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Foreign Language Education

Proficiency, Standards, Assessment, Technology, Support for Foreign Language Teachers, Elementary School Foreign Language Programs

Foreign language education in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century is energized by some of the most dramatic developments in its modern history. Proficiency movement and standards initiatives have changed the focus of language instruction and assessment. Implications of emerging brain research have fueled renewed interest in early and intensive language learning for children in the first years of formal schooling, as well as programwide emphasis on meaningful use of language in authentic contexts. The resources of the Internet and other technology tools provide new opportunities for students to have direct experiences with the target language and its cultures, both within and beyond the school setting.


The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Proficiency Guidelines, first published in 1986, shifted the emphasis in language instructional goals from what learners know about language to what they can do with the language they have learned, and at the same time they established a common metric for measuring student performance. The Proficiency Guidelines describe student performance in listening, speaking, reading, and writing at the novice, intermediate, advanced, and superior levels. They were adapted from guidelines developed in U.S. government language schools and have made "proficiency-oriented instruction" a part of the vocabulary of every language teacher. The 1986 guidelines were subsequently reevaluated and revised, beginning with the 1999 document "ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines–Speaking" and with the 2001 document "Preliminary Proficiency Guidelines–Writing."


The Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the Twenty-First Century, introduced in 1996 and revised in 1999, created the bold vision of a long sequence of language instruction for all learners, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through grade twelve and beyond. Eleven content standards were clustered within five major goals:

  • Communication: Communicate in Languages Other than English
  • Cultures: Gain Knowledge and Understanding of Other Cultures
  • Connections: Connect with Other Disciplines and Acquire Information
  • Comparisons: Develop Insight into the Nature of Language and Culture
  • Communities: Participate in Multilingual Communities at Home and Around the World

Sample performance indicators were provided for grades four, eight, and twelve, and sample learning scenarios described classroom activities that reflect the standards. After introduction of the general standards in 1996, supporting documents were developed for nine languages and were included in the 1999 edition.

ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K–12 Learners, devised in 1998, support the content standards with descriptions of student performance. Based on both the Proficiency Guidelines and the Standards document, the Performance Guidelines reinforce the vision of the K–12 sequence and dramatize the idea that proficiency development requires time and intensity of language instruction.


The Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) is the tool by which trained interviewers place foreign language speakers on a proficiency continuum from novice to superior. By focusing on the ability to use the language to accomplish communicative tasks of increasing complexity, the OPI has influenced curriculum, teaching, and assessment, as well as standards for licensure of language teachers.

The application of the proficiency model to the other language skills of writing, reading, and comprehension created a new focus in assessment on performance tasks rather than linguistic manipulation. Teachers create contexts and rubrics for evaluating student performance and portfolios of student work, in addition to more traditional tests of accuracy and grammatical competence.

Because of the usefulness of performance assessments, adaptations of OPI-based assessments have been developed for use in K–8 settings and for articulation between high school and college programs. The Center for Applied Linguistics developed an oral interview for students in immersion and other elementary school language programs called the Student Oral Proficiency Assessment. Similar to the OPI, this test uses contexts and environments more appropriate to the child in grades three to five. Another test, the Early Language Listening and Oral Proficiency Assessment, was subsequently developed for language learners from pre-K to grade two. These tests are intended primarily for program evaluation, although they give teachers feedback on effectiveness of teaching and student progress, as well as tools for constructing their own classroom oral assessments.


The growing use of technology throughout society has had an impact on foreign language instruction as well, especially at the middle and high school level. The language labs of the 1960s and 1970s have become multimedia learning laboratories. Students and teachers supplement their textbooks with CDROMs, access foreign-language websites, hold online conversations with students in other countries, and interact regularly with their "key pals," often in the target language. Many students keep electronic portfolios and build culminating projects using Internet resources and multimedia software such as PowerPoint or Hyper Studio. They may create individual or class web pages, and outstanding student work may appear on the school web page. Teachers use the web to post activities and information, to communicate with parents and the community, and to provide resources for students, parents, and other teachers. In many respects the Internet is the realization of a long-held dream: Students can be in regular contact with authentic foreign language resources, both at school and at home, and they can use the target language for meaningful, personal purposes.

Technology can also help teachers and school districts provide foreign language instruction even in remote and isolated settings. Interactive television has made it possible for one Spanish teacher in North Dakota, for example, to reach students in schools many miles away. Interactive television can bring a Russian or a Japanese class to one or two high school students who would otherwise have to wait until college to enroll in the language of their choice. Distance learning is the only option for language education for some rural and isolated school districts. Because of the popularity of distance learning and the special conditions necessary for its success, the National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Language issued a position paper on the topic in 2002.

Support for Foreign Language Teachers

K–12 foreign language teachers of the early twentyfirst century have unprecedented support and resources available to them. Each of the major languages has a national organization that provides guidelines, resources, and sometimes funding to assist teachers and programs. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) serves as an umbrella organization for all languages, and in this role it has initiated major projects such as the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, the Standards, and the ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K–12 Learners. Teachers also have access to state and national conferences sponsored by these organizations, as well as regional conferences such as the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the Southern Conference on Language Teaching, the Southwest Conference on Language Teaching, and the Central States Conference on Teaching Foreign Languages. Most sessions at these conferences focus on curriculum and pedagogy for the K–12 level.

The Center for Applied Linguistics provides research and information about K–12 language learning, and its Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics offers a wide range of resources in foreign language education. The language resource centers were established by Congress in 1989 to serve as resources to improve the nation's capacity to teach and learn foreign languages effectively. One of these, the K–12 Foreign Language Resource Center at Iowa State University, is focused specifically on issues of curriculum, assessment, and teacher development for K–12 programs.

Listservs provide teachers with the opportunity to post questions about programs, materials, or methodology and share their ideas with colleagues from all over the country. Two of the most popular are FLTeach, used especially by middle and high school teachers, and Nandu, the early language listserv for K–8 teachers. Many other listservs address the needs of specific languages and topic areas.

Elementary School Foreign Language Programs

Paul Garcia, then president of the ACTFL, was asked in a 2000 interview in Curriculum Technology Quarterly about new trends in foreign language education. He identified the continuing growth of foreign language programs for primary school learners as the most important trend and made special note of immersion education within that development. After a surge in the 1960s and a steep decline in the 1970s and early 1980s, interest in early language learning accelerated and sustained momentum through the turn of the century.

National reports played a strong role in this reawakening of interest. These reports included:

  • Strength through Wisdom, a 1979 report of the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, which specifically recommended that language learning begin in the elementary school and continue throughout a student's schooling.
  • A Nation at Risk, a 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which ranked foreign language education at the same level as the "basic academic fields."

Such reports emphasized the national and economic importance of attaining a level of proficiency in a foreign language that could only be accomplished over a long period of study.

Further impetus for early language learning came from results and interpretation of brain research, brought to popular awareness through reports in Newsweek in 1996 and Time in 1997. In the Time article, J. Madeline Nash wrote, "The ability to learn a second language is highest between birth and the age of six, and then undergoes a steady and inexorable decline…. What lessons can be drawn from the new findings? Among other things, it is clear that foreign languages should be taught in elementary school, if not before" (p. 56).

A number of states responded with mandates for teaching languages at the elementary school level, in some cases without funding to support the new programs. By 2002 there were mandates for foreign languages in the elementary school curriculum in at least eight states: Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. Other states worked without a mandate to increase and promote elementary school foreign language offerings.

In 1997 there were foreign language programs in 31 percent of all public and private elementary schools surveyed by the Center for Applied Linguistics, up from 22 percent in 1987. Spanish was taught in 79 percent of the programs, followed by French at 27 percent. Programs in German, Latin, Japanese, and Spanish for Spanish speakers were also well represented.

Elementary school foreign language programs generally fit into three major categories: immersion, FLES (foreign languages in elementary schools), and FLEX (foreign language exploration or experience).

Immersion education. Foreign language immersion programs, in which the content of the school curriculum is taught in the foreign language, are among the most influential innovations of the final decades of the twentieth century. Immersion goals are twofold: fluency in the foreign language and mastery of the content of the school curriculum. Most immersion programs begin in kindergarten or grade one, and many continue through the middle and high school levels. The first North American public school immersion program began in 1965 with a kindergarten in St. Lambert, a suburb of Montreal, Canada. Supported and advised by researchers from McGill University in Montreal, this French program was shaped by sound professional advice and carefully researched as it progressed from one grade to the next. Longitudinal research validated the effectiveness of immersion in meeting both language and content goals and served to inspire new immersion programs across Canada and in the United States.

The first U.S. immersion program was established in Spanish in Culver City, California, in 1971. In 1974 a total immersion program in French began in Montgomery County, Maryland, and partial immersion programs in French, Spanish, and German began in Cincinnati, Ohio. Other programs soon followed, and by 1993 approximately 28,200 students were enrolled in nine languages in 139 programs, in twenty-five states and Washington, DC. Spanish was the most frequently taught language, followed by French, Japanese, and German. By 1999 the total number of immersion schools had risen to 278, with approximate 46,000 students enrolled, in eleven languages. More than half the programs were in Spanish.

In total immersion programs all instruction during the school day is conducted in the target language, beginning with four-or five-year-olds in kindergarten, and children learn to read first in their new language. English language instruction is usually introduced in grade two or three, commonly for a half hour per day, and is gradually increased each year until by grade five or six, 20 to 40 percent of the day is taught in English.

Partial immersion programs deliver the curriculum in the English language for approximately half the school day and in the foreign language for the other half of the day. Children learn to read in both languages simultaneously or in English first and then in the new language. This balance of English and foreign language instruction continues from the beginning of schooling until grade five or six.

Both total immersion and partial immersion are designed primarily for native speakers of English, although native speakers of other languages are also successful immersion students. In most cases the teacher is the only fluent language model for the students in the classroom. Two-way immersion, or bilingual immersion, is a model that grew rapidly after its introduction in 1963. In this approach, native speakers of English and the target language learn together, half a day in one language and half a day in the other. Each group of students is learning in its new language during half the school day, and student native speakers serve as language models for one another. By 2000 there were 260 programs in twenty-three states, most of them in Spanish. This model depends on the presence of a stable population of native speakers of both languages, and the growing Spanish population in the United States creates ideal conditions for two-way Spanish immersion programs.

FLES (foreign languages in elementary schools) programs. FLES programs have a long history in the United States, with a notable surge in popularity in the 1960s and a resurgence in the late 1980s. As generally defined, FLES programs are part of a long sequence of language study, beginning before middle school, that lead to continuing courses at the middle and high school levels. The programs of the late 1980s emphasized integrated, thematic planning and a close connection with the general elementary school curriculum. Some "content-based" or "content-related" programs make a special effort to reinforce student learning in other content areas. Class periods range from ten to forty minutes in length, from once to five times per week.

This variability of starting points, instructional time, and degree of content orientation has made it very difficult to evaluate the overall results of FLES programs. The task force that developed the "ACTFL Performance Guidelines for K–12 Learners" addressed this problem by recommending that "the accomplishment of such content standards (in the ACTFL Standards document) required students to be enrolled in elementary programs that meet from 3–5 days per week for no less than 30–40 minutes per class" (Swender and Duncan, p. 482).

The Georgia ESFL (elementary school foreign language) model programs, established in 1992 with state funding, provide a clear picture of what is possible in a FLES program. Georgia model programs were designed to provide optimum conditions for language learning and to serve as a case study for the amount of language proficiency children can attain after six years of language study. Program guidelines require participating schools to offer a foreign language for thirty minutes per day, five days per week, beginning in kindergarten and continuing at least through grade five. Instruction is delivered in the target language, and teachers are expected to teach no more than eight classes per day. Testing in 1996, 1998, and 2001 by the Center for Applied Linguistics affirmed the outstanding results of these programs in all the languages represented–French, German, Japanese, and Spanish–and the 2001 report commended the program as a model for the entire United States.

FLEX programs (foreign language exploration or experience). Some school districts that find it impossible to fund more intensive foreign language programs for all students offer short-term programs that give learners a sample of one or more languages over a limited period of time. In 1994 Helena Curtain and Carol Ann Bjornstad Pesola characterized FLEX programs as "frequent and regular sessions over a short period of time or short and/or infrequent sessions over an extended period of time" (p.30). These programs have limited goals, usually stated in terms of interest and awareness, and in some cases they are taught mostly in English. Sometimes FLEX programs are offered as a way of helping students choose which language they will later study in depth. When carefully designed and well taught, FLEX programs can serve to enhance cultural awareness and motivate future language study, but they do not claim measurable language skills as an outcome.

Middle School Programs

Middle school programs face several major challenges. The first is the learners themselves, who have developmental characteristics that require instructional materials and strategies that are different both from those appropriate for the elementary school and from those effective with high school students. These needs are not adequately met by simply extending textbook instruction over two years instead of one, a typical program format. Second, as elementary school programs continue to grow, the middle school is literally caught in the middle of the long sequence, with a responsibility to coordinate with both elementary school and high school programs. Experienced language learners need continuation courses in the same language learned in the elementary school, and they also benefit from the option to begin a third language in the middle school. Middle schools that receive students from immersion programs or K–5/6 FLES programs sometimes offer content courses taught in the target language, especially mathematics and social studies. Third, middle schools have very limited time available for electives, and so long as foreign language classes are viewed as electives, they are often in competition with such attractive options as music, art, and applied arts.

Exploratory programs, long a popular approach for the middle school, fit well with the philosophy of exploration that has been a hallmark of the middle school curriculum. While FLEX programs may equip students to make an experience-based choice of a language for further study, they do not fit well with the projected K–12 sequence of the Standards document, nor with the recommendations of the task force for the ACTFL Performance Guidelines, which call for "middle school programs that meet daily for no less than 40–50 minutes" (Schwender and Duncan, p. 482). These programs also do not meet the needs of learners who have spent four to seven years in an elementary school FLES or immersion program.

A typical middle school format before the advent of proficiency and the Standards document included one semester to one year of the language in grade seven, followed by one semester to one year in grade eight, both considered to be "Level One." Students entering grade nine would then be eligible to enroll in "Level Two" of the language. This format, often preceded by a one-semester or one-year exploratory program, continues to be typical at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Clearly the variety of programs at the middle school level, ranging from nothing to a continuation of an effective elementary school program, made the Standards vision of a K–12 foreign language sequence difficult to attain. As Myriam Met pointed out in 1996, "Foreign language instruction in middle schools will be critical to the success of long sequences in the coming years" (p. 1).

High School Programs

The curriculum at the high school level has continued to be textbook-driven, although proficiency and the Standards have had a growing impact on textbooks, methodology, and student success. Teachers use partner and group work to help students develop strong communication skills. Influenced by the Standards, many teachers build units thematically, focus them on culminating projects, and integrate content from the general curriculum.

As with the middle school level, there is a vast variability across the country in terms of access to foreign language instruction at the high school level. Students in districts with well-developed K–12 programs emerge with impressive levels of proficiency from full five-to six-year programs spanning middle school and high school. At the same time there are other students, often in rural areas, who have virtually no access to foreign language instruction. Some schools have addressed the problem of access through the use of interactive television or by encouraging summer enrollment in various college or camp offerings.

Block scheduling in many schools has challenged teachers to rethink how they involve students with learning over class periods lasting ninety minutes and longer. Lack of continuity in language study, common in block scheduling, can create obstacles to the attainment of proficiency goals and place added stress on students and teachers.

In years three to five of the high school curriculum, a number of programs offer courses leading to the International Baccalaureate (IB), a schoolwide program that entitles graduates to enter universities around the world. Other programs offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which prepare students to take examinations that can result in college credit. Both IB and AP classes tend to focus on literature. Some states offer college-in-the-schools programs that allow advanced students to take college courses in their high school environment.

Many schools offer travel programs for foreign language students, often during spring or summer breaks, and in some cases a partner school in the target culture also sends students to the United States. These opportunities for authentic language practice are popular with students and teachers. Even short programs help to solidify language skills and motivate further language study. Other authentic language opportunities are found in popular weekend and summer language camps, such as the Concordia Language Villages in northern Minnesota.

Foreign Language Programs in Other Countries

A study of nineteen countries on six continents completed by the Center for Applied Linguistics in 2000 identified a number of contrasts between U.S. programs and those elsewhere. Most of the countries surveyed require the study of at least one foreign language, beginning in elementary grades. Some countries require two languages in the course of schooling, and Israel requires three languages–Hebrew plus two others. In countries of the European Union, foreign language study is moving earlier and earlier in the curriculum, and many countries begin in first grade.

Another contrast with the United States is the presence of strong language policy in many of the surveyed countries. Such policies include compulsory foreign language education, a national curriculum or curriculum framework, and designated amounts of time required for foreign language instruction. In many of the countries surveyed foreign languages are considered to be core subjects. In Germany, for example, languages command the same status and time commitment as mathematics, reading, and social studies. All of these policies stand in sharp contrast to the U.S. school setting.

The influence of immersion education and content-based instruction is notable in Europe and Australia, as increasing numbers of programs use the target language as a tool and not only a focus of instruction. Canada continues to show leadership in the development of and research into immersion programs, mainly for English-speaking learners of French. Two-way immersion programs are proliferating in Germany and Australia.

Communicative language teaching methods have been increasingly evident in Europe. As political and economic barriers among European countries have dropped away, the need to function in several languages has increased sharply, and priority has been placed on proficiency in written and spoken language. These priorities are reflected in both materials and teaching approaches. The Goethe Institute, a German government organization that provides German language instruction throughout the world, has been a leader in the development and dissemination of communicative teaching methodologies.

Challenges for K–Foreign Languages (12 )

As teachers work toward the vision of K–12 language programs and performance-based curriculum and instruction, several major challenges await them. First, developing smooth transitions from elementary to middle to high school, and then from high school to colleges and universities, will be a high priority. Making time for languages in the crowded middle school curriculum will be a major obstacle. Using the resources of technology to stretch the potential of the language classroom will be a constant challenge, especially as the technology continues to provide new opportunities. Teachers continue to be in short supply at all levels. Finally, there is the fundamental challenge: claiming a secure place in the school day and in the K–12 curriculum for foreign language instruction.


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