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Six Ways to Fluency for World-Language Learners

Across the country, we are seeing an increase in world language programs for K-12 students. Today, Renee A. Foose, Superintendent of the Howard County Public School System in Maryland, shares information on their pre-K through high school world language continuum. 

By guest blogger Renee A. Foose

Several years ago, when the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) and community came together to develop our strategic plan, two of the resulting strategies centered on developing and providing equitable access to a robust world language instructional program at all levels. We understood that we had to rethink the HCPSS World Language Program in order to effectively prepare students to be global citizens. Howard County is now paving the way for language fluency by offering many of our students world language instruction in continuum from pre-K through high school, eliminating gaps that can occur when instruction is interrupted during a student's academic career.

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This instruction continuum, launched this year, supports our World Language Program's goal to graduate every HCPSS student with intermediate proficiency, or higher, in at least one world language. The HCPSS World Language Program prepares our students to thrive in today's global world through language proficiency and cultural understanding. Students who meet the proficiency goals throughout their course of study and reach the intermediate level are able to express thoughts, provide descriptions, ask and answer simple questions on familiar topics, and handle a simple situation or transaction.

Most of the world's industrialized nations have national policies that mandate world language instruction in elementary school, according to a white paper issued by the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland. A large body of research posits that world language in the early grades positively impacts intellectual growth, academic achievement, and cultural proficiency. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) contends that students learn to think more flexibly, appreciate nuances in language, and sharpen their listening skills as they learn a second language. Young children also expand their capacity for communicating with peers whose primary language is not English, and they develop an appreciation for other cultures.

Our elementary school World Language Program has gained accolades from the community because parents understand the many cognitive and social benefits of such a program. Here's what the world language pathway can look like for students going through our school system.

1. The focus of our World Language Program is to build communicative skills in speaking, listening, reading, and writing, so students can use the world language in real life situations. World language teachers strive to conduct their classes in the target language 90-100 percent of the time. HCPSS leverages technology through e-texts, available at all levels of study, so students can extend learning beyond the school day with interactive language activities. Our program stands out because we offer world language instruction to all students, whether they are English language learners, heritage speakers, gifted/talented, or in special education. Our proficiency-based curriculum is based on the ACTFL World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages, which encourage equity and access for all students.

2. Early and continued learning is key in language proficiency. That is why we have launched daily world language instruction in eight elementary schools as part of our Elementary School Model, a comprehensive approach to revolutionizing early education with such initiatives as Telehealth and subject departmentalization. Our World Language elementary school program, which incorporates ACTFL's elementary age recommendations, offers 30 minutes of daily, immersive instruction that aims to build communicative Spanish skills, not just exposure, through this fluency model. Students can make transdisciplinary connections by learning Spanish through strategies used in English Language Arts and math. With a program offering multiple entry points, elementary students can commence language learning at any grade as they join one of these schools and then continue gaining proficiency until they graduate high school.

3. Starting in the 6th grade HCPSS has begun offering differentiated learning at seven middle schools, which receive many students from Elementary School Model schools. I'm proud we can offer differentiated learning, a unique approach at the middle school level, so students can move at the pace of learning that's best for them, including heritage speakers. Teachers can offer different levels of rigor based on readiness through practices, such as tiered assignments on the same topic, open-ended performance tests, enrichment vocabulary for advanced levels, and classroom stations with open-ended activities. HCPSS has provided digital resources, such as laptop carts, teacher professional training on blended learning models, reading groups, and tiered instruction with the support of a Maryland State Department of Education grant.

The HCPSS World Language Program for middle school also provides multiple language choices for students, including French and Spanish, and at some schools, Chinese.

4. At the high school level, we provide students a lot of choice in their language study, offering seven options with the possibility of advancing to Advanced Placement levels, as well as American Sign Language. Distance learning has enabled us to offer language classes not physically available in specific schools. This year, 46 students across the county are taking classes completely online, and 61 students are taking blended synchronous Chinese classes, with both live online and in-person offerings. We also can encourage students to accelerate their placement as we now assess language proficiency in rising 9th grade heritage Spanish speakers.

5. HCPSS students have multiple pathways to reach their proficiency goals and graduation requirements. This summer, we're launching Jump Start into Middle School Spanish for students enrolled in 6th grade Spanish with no previous instruction, so they're better prepared to learn a language with their Elementary School Model educated peers. During the summer, we offer Spanish 1 and 2 classes to high school students. High school students can also earn Howard Community College credits through its language summer camps and classes throughout the year.

6. The strength of our World Language Program is possible through our teachers, who have access to customized, high-quality professional development opportunities that meet the needs and deepen the skill sets of all participants. Full day retreats, smaller professional learning communities and individualized learning experiences are available to support the teachers' knowledge of students, content, and pedagogy. The World Language Learning Community is a monthly meeting opportunity that includes a planning hub where teachers can collaboratively plan lessons, and language circles where teachers can converse in the target language to enhance their own fluency in the language they teach. 

Together, these approaches empower Howard County students with world readiness skills. As we move forward, we will continue to expand early world language instruction and differentiated learning. These are powerful tools for Howard County students as they prepare for college and career success through increased world language fluency and global competence.

Connect with Dr. Foose, HCPPS, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter. 

Image: Teacher Kimberly Morales works with a student in the World Language program at Bryant Woods Elementary School, an Elementary School Model school in the Howard County Public School System (Photo by Nicholas Griner, HCPSS)

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