My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Schools Try Elementary Approach To Teaching Foreign Languages

Note: This is an article from a few years ago -- but it touches on the issues other districts face in terms of teaching world language, so I thought it would be of interest to my blog readers.

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

School systems across the Washington area are adding foreign language classes in elementary grades in response to a call from government and business leaders who say the country needs more bilingual speakers to stay competitive and even to fight terrorism.

Educators say that the youngest brains have the greatest aptitude for absorbing language and that someone who is bilingual at a young age will have an easier time learning a third or fourth language later on. Compared with adults or even high school students, young children are better able to learn German with near-native pronunciation or mimic the subtle tones of Mandarin.

So last week, kindergartners at Fairfax County's Graham Road Elementary School, one of seven county elementary schools that reopen early in August, sang an alphabet song, learned how to stand in line -- and started Spanish lessons.

The 30-minute lesson, taught solely in Spanish, drew perplexed looks from 5-year-old Ngan Vo, who wasn't quite sure why classmates smiled and danced when they heard " bien " and pretended to cry when the teacher said " mal ." But teacher Yazmin Galloway says that by year's end, she expects Ngan and her classmates to have a foundation in Spanish.

"I'm pretty sure at the end of the year, I'll have speakers," Galloway said. "They will tell me how they're feeling that day. They will say, 'I can read this,' and tell me how to count."

Foreign language classes have long been a staple of high school, and several languages, such as Russian, Japanese and Arabic, have been added at that level. In addition, most Washington area school systems have offered a smattering of language programs at elementary schools for years.

But now, more and more immigrants from scores of countries are arriving in the region; in Montgomery County schools, more than 135 languages are spoken. So districts are making a concerted effort to offer instruction in more languages at more schools to even younger children.

Beginning this school year in the District, Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest Washington is planning to offer a pre-kindergarten French immersion program -- with some lessons in French and others in English -- and Thomson Elementary in Northeast is launching a Mandarin immersion class. Arlington County schools are adding a Spanish pilot program at two elementary schools.

And Fairfax is considering a long-term plan to expand foreign language instruction to each of its 137 elementary schools.

"The world is getting smaller and smaller, and I believe all students in Fairfax need to be able to speak a language other than English," said Fairfax County School Board Chairman Ilryong Moon (At Large). "As a person who came here as a teenager, I had a difficult time learning a new language. It's much better to start at an earlier age."

When Moon was growing up in South Korea, he started English classes in seventh grade. But nowadays, he said, children there learn English in elementary school. The U.S. Department of Education recently pointed out that more than 200 million children in China are studying English in primary school, but only 24,000 students in U.S. schools are learning Chinese.

Sam Hassett, 7, is part of an effort to change that equation.

At Wolftrap Elementary School in Vienna, Sam and his classmates started learning Mandarin last year. They made dumplings and read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" in Chinese.

"It's good because when you go to that country or something you'll already know how to talk to people there," Sam explained. "I can count to 100: y i , er , san , si , wu , liu , qi , ba , jiu , shi . . . "

Sam's not thinking of job prospects just yet, but his mother is.

"China is quickly becoming a dominant player in the world economy, and I want my child prepared for that," said Claire Hassett, a director of product marketing for Verizon Business. "There are a lot of countries not as rich as ours that are teaching their children a second language. I feel it's smart public policy."

So does Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who pushed for $200,000 in federal funding for Sam's class and a second Chinese language program for elementary students in Fairfax. And in January, President Bush -- citing the need for more speakers of so-called critical languages, including Chinese, Arabic and Russian -- proposed the National Security Language Initiative, a $114 million effort to support language instruction for children and adults.

"I think it's absolutely necessary for our country for trade but also national security," Wolf said.

Still, a shift toward adding foreign language for the youngest students is not easy. School systems are already required by the federal No Child Left Behind law to improve student achievement on math and reading tests. That makes it hard to find time to teach Italian, French or Arabic. Schools that have programs can find it difficult to hire qualified teachers. Plus, adding a program can carry a significant cost.

In Montgomery, a nonprofit group formed by the PTA offers foreign language programs for a fee at most elementary schools before the first bell rings, and about 5,000 children attend each year. Montgomery school board member Stephen N. Abrams (Rockville-Potomac) is a fan of the programs -- his daughters attended -- but he said young students need to concentrate on basics such as arithmetic and reading during the school day.

"Because of leave no child behind, we've decided in terms of curriculum to keep focused," Abrams said. "At least until we get everything done right, I wouldn't want to put another requirement into the day."

Prince George's County school officials expressed similar concerns about starting language instruction in elementary school. They said the district is focusing on expanding language offerings in middle school. This fall, Nicholas Orem Middle School in Hyattsville will offer Italian for the first time.

Arlington schools are fitting in a Spanish pilot program at two elementary schools -- Glebe and Patrick Henry -- by eliminating the traditional early dismissal each Wednesday. Starting in September, students in kindergarten through fifth grade will be taught Spanish for 90 minutes a week.

"The issue that we grappled with were instructional time and resources," said Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent of instruction for Arlington schools.

But Suzette Wyhs, foreign language supervisor for Loudoun schools, said you can teach young children a second language without taking away from such courses as math or science. Teachers can reinforce lessons the children have learned in other classes.

For instance, she said, third-graders who have studied ocean animals might read a book about dolphins in Spanish. "The only unknown should be the language," Wyhs said.

Loudoun County began a Spanish program in elementary schools in 2002. Now, all first- and second-graders have Spanish for 30 minutes a week, and third-, fourth- and fifth-graders get double that. This year, for the first time, sixth-graders will have a half-hour of instruction in Spanish every other day.

In Fairfax, schoolwide language programs for all 137 elementary schools would cost about $16 million a year. Today, seven Fairfax elementary schools, including Graham Road, run programs in which children are learning Italian, Latin, French or Chinese. A handful of schools also have more-intensive immersion classes.

Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator for Fairfax schools, said the idea is to have each school focus on one language. A task force of educators and parents recently recommended adding the program at 24 schools a year beginning in September 2007.

Several Fairfax County School Board members said they like the idea but don't know whether the district would be able to afford such a fast expansion. "I think it's the wave of the future," said board member Kathy L. Smith (Sully). "We just have to figure out how to do it."

At Graham Road last week, first-grader Heather McCall said Spanish class is "kind of hard because I don't understand."

But Heather is determined to learn. She is even trying to talk her mother into taking a Spanish class so they can practice together.

"I want to learn three languages," Heather said. "I want to learn Spanish and Chinese, and I already know English."


Anonymous said...

"Arlington schools are fitting in a Spanish pilot program at two elementary schools -- Glebe and Patrick Henry -- by eliminating the traditional early dismissal each Wednesday."

Sounds like the perfect plan for us, too!! Can someone arrange for a conference call between the folks down in Arlington and our School Committee and elementary school principals? Please??

Teaching School said...

Thank you the interesting post. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to more in the future.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone asked Pelham. They offer Spanish there. I think it was offered in Leverret also.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 1:37 - this is something that could be discussed for the NEXT contract term (e.g., ending the early Wednesday afternoons). We should remember, however, that this would mean teachers would work more hours than their present contract, so we would likely have to include additional compensation. I believe it would be good to add a once a week Spanish option this year, and then see whether that could be expanded in future years (depending on time and money).

Teaching School - thanks for the nice remarks.

Anonymous 10:18 - both Pelham and Leverett have offered Spanish in the past -- I believe with funds from parent groups. I'm sure they'd be glad to share their experiences -- I also think that clearly many districts are introducing K to 6 world language, and I think there would be a number of benefits for kids in Amherst.

Anonymous said...

Hi Catherine :)- Ending the Wednesday early dismissal would mean having to pay the elementary paras more as these hours were taken away from them 3 contracts ago as a means to save $$. In other words, if the kids stay Wednesday afternoons, then paras would be staying as well. Unit A (teachers),and Unit B (clerical) elementary staff are paid on Wednesdays as a full day currently.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that, at this late date, we are still wrestling with the value of second language instruction for elementary school kids.

The fact that we have not implemented this in a town as allegedly progressive as Amherst is emblematic of this country's inability to go forward on the most basic initiatives to enhance the quality of life of its citizens.

I had 15-20 minutes of French several times a week in the Northampton public elementary schools in the mid sixties!

This is where the impatience of School Committee members and residents alike comes from.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Early Dismissal: doesn't mean that teachers are not required to work those hours. As I understand it, Weds afternoons are included in the contracted hours that teachers work. This is planning time that elementary teachers have in their contract since they are with students all day, every day for all subjects except specials.

As I further understand, Middle School and High School teachers have class periods with NO students in each of their days to work on planning.

In the one elementary school with which I'm most familiar, the teachers cannot leave on Weds afternoons when the students do without claiming the time, pre arranging with their boss-the principal, etc.

So to have classes until 3:20 would mean that teachers would lose the planning time (which is used up many times with required meetings scheduled by principals and other administrators anyway).....