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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

Trends: Foreign Languages / Are America's Schools Ready for World-Class Standards?

Instructional Strategies
By the year 2000 all American students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, arts, history, and geography.—GOALS 2000: The Educate America Act
If GOALS 2000 is designed to help students attain world-class standards, then our schools face a significant challenge. Young students are so far behind their peers in learning foreign languages that the United States cannot even be included in international assessments of foreign language performance. A recent report of foreign language instructional policies in 15 developed nations (excluding the United States) found that 13 nations mandate foreign language study for all students by the middle grades (Bergentoft 1994). In contrast, only about 12 percent of students in the United States take a nonexploratory foreign language course in grades 7 or 8, and only 38 percent of high school students enroll in a foreign language course (Draper 1991).
Through a collaborative effort of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the American Association of Teachers of French, the American Association of Teachers of German, and the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, a task force has begun development of standards for student performance in foreign languages. Although off to a late start in comparison with standards work in other disciplines, the Foreign Language Standards Task Force will have a draft available for circulation by June 1994.
To provide an education comparable with that of the industrialized world, national standards will have to go beyond the traditional two-year foreign language sequence that has been the hallmark of the college bound. The Foreign Language Standards Task Force began its work by setting exit standards that describe what students should know and be able to do upon leaving high school. Students will have to begin foreign language study earlier and stay with it longer than has traditionally been the case. All students—not just those headed for college—will need to learn a foreign language, and they will need to begin studying it well before entering 9th grade.
At present, every state has high school foreign language programs, but most of these programs will be insufficient to help students meet the new standards. Only 9 of the 50 states mandate foreign language instruction in the elementary grades, plan to do so soon, or offer incentives to schools and school systems that provide it. Only 5 states require or will soon require foreign language study in the middle grades (Met, in press). Yet, two-thirds of public schools do not offer year-long foreign language courses to students in grades 7 or 8. In schools that do offer year-long courses, only 14 percent enroll 50 percent or more of their students (Epstein and MacIver 1992).
In addition, some educators have misinterpreted the emphasis on exploratory language experiences in the middle grades to exclude sequential programs of language development. As a result, some of the students who begin to develop foreign language proficiency in the elementary grades experience a hiatus while they take exploratory courses—sometimes for as long as three years. This often results in a loss of learning, undermining the advantages provided by an early start.
All our current resources, and more, will be needed to provide an early and extended sequence of foreign language learning. We will need more teachers, particularly those prepared to meet the developmental needs of younger learners. Several states and school systems, recognizing the need for new curriculums and instructional materials geared to early language learners, have developed such materials, and several service providers have begun to implement and improve distance learning programs for elementary and middle grades. While distance learning in foreign language instruction can contribute to the development of language skills, alone it is unlikely to produce the level of competence intended by the national standards.
Foreign language learning today bears little resemblance to that of 20 years ago. In the last decade, foreign language teaching has undergone a paradigmatic shift, not unlike the shifts that have shaped current teaching in reading, language arts, mathematics, and science. Effective foreign language instruction is holistic, performance-oriented, and based on constructivist views of learning. It requires collaborative learning and practice, connects to other areas of the curriculum, and is enhanced through explicit instruction in metacognitive and cognitive learning strategies. Language and culture studies are closely interwoven.
The forthcoming national standards for foreign language will reflect this new view of language education, and by calling for an extended sequence of study, they will contribute to its goal of preparing students to interact effectively with people of other languages and cultures.
References

Bergentoft, R. (March 1994). “Foreign Language Instruction: A Comparative Perspective.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 532: 8–34.

Draper, J. (1991). Foreign Language Enrollments in Public Secondary Schools, Fall 1989 and Fall 1990. New York: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Epstein, J., and D. MacIver. (1992). Opportunities to Learn. Effects on Eighth Graders of Curriculum Offerings and Instructional Approaches. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.

Met, M. (In press). “A Survey of Current Foreign Language Practices in Middle Schools.” Foreign Language Annals.

End Notes

1 To obtain a draft copy of the Foreign Language Standards Task Force standards, write to Jamie Draper, ACTFL, 6 Executive Plaza, Yonkers, NY 10701.

Myriam Met has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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