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Invest in FLES: Why we should prioritize equitable, proficiency-based elementary world language programs in public schools

It’s February, and my students and I are beginning the third unit in our elementary world languages curriculum. We call this unit “Who’s Hungry?” because it focuses on the social interactions that surround the essential human functions of selecting and consuming food.

This unit’s major performance task for first grade is to participate in the creation of a bar graph that documents the whole class’ preferences after having tasted three fruits from across the Francophone world. Students will taste each fruit, and then conduct short conversations with their partners, describing the fruit and telling whether they like it in French. They will then share their preferences with the class and contribute to a bar graph we will create on the Smartboard.

I can’t help but smile as I anticipate my students’ squeals of delight when I unveil plates of grapes, pineapple, and limes; their wide-eyed curiosity when I show pictures and videos of these fruits being cultivated and sold in France and Guadeloupe; their jubilant pronouncements of “Le citron vert est aigre!” and “J’aime l’ananas!” when they have their opportunity to weigh in.

Experiences like these capitalize on the openness, enthusiasm, and curiosity of young learners to build beginning proficiency in a second language and set the foundation for further language learning. As elementary-aged French learners, my students are gaining a love of languages, an appreciation of our global context, and the thinking skills that will propel them to higher levels of language proficiency as they continue their education.

Research has shown that, like with most skills, the length of time we invest in learning a foreign language correlates with our resulting proficiency level. When we “start early, stay long,” as The American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages advises in its Lead with Languages initiative, we are more likely to attain advanced proficiency in adulthood. It follows, then, that if we truly want our students to become proficient speakers of more than one language, we need to set them on a pathway to proficiency that begins in elementary school.

Unfortunately, most American students don’t begin learning a second language until middle or even high school. In its 2017 Commission on Language Learning, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that only 15% of public elementary schools offered a foreign language program.

The report, entitled “America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century, outlines the benefits of multilingualism to individuals and society, evaluates the relative lack of multilingualism among Americans, and advocates for increased investments in foreign language education throughout American public schools with the ultimate goal of seeing “every school in the nation offer meaningful instruction in world and/or Native American languages as part of their standard curricula.”

Although this goal is a long way from reality on the national level, some districts are already prioritizing K-12 foreign language instruction for all students. My district, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS), provides a proficiency-based world language program in all of its elementary schools. Whether they are enrolled in a dual-language or traditional program, all CHCCS students have access to world language instruction beginning in first grade.

Traditional elementary schools in CHCCS all have either a Spanish or a French Foreign Language Elementary School, or FLES, program. FLES is a foreign language model for elementary-aged novice learners that aims to build beginning proficiency by providing 90 minutes of immersive instruction per week. As the French teacher at Estes Hills Elementary in Chapel Hill, I teach first through fifth grade classes three times per week in 30-minute blocks. During this time, I communicate almost exclusively in French, and use a variety of techniques, such as images, movements, puppets, songs, games, and realia to facilitate comprehension, motivate participation, and build confidence in my young learners.

Teaching in my district’s FLES program is meaningful to me because it is the same program that gave me the opportunity to “start early” as a learner of French in the 1990s at Ephesus Elementary School. I don’t remember being a particularly talented student in those days, but I always liked French, and “stayed long,” by continuing to take French classes throughout middle school, high school, and college. By my senior year at East Chapel Hill High School, I was reading novels and writing essays in AP French Literature. By the time I graduated from college, I could proudly include my proficiency in French on my newly-minted resume.

Beginning to learn French in elementary school gave me the head start I needed to excel in my secondary-level language classes and ultimately master a skill that has transformed my life. I was more or less an ordinary student, but because I had access to an excellent world language education that began in elementary school, I have enjoyed many extraordinary life experiences that are reserved for multilinguals.

Over a decade after I graduated from high school, CHCCS students are still benefiting from extraordinary experiences with languages. French students at Smith Middle School, for example, have the opportunity to travel to Liège, Belgium as part of teacher Robin McMahon’s locally-acclaimed international exchange program. Students who participate in the exchange grow immensely as they push themselves to communicate in French and build cross-cultural relationships while living with host families and attending a Belgian high school.

For many of McMahon’s students, the preparation for their experience in Belgium begins before they enter her classroom as sixth graders. She credits the district’s FLES program with setting the foundation for much of the achievement that flourishes in her classroom and beyond. The FLES program, she says, is the “seeding ground for success in language study in middle and high school.” She touts the cultural awareness and leadership she observes in former FLES students: “FLES students are my future global citizens [and] leaders on the Belgian Exchange.”

In addition to the experiences of veteran teachers, data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction on the state’s Global Languages Endorsement, a seal which indicates proficiency in a language other than English, reflects Chapel Hill-Carrboro students’ high achievement in world languages. In 2018, 537 CHCCS students earned the GLE seal in Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Latin, or Spanish — a percentage that is more than double that of other districts like Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth, Durham, and Orange counties.

Clearly, CHCCS students have an advantage when it comes to learning languages. But elementary world language instruction should not be a privilege reserved for certain districts. All students deserve to learn a language in elementary school.

They deserve to taste fruits and talk about them in a new language. They deserve the chance to master a second (or third) language and use it in their adult lives. They deserve all of the excitement, adventure, and opportunity of becoming global citizens. For this reason, we must advocate for and support the expansion of world language education in our public elementary schools, not just for some, but for all students.

Jaclyn Holland

Jaclyn Holland is a French teacher and the 2019 Teacher of the Year at Estes Hills Elementary in Chapel Hill. In her nine years as an educator, she has also taught Secondary English in Baltimore, MD and English as a Foreign Language in Valence, France.