Elementary School Foreign Language Courses: Then and Now

The recent news that Oregon (WI) is considering the addition of foreign language courses to their elementary schools caused me to wonder what, if anything has happened in this important area within the MMSD? Pamela Cotant’s 5/22/1990 article contains this snippet:

Foreign languages: At the regular school board meeting Monday, the board voted unanimously in favor of seven recommendations made by an ad-hoc foreign language evaluation committee. The recommendations include hiring a half-time foreign language coordinator, consideration of an elementary school pilot program, and evaluation of offering a five-year sequence of the same languages in middle and high schools.

The 1990-1991 MMSD budget was $149.2M. (2007-2008 budget is $339M+).
Celeste Roberts adds some useful comments on the importance of elementary foreign language offerings here.

13 thoughts on “Elementary School Foreign Language Courses: Then and Now”

  1. I would very much like to know why there isn’t more being done in this area. Currently there are only before and after school language programs so not all kids are able to benefit from this. Yet, teaching languages doesn’t mean giving up other content. For example, when teaching numbers in another languae math can be included, when teaching science, vocabulary in another world language can be taught. If a language teacher works with the classroom teacher, students gain language skills while learning the other disciplines already part of their curriculum. It can be as easily infused in daily learning as math can be in physical ed. or music.
    There is also a huge lack of articulation from the extended care elementary options to the middle school. In a recent conversation with a student going into 7th grade I learned that she had taken after school language study during elementary school but was not allowed to continue her study of language in 6th grade because language isn’t offered for that grade.
    If we are going to prepare our children for a global community within our own city and beyond we need to prepare them with world languages and cultures. Through an understanding of another language students have greater insight into the life and culture of others and are more able to succeed in a diverse community.
    Comparing ourselves to the rest of North America, Europe, China and Japan, we are the only country that still does not require proficiency in at least one other language. As the world flattens through the use of technology our students are the ones that will be left behind, due to their lack of ability to communicate with the rest of the world. That’s a tragedy.
    What can we do to change this? There are standards for learning world languages as there are for math, science, social studies, etc. Those standards are articulated K-12 and there are a number of schools throughout WI with strong elementary programs including Menasha, Green Bay and La Crosse, to name a few. How long will Madison lag behind?
    Looking at the success of Nuestro Mundo it seems our community is ready. Will the school board and schools catch up?

  2. The elementary school before/after school language courses are organized by parent volunteers who must hire and pay teachers, plan course schedules, get permission to use classrooms, send out and collect enrollment forms and fees, etc. The only role MMSD has in this is the principal allowing the use of the classrooms.
    Most educators know the value of foreign language instruction. But they have a lot on their plate now and I don’t think NCLB plans any testing in foreign language proficiency. If a foreign language class is introduced in elementary school, then some other class time would need to be cut, probably in language arts or reading. I imagine MMSD won’t be willing to risk doing this. They need to focus on raising the reading scores to make AYP goals. I believe, as you do, that foreign language instruction supports and enrichs language arts and other courses instruction in English, but it’s too big a leap for MMSD.
    A reasonable thing to do would be to try a pilot program at a school which is not in danger of falling behind AYP. Perhaps in a language other than Spanish, like Mandarin or Arabic. I might be possible to use this to create buzz to draw families back into MMSD.
    I know some people are concerned that with the annual rounds of budget cuts going on year after year, it is only a matter of time before the middle school foreign language programs are cut back.
    The truth is that MMSD is focused completely and totally on finding a way to help minority children suceed. One may argue with their choice of methods, and I do, but their desire to fix the problems is pretty clear. Probably to them foreign language in elementary school sounds like middle-class conceit, a luxury they don’t have time for. I think low-income kids would enjoy and benefit from learning a foreign language as much as any child, but first they need to make progress in the subjects already taught.

  3. I too would like to see a foreign language component in elementary schools. My child has been fortunate to be at a school in which–at least so far–spanish instruction has been given 4 times per week through university volunteers and one fluent classroom teacher. However, although I tend to see this as a plus, the two hours per week has had limited impact (that I can see right now).
    I am having a difficult time visualizing how district-wide instruction would work. The time issue is not insignificant. If the classroom teacher is not fluent enough to meaningfully incorporate it throughout the day, than it would presumably have to happen in a scheduled block. By upper elementary, we are already struggling to find the time we need to teach what needs to be taught.
    Relatedly, I’m wondering where the money for staffing would come from. Since most teachers do not appear to be fluent in a second language, it would mean funding more positions–and finding people who were actually able to fill them. So….in all sincerity, I am wondering what thoughts people have about how this would funded/staffed/implemented. I am also wondering what folks see as the goal/outcome at this level (Familiarity? Generating interest? Vocabulary basics? Actual conversational skills?), and how much instruction per week would be needed reasonably achieve that goal.

  4. Teacher L:
    You raise some good questions about foreign language instruction (world language in today’s vernacular); I’ll try to address a few of them.
    An increasing critical mass of research suggests teaching a second language to students early on, in the elementary years, fosters a better sense of how to learn a language. That is, you’re teaching a student how to learn a language. In some respects, I would argue, it mirrors any other traditional subject, i.e., the study of calculus in high school bears little resemblance to math taught to 1st graders, but the effective teaching of 1st-grade math is fundamental to the eventual student understanding of calculus. Districts that have a long history of teaching a second language to elementary students — Shorewood in suburban Milwaukee, Menasha in the Fox Valley are two good examples — would tell you that this is happening. Their 7th grade students, taking French for the first time, pick up on the language much easier, and with more depth, having had 5-6 years of Spanish preceding it.
    The debate about its purpose is a good one. For most districts, I’d think speaking proficiency is not really the goal, unless you’re running an immersion program (which, from what I’ve read, has its own set of benefits and drawbacks). Rather, it is building the fundamentals of language learning. And I’d argue it doesn’t necessarily need to be taught as a stand-alone subject. Numerous school districts teach content areas in the elementary grades in a second language (Waunakee with social studies in Spanish, Menasha with math (!) in Japanese (!!) at one elementary school there).
    DPI would suggest a minimum of 20-30 minutes of instruction three times a week is needed to make it effective at the elementary levels, with increasing time as students near the middle-school years.
    Every single body of research I’ve seen suggests students pick up on instruction in a second language much quicker and easier the earlier it is taught.
    Finally, I think part of the debate about the worthiness of adding second language instruction comes down to some of the issues you raise. Money is tight, nearly everywhere, and the NCLB mandates of proficiency in reading and math have a tendency to “crowd out” other subject areas. One can always — always always always — point to budgetary difficulties as a reason not to do something new or different.
    But I can’t help but think we (meaning, those of us in public education) aren’t doing a disservice to our students by not finding a way to provide instruction in a second language to elementary students. We’re well behind the rest of the world in this regard (I know of local banks, with well-paid entry-level jobs, who simply won’t hire people who aren’t proficient in a second language). And at the risk of (once again) raising the wrath of SIS’ violin supporters, the UW system seems to have figured this out. Its top schools (Madison, Eau Claire, increasing numbers of others) now require foreign langugage proficiency for their students. They don’t require music or art proficiency. Yet every public school I know begins art and music instruction in kindergarten; most wait until the middle school years to begin foreign langugage instruction.
    Why are public schools — tasked with the goal of better preparing students for what lies ahead after graduating — waiting until a student’s K-12 career is halfway over before teaching a core subject area (which, foreign langugage is, for almost anyone planning to attend a 4-year college, and I’d argue ought to be for anyone attending any post-high school institution)?

  5. My niece in Minneapolis had her choice of several immersion programs(German, French, Spanish, Mandarin) when she began elementary school. As her mother is fluent in German, she will start at the German immersion school in the Fall. She will also have copious amounts of arts opportunities as a way to experience reading, writing, math and social studies.
    I agree with your comments about pointing to the budgetary difficulties as an excuse. My sister in law told me the building that houses their school was re-purposed commercial space and that as a charter there is a pretty significant expectation for parental involvement. Why do they have so many choices? Their district needs to recruit kids and programming is the draw. Just as Milwaukee has added a IB school in an impoverished area, you can draw people when you offer compelling, differentiated content.
    I would argue that it is far more important to provide arts opportunities than computer labs in elementary schools. It is all a moot point though Phil because both art/music and computers are curricular requirements. Giving up both won’t score world language options. I believe it is critical to ask Superintendent candidates what they view as the role of world language in the MMSD curriculum and where do they stand on Charter Schools?

  6. Nancy:
    Why are art/music and computer curricular requirements and foreign language not? What’s the rationale for that (beyond, this is the way it’s been for years, and changing it is difficult, time-consuming, soaks up resources, blah blah blah…)?
    No one, least of all me, suggests “giving up” music or art in the elementary grades. But can’t there be a more appropriate balance between instruction in music and art that begins the minute a child enters the public school system, and instruction in a second language that waits, entirely, until the middle school years to begin?
    Talk to national experts, such as the folks leading the effort on developing educational skills for the 21st Century, or Calif. Congressman George Miller (the most thoughtful person in Washington these days on education policy), and they will tell you this: public education at all levels — from preschool to K-12 to vocational schools to colleges and universities — needs to be better aligned if the U.S. is going to continue to be an economic and educational leader. Eductation is (or ought to be) seamless and continual; it too often is fractured and unbalanced.
    To have a world-renowned university system require competency in a second language, and to not have the state’s second-largest school district offer that instruction until late into a student’s academic career, strikes me as a pretty fundamental misalignment of priorities.
    I’d simply add that Milwaukee’s public schools have added several language immersion programs in recent years, in a very deliberate attempt to stem the tide of enrollment declines in that community. Think Waunakee, Oregon, Monona Grove and other suburban districts thinking of (or already implementing) world language instruction have a similar goal in mind?

  7. If conversational skills aren’t the goal, then in a non-immersion program do you think those of us with minimal foreign language background could successfully provide what is needed? The charter programs that people are mentioning sound really interesting, but I guess if we are looking at real impact across the district, then we would need to provide this district-wide (staffing a couple of charter programs is easier than finding staff for a much wider range of schools).
    I am still struggling with where to get the time from. One of my teaching partners and I just spent a day planning our first several weeks of social studies, lamenting how little time we have to teach the breadth of content we know should be taught. I don’t feel like NCLB (other than the wasted week and a half for WKCE testing) is the problem (in this particular case 🙂 I have many problems with it generally). We aren’t teaching anything we don’t believe is valuable, and are already letting go of things we would like to do. Trying to figure out how to incorporate more makes my head spin!

  8. Teacher L – Is it reasonable to consider reworking the way we deliver ESL services? Rather than a pull out situation could that offering be more integrated in the general elementary classroom?
    Does anyone have any data on how Nuestro Mundo’s approach is working?

  9. Maybe Madison could turn to the innovative way that Oregon School District is implementing foreign language and still meeting state requirements for academic “time” and able to “budget” for the instruction. They seem to have figured out a way to provide language programming at the elementary level. I agree with Phil that exposure at this age will lead to greater ease in middle and high school to become fluent. And I’m not sure it matters “which” language, but rather that at the elementary level, kids are learning how to learn a new language.

  10. Teacher L:
    I don’t doubt that someone in the trenches of teaching such as yourself might look at a second language program and reasonably ask: “Where do I find the time?”
    But, with all due respect, I think that kind of response reveals something of a philosophical difference in the way education is viewed by many teachers, as opposed to those outside the teaching profession who (like many teachers I know) also seek change and improvements to public education.
    I’ll be generalizing wildly here (and feel free to point out where I stray), but it’s long been my impression that teachers are very much focused on inputs, and by that I mean broadly two things: time on task, and curriculum. What do we teach, and how much time do we devote to it?
    To me, a focus on those two areas masks what I would argue are two more important questions — what do we want our students to be learning (and more broadly, what kinds of skills do we want our graduates to have learned during their K-12 career?), and how well do we teach it?
    You’re response to the question — should we have elementary students learn a second language? — is very much focused on inputs (where do I find the time?) My desire to have elementary students learn a second language is based on this — what should our students (graduates) know by the time they leave our schools? Given that the world outside K-12 (the UW — the next step for many graduates — as well as an increasingly bi-lingual workplace) seems to recognize the importance of second language learning, it strikes me as imperative that that learning begin as early as possible. Is learning a second language as important as learning math? Perhaps not, but it’s approaching it, and the UW views competency in both as a requirement to attend its top schools.
    The time on task argument is one that’s heard frequently, and with perhaps some justification, from teachers. But, to cite one example, look at some of the responses you here from some teachers when it comes to comprehensive, standardized assessments. I don’t want to wade into the Reading Recovery debate here, but one of the reasons I think it generates a fair amount of controversy (both within the ranks of MMSD teachers, as well as outside observers) is that it seems to lack a comprehensive assessment strategy that allows for a simple comparison of how well students in the program do, compared to those who are not. There are some very good early elementary assessment strategies out there, yet MMSD doesn’t utilize them, and one of the more constant refrains (maybe I’m over-generalizing here, and I’d welcome counter-claims) I hear from teachers is that it would take away from instructional time.
    I think the time-on-task argument is one that can always be used to resist change in education. In some ways, it’s a more pernicious argument than the financial one. Given that the length of a school day or school year is unlikely to expand (largely for non-educational, political reasons), how should we structure our school day/week? I tend to be one of those folks who thinks that students shouldn’t be learning too many other things until they demonstrate grade-level (however that is defined) competency in math and reading. If that means spending six hours a day doing math and reading, so be it. But once that competency is demonstrated and mastered, what else should students be learning? It strikes me that the world outside public K-12 is demanding competency in learning a second language. Why should school districts wait to begin teaching it?

  11. Can anyone more knowledgeable than me help bring the following factor into this discussion? Time on task may vary greatly between students.
    That was my experience of public schooling anyway. In other words, given the same objective — e.g., learn this unit of Spanish vocabulary — and the same instructional approach, a random group of kids going to exhibit differences in time needed to complete the objective. It seems like if you’re going to try to answer the question “Where do I find the time?” in a rigorous fashion, this factor would have to be weighed in.

  12. Part of the reason may be the state law in the WI Administrative Code, which guides what instruction is required in K-12. Here’s what it says about instruction in chapter PI8: “Each school district board shall provide instruction as follows: 1. In grades kindergarten through 4, regular instruction shall be provided in reading, language arts, social studies, mathematics, science, health, physical education, art and music. In this subdivision, “regular instruction”means instruction each week for the entire school term in sufficient frequency and length to achieve the objectives and allocation of instructional time identified in the curriculum plans developed and adopted under par. (k). Note: Appendix A to this chapter contains the department’s recommendations for minimum allocations of instruction for grades kindergarten through grade 6. 2. In grades kindergarten through 8, include instruction in the social studies curriculum in the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of the federally recognized American Indian tribes and bands located in the state in at least 2 grade levels and in at least one grade level in grades 9 through 12 beginning September 1, 1991.”
    So, there’s state law, national and state academic standards — and leadership….I’ve heard statements to the effect “State law does not require this.” Again, where’s the leadership?

  13. Nancy,
    I think that *some* language exposure is occurring via ESL staff and in classrooms that team with bilingual classrooms, but probably not very systematically. ESL staff are trying to focus on making education accessible to ELLs, a big task that doesn’t leave much free time. ESL is not provided as pullout in our building, (I’m not sure whether or not that is the norm elsewhere), but it is also woefully understaffed, so as a practical matter, under current staffing it wouldn’t be a very effective vehicle to deliver widespread language instruction.
    Phil M,
    I may be reading you incorrectly, but I am getting the impression that you think I am trying to throw up roadblocks. I am raising sincere questions as someone who DOES believe that students should exit the system with fluency (or at least a functional command of) a second language. It is fine to say that we shouldn’t be worrying about time on task, but what does that mean? When my teaching partners and I set up a teaching schedule, we aren’t doing it arbitrarily. For instance, we have decided on 75 minutes per day of math, because when we were only teaching for 60 minutes, we were either forced to move on to new topics before students were able to demonstrate mastery/competence, or to drop topics. If we want all of our students to be able to take calculus at some point in our future, then rushing students from one half-grasped skill/concept to the next, is not acceptable. Thus, 75 minutes per day. Similarly, we set our time for reading and writing based on the amount of time it takes to provide students with teacher directed instruction, practice opportunities, and for evaluation/application/synthesis of the applicable skills and content.
    I want our students to exit the school system as critical readers, with strong oral and written communication skills. I want them to have knowledge of both the geo-political and natural world (past and present), and to be skilled enough mathematicians and scientists to be our next generation of innovators. I want them to have an appreciation of others, an ability to succeed in diverse groups and situations, and to value art, music and other aesthetic and creative endeavors. I hope they will have learned self-reliance, and will emerge believing in their ability to make things happen, rather than expecting things to fall into their laps. I believe that the seeds of all of these things are sown early. Yes, I would also like our students to have command of a second language, but I want to find a way to do it that doesn’t require us to give up on one of the other outcomes.
    So….I again wonder how to make this happen, and am hopeful that there might be some creative ideas out there.
    I went back and re-read the article about the Oregon school plan. I wonder what it means when it talks about integrating second language instruction into other parts of the day. Is there evidence that this is effective? Or is it a case of sounds good, but doesn’t pay off? Are we just talking about teaching some vocabulary in a second language in addition to english? My first reaction is that that seems kind of random. If what we are looking for is nothing more than exposure to vocabulary, could that be done via a video series, CD ROM, or tape recordings? In that case, perhaps a “language station” that kids rotate through during one of their independent reading times each week. Or maybe it’s daily language homework–correct the english, read the translation, and then substitute the noun or verb for a previously learned noun or verb? What I don’t want to do is waste precious preparation or class time doing something to try to meet this goal if it doesn’t actually *do* what it’s intended to do.
    Perhaps the reason that teachers are responding with questions about where to find the time is that they/we are *already* on board philisophically. As to whether it’s appropriate for teachers to be focused on curriculum and time…..I admit to being confused. I would think that in all professions we spend some time talking about our larger goals, but that we also spend a lot of time figuring out what day to day steps are needed to get there (what to teach) and how to allocate our time at work to complete those steps. Of course, as in all professions, it is possible to become mired in the day to day, and not to notice when our work is failing to bring us closer to our ultimate goals–thus the need for good assessment tools.

Comments are closed.