By Carla Thomas McCiure, District Administration, Jan 2013
While education research has long suggested that studying second
languages in K12 schools boosts student achievement in other content
areas, the current testing emphases on mathematics and reading has
placed foreign language instruction relatively low on district priority
lists. However, a growing body of research indicates that
second-language learning should be bumped up significantly, as
demonstrated particularly in the following areas.
Cognitive ability. Numerous studies document a
positive relationship between early second language learning and
improved mental processes, including conceptual learning (Archibald,
2006; Robinson, 1998). For example, a recent experiment with 104
six-year-olds found those who spoke two languages were better at
switching from one task to another, an indicator of their ability to
manage attention (Barac & Bialystok, 2012).
(1999) examined the test scores of 13,200 third- and fifth-grade
students in Louisiana and found that those studying a foreign language
performed better on the state assessment in English than those not
enrolled in a foreign language class, regardless of race, gender, and
overall academic performance. Curtain and Dahlberg (2004) noted in other
studies that learning a second language seems especially beneficial to
the academic achievement of children from minority and low-income
College and career readiness. One in four
institutions of higher education requires applicants to study a foreign
language to gain admission, and one in two requires students to fulfill a
language requirement during college to receive an undergraduate degree
Research and data indicate that implementing a foreign language
program that contributes to such improvements in students’ achievement
and preparedness will require schools and districts to do the following:
Establish a sequenced instructional program.
The Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) recommends sequenced
preK-to-college programs of sufficient strength to help students become
highly proficient in a second language.
Children who receive second-language instruction before middle school
are more likely to speak the language fluently. Further, young children
who master a second language seem more able than monolinguals to master
additional languages later in life. A study of 60 lifelong bilinguals at
age 20 showed they learned twice as many words in an invented language
than other 20-year-olds who spoke only one language (Kaushanskaya &
Kaushanskaya, 2009). Children develop more positive attitudes toward the
target language, speakers, and culture if they are exposed to the
language by age 10. (Curtain & Dahlberg, 2004).
Provide time for instruction.
Students who receive as little as 15 minutes of foreign language
instruction daily can make significant progress if instruction is
motivating, appropriately challenging, and allows for creative use of
the language, according to a research review conducted by Archibald and
colleagues (2006). However, the researchers cautioned school
administrators in Alberta, Canada, to be realistic about what to expect
from offering 95 hours of instruction per year for six years, saying it
would not yield “functional bilingualism and fluency in the second
Offer professional development.
Because hiring highly qualified foreign language teachers is a
challenge, ongoing professional development is especially important.
Foreign language teachers need to be up-to-date on emerging
instructional methods, and language drills. The movement is toward
providing comprehensible input, using the language as a vehicle to teach
academic content, and engaging students in authentic tasks. A
comprehensible input-based method that has produced superior results,
when well executed, is Teaching Proficiency through Reading and
Storytelling (Roof & Kreutter, 2010).
Use technology wisely.
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL, 2012)
reports that computer-based programs are increasingly used by qualified
teachers to supplement and/or differentiate instruction, provide
practice, and connect students to native speakers of the target
Learning from Other Countries
According to a 2005 Senate Resolution, fewer than 1 in 10 U.S. adults
are fluent in a second language, compared to more than half of the
adults in Europe. Only 7 percent of U.S. adults attribute their
second-language proficiency to schooling, according to the National
Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey (2011). In 2000, the
Center for Applied Linguistics studied 19 countries where
second-language programs are the norm. Common features were: a coherent
framework, strong leadership, designation of foreign language as a core
subject, rigorous teacher education, use of the target language(s) to
teach content, creative use of technology, and support for heritage
languages (Christian, Pufahl, & Rhodes, 2005). DAPo