By Lauren Fitch Kokomo Tribune
---- — Third-graders giggled while moving their hips and clapping along to the beat of a Spanish song about weather.
Putting the vocabulary words to music and including motions helps students retain the information, said Kokomo School Corp. Spanish teacher Nicole Geary.
“We really focus on learning through song, dance and kinesthetic motion,” Geary said. “I feel like that in itself has helped them really connect with it.”
Learning a foreign language at a young age enables students to become more proficient at the language over the course of their academic careers, gives them a better understanding of other cultures and can improve children’s cognitive problem-solving abilities, according to a 2007 newsletter from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Indiana requires high school students to earn world language credits in order to graduate with a Core 40 or honors diploma, and many school corporations are seeing the benefits of starting foreign language lessons early.
“The youthful brain has a characteristic of plasticity, which allows younger children to learn language, even a foreign language, easier than older children,” said Sharon Hahn, principal at Lafeyette Park Elementary School. “Young children are a perfect model for the critical period of language acquisition. The power to learn language is great during this time period.”
Geary said preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students pick up on Spanish most quickly, and they really start to embrace the language in first and second grade. Students who started learning a foreign language in first grade or later will not pick up on the concepts as easily as their younger peers who have had more exposure to it, she added.
“When I see them in first grade, they are on it. It’s clicked,” Geary said. “The earlier you start, the better.”
Kokomo Schools started its elementary Spanish curriculum three years ago as part of its International Baccalaureate and Integrated Arts programs. Geary splits her time among classes at Sycamore Elementary School, Lafayette Park Elementary School and Wallace School of Integrated Arts. Sycamore also offers a separate English Second Language program.
“I approach it at a conversational level,” Geary said. “There’s not a specific standard for elementary Spanish, so it’s been amazing that I’ve had the creativity to mold it. My goal right now for myself and the program is that by the end of fifth grade, they should be able to pass the high school Spanish I test.”
Geary admits students need more time to meet her high expectations for the relatively new elementary Spanish program. The class is treated as a “special,” similar to physical education or music, so students do not receive a grade for their performance. Geary recently introduced progress reports to let parents know their students’ strengths and weaknesses with Spanish.
General classroom teachers are promoting foreign language learning by labeling items around their rooms with Spanish words. They help students review days, months, numbers and other vocabulary words.
During class time, Geary runs through activities that have students speaking, reading, writing and translating Spanish. She incorporates some Spanish phrases into her directions, always repeating instructions in English so students can keep up.
First-grade teacher Dawn Harvey has seen her students become more interested in Spanish since the IB program started. She encourages her students to practice by using Spanish words to describe what color they are wearing, saying numbers in Spanish during a math lesson and using Spanish for common phrases like “thank you” or “excuse me.”
“The bilingual books in the classroom never received any attention that first year. Now, I have students wanting to look at the books, and actually trying to see if they can read it — especially ‘Bizcocho Va a la Escuela’ (Biscuit Goes to School) — in Spanish,” Harvey said. “Some students enjoy comparing our English version of ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ to our Spanish version.
“Does every child do that? No,” Harvey continued. “But it is neat to see some of them totally engaged in a Spanish book in first grade, plus it makes the other students very curious. … I enjoy seeing the risk-takers trying new things.”
Western School Corp. also launched a foreign language program for fifth graders at the intermediate school this year. Students spend 40 minutes a week in an “intro to language and world cultures” class taught by the school librarian, who is bilingual.
“The plan is to phase that in next year for third, fourth and fifth grade,” said Principal Pat Quillen. “I always felt it was important for students to learn a foreign language at an early age because they can pick it up faster.”
Teaching students Spanish at the intermediate level will better prepare them for foreign language classes in middle school and high school, Quillen said. Early lessons focus on basic vocabulary and conversational uses of Spanish, and teacher Jennifer Fisher is looking forward to making the program more in-depth next year.
“They love it. The kids are ecstatic,” she said. “I’m so happy they are implementing this in our school. The more culturally aware our students are, the more they’ll be prepared for a global economy and a bright future.”
Education reporter Lauren Fitch can be reached at 765-454-8587, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LaurenBFitch.