Teaching Other Languagaes in the Essential Schools

You teach in a subject area that opens doors to a whole world of ideas and experience, and connects to every area of the curriculum. But no one in your school community treats it that way. Instead, they insist that your students accumulate and regurgitate great quantities of dry facts, without learning their context or how to apply them in any practical way. They assign you short blocks of time to teach in, and though you have ideas about how to transform your curriculum, you don’t get time to talk to other teachers or plan out new strategies. Your state has finally agreed that your subject is important enough to require for graduation, but they only require a token number of credits and students can slide by with no real proficiency. You think there are teachers at the elementary and middle school who might share your interest in a new approach, but it would take a huge political effort to make anything happen district-wide.

Are you an arts teacher? Or do you teach not music or drawing or dance but another world language??typically Spanish, French, German, Latin, or even English??to a generation of students who need its skills more now than ever? In matters of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment, the parallels between the arts and language education are striking, and not least is the stepchild’s place they share in the forgotten corners of school reform.

Though speaking, listening, reading, and writing have emerged in the last decade as the chief goals of second language instruction, surveys indicate that administrators see only a weak relationship between foreign language goals and the goals of the total school curriculum. Common sense and school reform philosophy agree that other languages are a communicative tool??not an end in themselves but a means to exploring ideas and experiences across the disciplines. But instead of placing communication at the heart of the foreign language curriculum, most schools still emphasize what they call “basic skills”??by which they mean grammar, translation, and parrot-like memorization rather than a more fluid receiving and producing of meaning in engaging and relevant contexts.

Despite these obstacles, many teachers of foreign languages in Essential schools, like their colleagues in the arts, can offer powerful models of the Nine Common Principles in action.

For instance, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) provided educators in the early 1980s with a set of standards, rubrics, and proficiency assessments that broke new ground in their usefulness to ongoing instruction. Its Oral Proficiency Interview, in which the interviewer evaluates a student on a range of near-natural communication tasks, tests language performance in an authentic context and provides very specific guidelines for distinguishing between various degrees of novice, intermediate, advanced, and superior competence.

In classroom instruction, teachers of second languages were among the first to adopt active learning strategies like cooperative learning, hands-on projects, dramatic simulations and role-plays, and experiential learning. In pioneering programs at the elementary school level, some have teamed with teachers of other subjects to integrate the study of language and other content areas. And a few rare secondary schools are trying “partial immersion” programs, which use a second language as the medium of instruction in one or more subject areas, sometimes at the same time that they enhance the literacy and communication skills of native speakers of that language.

The teaching of other languages has special importance in American schools as immigration increases from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By 2000, studies show, most schoolchildren in major metropolitan areas will come from homes where a language other than English is spoken. Hispanic students, the largest language minority group in North America, also top the high school dropout list, partly because of the extra burden of taking subjects like math and science in a language not their own.

Establishing bilingual competence for all students necessarily begins with those who have limited English proficiency. But students whose native language is English must also leave high school able to speak another language well. Incorporating language-minority students into second language programs as role models and peer tutors offers a supportive and cooperative learning environment for both groups, and can provide academic content and purpose as well. Such programs take careful planning and teacher development; their number is small.

Recommended Readings

Helena A. Curtain and C. A. Pesola, Languages and Children: Making the Match. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1988.

Robin Scarcella, E. A. Andersen, and S. Krashen, eds., Developing Communicative Competence in a Second Language. New York: Newbury House, 1990.

Tongues Untied: A Collaborative Forum for Modern Language Teachers, $30 (10 issues); Box 4300, George School, Newtown PA 18940;    215-860-6811   215-860-6811 .

Omaggio, Alice, Teaching Language in Context. Boston: Heinle and Heinle, 1983.

American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) Proficiency Guidelines (1986)

Center for Language Education and Research (CLEAR) reports available through ERIC Clearinghouse database. For a listing, contact Craig Packard at   800-276-9834  800-276-9834 .