Language instruction leans forward in K12

Immersion expands as educators push to infuse foreign languages into all subjects
By: | October 17, 2016

Alaska recently graduated its first class of Russian dual-language students who began the program in kindergarten. That’s just one example of the growing diversity of language-immersion programs in U.S. schools.

While Spanish remains a constant, there is an increased demand nationally for dual-language programs in Portuguese, German, French and Mandarin, says Pete Swanson, president of American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and associate professor of foreign language at Georgia State University.

Dual language and the increasing public awareness of the value of foreign language education will drive part of the discussions at the ACTFL’s convention in Boston this month. While immersion programs are popular for younger students, few districts operate effective programs beyond the elementary years, Swanson says.

Districts are exploring ways to continue providing general instruction to high school students in their target languages. But enrollment may be small and teachers often lack necessary certification to teach history in Chinese, for example, he adds.

Foreign language acquisition is also moving toward a “proficiency-based approach” says Swanson. Today’s students need to develop interpretive, presentational and interpersonal skills, moving beyond conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary. Students must learn to use language in practical situations, such as ordering food or having social conversations.

An economic imperative

While dual-language immersion programs have been around for quite some time, the demand for growth in K12 is increasing, says Swanson.

Dual-language immersion schools have opened in Utah, Wyoming and Georgia. In Georgia, the state wanted 20 new programs added by 2020; they’re already close to 40, says Swanson.

The Commission on Language Learning is studying the nation’s aptitude in foreign languages to determine how better attention to the subject will help prepare the country economically, socially and diplomatically in the future. The commission, a group of scholars and professionals convened by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences as requested by Congress, will release a national report in 2017. The intent is to increase language education at every grade level to foster a deeper commitment to language and international education, according to the commission’s website.

Also, ACTFL’s recent launch of the Lead With Languages campaign will raise awareness about how the fastest growing economies are in non-English speaking countries and how being bilingual or multilingual is standard—not exceptional—in other parts of the world.

Teaching: The 90 percent rule

Teachers must have the expertise to deliver foreign language instruction that promotes crucial skills, says Eileen Glisan, a professor of Spanish and foreign language education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Together with Richard Donato, chairman of the instruction and teaching department at the University of Pittsburgh, Glisan wrote the book Enacting the Work of Language Instruction: High Leverage Teaching Practices, released last month. The two will present a six-hour workshop at the convention based on three practices featured in the book.

Through high-leverage instruction, beginning foreign language teachers benefit from practice-based, hands-on experiences and coaching—either from university programs or fellow teachers, says Glisan. “Instead of learning and watching someone else do something, they’re actually engaged in it” she says.

The methodology isn’t new, Glisan says. Nineteen practices originated at the University of Michigan School of Education, but it’s being applied to foreign languages now and works for new instructors and seasoned teachers in PD.

One practice addresses the use of foreign language in the classroom. “It’s really important that teachers use the language at least 90 percent of the time” says Glisan.

Strategies in order to stay in the target language include:

Use of visuals to express meaning.

Techniques to simplify the language, such as redefining and rephrasing words.

Use of compelling examples in which language is learned so students have clear cues to meaning.

“High-leverage practices lead to high student achievement in the classroom” says Glisan. “It’s all about helping learners learn better.”