Guyana,
and Cote d'Ivoire. Students from each participating school contribute essays,
drawings, and descriptions of celebrations, homes, and schools-all in French.
Although all of the model programs have a strong assessment component,
specific assessment practices vary widely from one program to the next.
Bay Point Elementary School in Pinellas County, Florida, uses a Home Assessment
System that involves parents, regular classroom teachers, and FLES teachers
in the students' language learning process and allows students to proceed
at their own pace. Students are given task cards that indicate specific
activities that they need to be able to do (e.g., "I can describe the contents
of my backpack"). There are 10 levels of tasks, with 10 tasks at each level.
As children demonstrate the tasks at home, their parents sign the task
cards, which the students then file in the classroom, providing a portfolio
of their foreign language performance. The teacher quizzes students in
class to confirm their ability to carry out the tasks.
To assess progress in speaking and listening skills in the partial immersion
Japanese program at Richmond Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, teachers
conduct a one-on-one interview with each student at the end of the school
year. In kindergarten, each student brings a blank videotape to school
which is then used in succeeding years to record the interviews. In the
earlier grades, the interviews are simple exchanges of questions and answers,
but by fifth grade, the interviews are conducted according to Oregon Japanese
Oral Proficiency procedures, resulting in a 15-minute ratable performance
sample. This tape follows the students to middle school, where at least
one additional interview is recorded.
Establishing and maintaining an early-start, long-sequence foreign language
program costs money. Most of the model programs have received grant funds
from state or federal sources, particularly during the start-up phase.
The pre-implementation and early implementation years of foreign language
programs require the greatest concentration of resources. Curricula and
evaluation procedures must be developed, books and other instructional
materials must be purchased, and teachers must be recruited and trained.
Most programs have been able to diversify and localize much of their funding
as they mature, turning to federal and state grants for special needs such
as program evaluation, articulation with postsecondary programs, or expanded
use of technology.
Professional development is particularly critical during the early stages
of a foreign language program but continues to be important as programs
mature, curricula change, and new technology is introduced. Professional
development opportunities offered by the model programs include demonstration
lessons, in-service workshops, and participation in professional association
conferences. The program in Toledo, Ohio, has offered its teachers a low-cost
summer language camp; teachers in Prince George's County, Maryland, take
university courses taught by the district's foreign language supervisor.
Outreach to the community, visibility at the school and district levels,
and involvement of parents have been important to initiating programs,
expanding them, and keeping them going during times of tight budgets. In
most cases, advocacy for the programs involves media attention. All seven
model programs have been featured on local television stations and in newspaper
articles. Program newsletters and foreign language fairs are among the
ways that program staff have captured and kept community support. Political
connections are also important to these programs. The superintendent in
Springfield, Massachusetts, is a major advocate for early foreign language
education; in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, two foreign language teachers
have served on the school governance committee of Ephesus Road Elementary
for several years. Having the support of individuals and groups who are
in a position to influence the future of the foreign language programs
can be crucial to their long-term success.
It is clear that many qualities and characteristics contribute to the
success of early foreign language programs. In addition to those described
above, the seven model programs have demonstrated flexibility, teamwork,
leadership, and commitment. They have adapted to changes brought about
by unanticipated events, including diminished funding. They have forged
close working relationships with district superintendents, members of the
board of education, school principals, regular classroom teachers, parents,
and others in the community. They have strong leaders with a vision of
foreign language teaching and learning who know how to inspire others and
organize the people and resources necessary to build an effective program.
Finally, everyone involved has a deep commitment to the program and to
the goal of providing effective foreign language education for young learners.
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the match. Foreign language instruction for an early start, grades K-8."
White Plains, NY: Longman.
Gilzow, D. F., & Branaman, L. E. (2000). "Lessons learned: Model
early foreign language programs." McHenry, IL, and Washington, DC: Delta
Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.
National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project. (1999). "Standards
for foreign language learning in the 21st century." Yonkers, NY: Author.
Rhodes, N. C., & Branaman, L. E. (1999). "Foreign language instruction
in the United States. A national survey of elementary and secondary schools."
McHenry, IL, and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.