Elementary Bilingualism

Cedar Falls Superintendent Prepares to Propose K-6 Bilingual Program Plan

“Children’s minds can more easily adapt to another language at a young age. They are less afraid to make mistakes and more willing to accept new sounds. Learning through songs and games is fun and normal for young children, and learning Spanish is just one more thing they do in a day. It also prepares children to acquire a third, or even fourth  language later in life.” – Iowa City Spanish teacher at Willowwind School Danielle Elvins

According to the 2010 census, 35 million United States residents spoke Spanish at home in 2009. That makes America home to the second largest population of Spanish speakers in the world. In the American job market, employers consider bilingualism, especially the ability to speak English and Spanish, a valuable skill. Due to globalization, knowing how to speak many different languages becomes increasingly necessary.

Despite the demand, the United States is the only developed country that does not require students to learn two languages. Most of America’s larger public high schools do offer Spanish and often other languages as elective courses; however, four years is rarely long enough to learn a second language, especially when the four years occur when students are teenagers.

Principal Diane Bradford works at Hoover Elementary School in Iowa City, a school that offers its World Language and Culture Program to kindergarten through sixth grade students. “The best time for a child to learn another language is in the first four years of life; Hoover parents and teachers are hoping to close a gap for our children. Our students should not have to wait until junior high or high school to learn new languages,” Bradford said.

Superintendent of the Cedar Falls School District Mike Wells would also like Cedar Falls elementary schools to teach students a second language, Spanish, through a possible K-6 bilingual program that is currently in discussion. “Any decision to add K-6 Spanish would be done through a collaborative effort with our teachers, administrators, parents, community members, students and board members. No decisions have been made, but we are having conversations about a K-6 Bilingual program,” Wells said.

Wells and Director of Elementary Education Pam Zeigler will meet with the district’s elementary schools this month, compiling a list of improvements that would make Cedar Falls Elementary Schools “world class” schools. “In the first two meetings, bilingual education has been identified, and I anticipate it to be recognized as a weakness in our system in the other four buildings,” Wells said.

Then, in October, they will develop an action plan regarding the possible program. “[The action plan] will list what we are going to do, when we are going to do it, how we are going to pay for it and who is responsible to make it happen,” Wells said.

They will take the plans to a group of students, probably high school students, and PTA/PTO groups in November, asking for input about them. Using the insight, they will finalize the plans in late November or early December to present at the December school board meeting for consideration.

Using the same process with secondary schools, they will present another plan by the end of the school year. If approved, it will be enacted in August 2013. “The committees will decide the language. Spanish is one possibility and a probable language selection, but at this point, it is only speculation,” Wells said.

The program is estimated to cost about $200,000. Wells plans to build this into the budget by shifting funds and sharing teachers between schools.

If they create the program, Wells predicts they would need to hire new staff. “Teachers must be certified teachers in elementary to teach elementary Spanish.  It is possible to partner with UNI to find such teachers and student teachers,” Wells said.

Despite the drawbacks of needing to hire more teachers, teaching elementary students a foreign language in school has many benefits. Spanish teacher Danielle Eivins teaches at Willowwind School, an elementary school with an in-class K-6 Spanish curriculum, in Iowa City. “Children’s minds can more easily adapt to another language at a young age. They are less afraid to make mistakes and more willing to accept new sounds. Learning through songs and games is fun and normal for young children, and learning Spanish is just one more thing they do in a day. It also prepares children to acquire a third, or even fourth  language later in life,” Eivins said.

Wells also said he thinks that learning Spanish at a young age might give students the opportunity to study another language from junior high until they graduate. “It would be possible for students to be trilingual during their K-12 educational experience if we could offer Chinese, German, French, Spanish, Russian or Japanese beginning in grades seven through

12,” Wells said.

There is also evidence that bilingualism improves cognitive functioning. ”The major benefit is that it improves the brain’s executive functioning capabilities and a heightened ability to monitor the environment. As a bilingual person, one is able to keep track of multiple changes around them at one time,” Bradford said.

According to neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, becoming bilingual could make people more resistant to dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Most clearly, teaching children a new language exposes them to a new culture. “Best of all, learning another language opens the world to children. They realize that people around the world are similar to and different from them. And by learning another language they can communicate with more people, understand more cultures and reflect on their own language and ways,” Eivins said.

The ability to communicate with more people has increased in importance as international communication has become easier. “Technology has created a much ‘flatter’ world.  Our students will be entering a world much different than the world most middle-aged people entered when they graduated. Our students are at a disadvantage competing by being monolinguistic,” Wells said.

A K-6 bilingual program would eliminate this disadvantage. “We are wanting to help develop 21st century leaders.  Helping students learn another language besides English would help them become better problem solvers, critical thinkers and collaborators,” Jennifer Hartman, principal of North Cedar Elementary said.

Despite the successes of some schools, and the plans of others, K-6 language programs are rare in the United States. “The benefits of bilingualism are many and I wish all children could have the opportunity to truly become bilingual. We have a long way to go toward that goal in our schools and society. At Willowwind we are providing a unique opportunity to authentically engage with another language at a young age and I believe it is one of the best gifts we can give children growing up in the 21st century,” Eivins said.

Despite the benefits a K-6 bilingual program could offer to Cedar Falls elementary students, executing the program would uncover more challenges than just the cost.

Although it has not yet been decided when they would teach the foreign language, if the plans are approved, difficulties arise from nearly any possible time. Hartman does not think that an after school program like Hoover’s is the way to go. Because of transportation issues, not all of the students could participate in the program as opposed to the complete

We would have to be creative in scheduling foreign language lessons throughout the day, but I think it can be done.  We can hopefully be creative as a district to hire qualified staff and work together to make this a quality program for our students,” Hartman said.

Maureen Schafer, the creator and overseer of Wickham Elementary’s after school Spanish program, in Coralville agrees. “The only pro to having this as an After School Program is that compared to nothing, it at least provides something.  We would much rather Spanish be part of the curriculum at the elementary level, not only because kids can learn it easier at a younger age but also because many school districts across the nation offer foreign language at the elementary level and our kids are missing out,” Schafer said.

Teaching elementary students a new language could serve as a way to adapt to a changing world. With rapid globalization due to technological advances, and other, non-English-speaking, countries’ developments in world politics and economics, the idea that people who come to America should learn English and no one needs to learn the language of a country they do not live in, no longer applies. “Americans, in general, are arrogant, and we feel everyone should conform to English and to our beliefs.  In the 1900s the United States dominated world economics. That is changing,” Wells said.

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