Why Instruction in Second Languages Remains a Priority


Second-Language Learning

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.

Potential Benefits

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).

Achievement gains.Dumas (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 families.

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 (Lusin, 2012).

Program Implementation

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. 

Start early. 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 language.” 

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 language.

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). DA

Carla Thomas McClure is an education writer and editor at Synergy Enterprise, Inc.

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Comment by Dr. Michael L. Cubbin on December 22, 2012 at 10:25am

I will make this as brief as possible. I am a chemistry teacher here in New York City. My school is 100% Spanish speaking ELLs, most have been here for only a few years. I also taught English in China on two separate occasions, which were pedagogical defining times in my life. My current school has an average Regents passing rate of about 20-30%. The first year I taught chemistry here my students scored 50%. Last year they scored 100%. I speak a little Chinese, but no Spanish (3 failed years in HS). How did this happen? High English engagement! I speak no Spanish in class except for the occasional translation. When I taught English in China, I spoke NO Chinese before arriving there. I had listened to a few CD's and had a great dictionary. Within two weeks, I was buying, eating out, and meeting folks around town. I had to or else I would have been very, very isolated. I spoke only rudimentary sentences,  but I was understood. We are isolating our students and making their assimilation into American culture (where they will be living, working, and achieving success) very difficult by teaching in their native language. There are students in my school who have been here for 2-3 years and I cannot carry on a conversation with them. We need to draw them out and into conversation, and the sooner the better. Here is a program I developed that has tremendous success speakenglishwithme.org The problem is that engaging students on a very high level does not come easily for many teachers. My program removes that barrier. It levels that playing field for everyone.

We need to begin thinking outside the box on solutions for our ELLS, because every day they are not speaking English with is another day lost to their success here in the US.

Dr. Mike Cubbin





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