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Foreign Language Curriculum Frameworks

Appendix A. Early Language Learning and Programs in the Elementary Grades

In their book, Languages and Children, Making the Match, Helena Curtain and Carol Ann Pesola offer a detailed description of the benefits of early second language learning, including a rationale statement for districts considering the adoption of early second language learning programs.10 While specific program rationales must be developed to reflect the needs and desires of individual school districts, there do exist enough common benefits among the different foreign language program options to warrant a thorough reading of this text. In addition, recent reports on brain research suggest that there may exist a "critical stage" of second language learning after which time the acquisition of a second language becomes more difficult.

Reports such as Strength Through Wisdom (the report of the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, 1979), the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983), and Critical Needs in International Education: Recommendations for Action (the report of the National Advisory Board on International Education Programs, 1983) all address the need for the institution of foreign language programs as a vital part of all students' education, beginning in the elementary school. The report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education states, "We believe it is desirable that students achieve such proficiency (resultant from continued study of the same foreign language) because study of a foreign language introduces students to non-English-speaking cultures, heightens awareness and comprehension of one's native tongue, and serve's the nation's needs in commerce, diplomacy, defense and education."11 Special characteristics of elementary foreign language learning must also be taken into consideration when determining a starting point for second language instruction.

  • When language instruction begins early in a child's academic career, the child has more time to develop true proficiency in the target language.12
  • The nature of elementary school instruction allows second languages to be taught through "meaningful contexts" (such as math, science, history, etc.) that enable students to see the immediate connections of the second language to other areas of the curriculum.
  • Foreign language study in the early grades is associated with students' higher performance in basic skills.13
  • The development of cross-cultural understanding is an inherent goal of elementary school curriculum. Providing students knowledge of other cultures can lead to a greater understanding of the similarities and differences which make up American society.
  • Learning a second language at an early age can help to develop students' cognitive flexibility, or creative thinking skills. For example, students who have learned that the word "maison" represents what English-speakers know as "house" have begun to think in new ways about the conceptual reality of day-to-day life.

Several well-established elementary school programs in the Commonwealth attest to the success of young children in acquiring a second language, and the number of schools offering foreign language instruction to elementary students increases from year to year.

Most elementary school programs fall into the following categories:

  • FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) programs are those in which students meet three to five times a week for at least 30-40 minutes in each class session to learn the target language. Sometimes FLES programs are "content-enriched," in which case some content from other subject areas is reinforced in the target language. FLES programs differ from immersion programs in the amount of time spent teaching the subject content and the language.
  • Two-Way Immersion or Two-Way Bilingual programs are similar to immersion programs except that the student body includes both English speakers as well as native speakers of the target language. All learn subject matter through both their native language and the new one, and benefit from interaction with peers who are native speakers of the new language they are using. Approximately 50% of overall instructional time is spent in each language.
  • Immersion programs teach language by using only the target language as the medium of instruction for other subjects. In immersion programs, any of the usual curriculum activities from the other disciplines, such as math, music, or history, are presented in the target language. The amount of time spent in the target language varies across programs from "partial" (approximately 50%) to "total" immersion (100%).

See the Selected Resource Section for information on FLES programs.

Further information is also available on the Ñandutí website on Early Foreign Language Learning.

Last Updated: January 1, 1999
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