Sonrisas Spanish Blog

preschool spanish lessons Mid-February, an interesting thing happened: The New York Times launched a Spanish version of its existing website. While the website will be based out of Mexico City, the majority of its readership will likely be U.S. residents. Today, the U.S. has one of the largest populations of Spanish-speaking residents — ranking only behind Mexico.

This launch may have flown under the radar of many news outlets, but it represents a larger shift occurring in the U.S.. The country is becoming increasingly bilingual, and young children now benefit from dual language exposure that will help them secure jobs as adults.

The Importance of Spanish for Preschoolers
Up until age eight, children’s brains are geared toward learning language through repetition, imitation, games, and songs. This period of early development is critical for laying the groundwork for language skills. After age eight, children lose the ability to process and imitate new sounds they once had. It won’t be impossible to learn a language, but it will be much harder.

Preschool Spanish Lessons are Engaging and Fun
Because children at this age are so receptive to language, it’s easy to engage them through a wide variety of activities and discussions. A complete curriculum that uses Spanish story books, music lessons, and more to foster language learning is ideal, as opposed to a single period each day where children are encouraged to practice rote memorization — a tactic frequently employed in middle school and high school lessons. Preschool Spanish lessons ensure that children get hands on experience with language in a natural and immersive way.

Prepare Now for Better Chances Tomorrow
It’s not a matter of “if” your child will encounter Spanish as an adult, it’s a matter of “how often.” Anyone job searching today, especially in cities with larger Hispanic populations, will notice that candidates with fluency in Spanish are often preferred. Being bilingual will give any child more options in the future, and statistics indicate that bilingual employees typically earn 20% more than their monolingual colleagues.

A preschool Spanish curriculum is a good investment for any parent looking ahead to the challenges and opportunities tomorrow brings.

Feeling Unsettled About a Trend

When I was in high school I placed third in a state-wide essay contest by writing a paper that argued all the reasons why two years in French or Spanish was not an adequate foreign language offering at our high school. I argued that students should be able to take at least three years of Spanish or French. Now, at the same high school, students can take as many years as they want of various world languages through an online program. And yet, if they want to study a second language with a fluent, living, human teacher, their only choice is Spanish for two years—less than they offered twenty-eight years ago when I wrote my essay. This seems to represent a trend in second language instruction.

It’s easy to see why this trend is happening. Now students can go to a computer lab and take an “interactive” video or computer-based course for literally pennies on the dollar that it would take to hire a qualified teacher. These programs advertise well. Administrators at schools K-12 are presented with advertising materials that sound amazing: “innovative,” “immerse students in language and culture,” “language-learning anywhere, anytime, from any device,” “you don’t need any prior Spanish knowledge for your students to effectively use the program,” and my personal favorite, “A name you know, a brand you trust.”

It occurred to me more than once that this unsettled feeling this trend gave me may indeed be sour grapes. As an elementary Spanish teacher for 20+ years, perhaps I am obsolete. My confidence was further compromised because I am not a native speaker, and indeed, most of the videos available use the voices of native speakers. Maybe students can learn better from a computer or a video. Or maybe I could improve the quality of my teaching by creating a “blended learning environment” for my students. I decided to sit down at my computer and “try a sample lesson.” I was met with a two-dimensional cartoon animal floating in a two-dimensional world, speaking in stilted “comprehensible input.” This was the “engaging, immersion in foreign language” that was advertised on the company’s website.

Without being able to put my finger on why, I decided not to incorporate video or interactive computer programming into my teaching. After all, my students were already engaged in an immersion environment. I knew they loved Spanish class, and most important, they were understanding and speaking Spanish. No, they weren’t learning from a native speaker, but nevertheless, they were learning Spanish.

Recently, I was hit with an “aha” moment. All of the sudden I had the answer to why my gut told me not to shift into a “blended learning” model as a teacher. It went deeper than everything I had read and learned at conferences about immersion, native speakers, comprehensible input, foreign language standards, and all the research-based lingo about effective foreign language teaching. It dug down deeper than all of this into the nature of language itself. What is language? I realized that every human being has an innate understanding of what language is— even if they speak only one language—and, the fundamental qualities of language that we all understand innately, are truths.

A Living, Dynamic Exchange

The first Merriam-Webster definition of language is: “the system of words and signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other.” In order for language to have meaning, it must have a receptive audience. When human beings communicate, we accompany words with gesture, animation, tone, facial expression, and eye-contact. The quality of these characteristics all shift depending on our audience. Our tone changes dramatically when we speak to an acquaintance as opposed to a family member. If you listen to two teenagers speak to each other, the vocabulary and gesture of speech are radically different than a student-to-teacher exchange. As speakers of language, we constantly scan the body language of our audience and adjust the quality of our communication to match our audience. When we sense an engaged, eager listener, we forge ahead confidently. When we see a skeptical frown, we may pause and ask for input from the listener to make sure that our communication is effective.

We have created all kinds of fillers that we put in our language to check the quality of our exchange. As someone tells a story or explains something to us we show that we are following them by interjecting: “mm-hmm,” “yeah,” “sure,” “right.” These all affirm our understanding and encourage the speaker to continue. If we are speaking, and we aren’t sure how effective our communication is we might say, “you know what I mean?” or “does that make sense?” or simply, “you know?” These are all phrases built into our exchange that cue the other party in the exchange to the effectiveness of communication. We have just as many cues that we give each other to convey when communication is not effective. For example, we might furrow our brow in confusion or interject, “wait, what?” or “would you repeat that?” In this way we cue each other to the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness in our linguistic exchange of information.

In fall 2014 I attended the ACTFL conference in San Antonio, TX. I went to several workshops, many very useful and educational. One workshop, however, stood well above and beyond every other experience I had at the conference. It was led by a woman named Darcy Rogers who founded an organization called OWL (Organic World Languages). After a short presentation she asked all of the attendees to join a breakout session with an OWL-trained teacher. She encouraged everyone to join a workshop in a language they had never studied. I ended up in a Swedish workshop. Through a series of dynamic activities, the teacher quickly observed what language exchanging opportunities were alive in this group of 30+ strangers. In less than twenty minutes, I had shared greetings with several strangers. When we exchanged names, the workshop leader seized upon the fact that my name is also a color to engage us all in a conversation about “what items are blue in our circle?” Sooner than later, in Swedish, I was telling my neighbor to my left that the woman to my right was named Edith, and she was wearing a blue scarf. This entire process happened without a single word of English spoken between anyone.

Afterwards, the workshop leader took questions is English. She had been teaching college Spanish in this method for several years, and she was getting measurable results. Her students were outperforming their peers on standardized language tests, and she wasn’t using a Spanish college textbook. The key, she said, “was recognizing what language was alive in the group.” In a group of strangers, the natural starting point was greetings and names, easily communicated through gesture. From there she was able to follow the natural progression of communication by tapping into what was alive in our conversation. In this case, it was a name that was also a color that provided the springboard for her communication. You certainly couldn’t write that into a textbook lesson.

Remembering the quality of this experience was a part of my “aha” moment. It was part of my affirmation to myself that my role mattered in my Spanish class. Curriculum is of course still important, and for my elementary Spanish curriculum, I use Sonrisas Spanish (I am the co-author). It systematically works through useful language concepts and provides opportunities for meaningful exchange of language. There is nothing stagnant, two-dimensional, one-sided, or stilted about the quality of language exchange in my classroom. The curriculum is a framework; not a script. I understand now that the effectiveness of my teaching relies most heavily on my very human engagement in the process of communicating with my students.

Another resource that contributed to my “aha” moment was a video (that I highly recommend) that I watched in a Ted Talk from 2010 by Patricia Kuhl, entitled “The Linguistic Genius of Babies.” It’s a fascinating study in baby brain development. In summary, researchers take babies and expose them to a second language (in the study, the babies are from English-speaking families, exposed over the course of six months to twelve sessions with a Taiwanese woman who interacts with the babies solely in Taiwanese.) At the end of the six months they test the babies’ brain activity to determine if the babies’ brains are taking language statistics in Taiwanese as effectively as English. The answer was yes. Then they conducted the same study, exposing the babies to the same woman’s voice, the same number of sessions, over the same period of time. The only difference is that in the second study the voice is coming through a television screen, and in the third, the voice is recorded and played in earphones. When they test the babies at the end of six months, these babies had no ability whatsoever to take language statistics in Taiwanese. They draw the conclusion that it takes interaction with a human being for the baby to take language statistics in a new language. This study affirms the nature of language being inherently connected to the living, dynamic exchange between human beings. The woman, who was physically and emotionally present with the babies, was able to make eye contact and to adjust her body language, her tone, and her gestures to engage with the babies. Something in the woman’s physical engagement lit up the region for sound development in the babies’ brains. I have seen this happen again and again with my students who have ranged in ages between two and fourteen. This living, dynamic exchange must be present for effective communication.

Choosing Effective Materials

I have decided to stop doubting that feeling in my gut that tells me that the role of live human beings in second language acquisition can’t be conveniently replace with a video or a computer program. With clarity and confidence, I share what aspects of second language-teaching materials provide the most effective learning experience for students. If you find yourself in a school that is being seduced into the money-saving world of online language learning, and you feel in your gut that this is a step backwards, I feel your pain! I encourage you to share the Ted Talk, the OWL Languages website, and this blog with your administrator. If you have been put in charge of creating or purchasing curriculum materials for your school, choose a curriculum with components and resources that provide a catalyst for allowing communication to take the form that is alive in your students. These can include:

●       rich, well-written, beautifully illustrated books. I have always used children’s literature to teach Spanish. One may argue that reading a book to students is no different in the quality of linguistic experience than students would receive from watching a video. I argue to the contrary. I choose books that I love—books that invite the reader into another world. As I read, I use gesture and tone to bring life to the author’s words. I watch my students, and I know immediately from the looks on their faces if they are feeling the same delight that I feel. If I sense confusion, or disengagement, I can adjust my communication on the spot to meet their needs. A video does not provide this kind of engagement, but rather it provides an opportunity for students and teacher to disengage. There is no opportunity for a living, dynamic exchange of language in a video.

●       images, paintings, drawings, and photographs that invite dialogue, opinions, sympathies, and antipathies. These can include storybook illustrations, art projects, and classroom posters. I avoid graphics that appear as if an illustrator was hired to create a cartoon image that one imagines will appeal to a child. I think we all know the stock style to which I am referring. These images lack gesture, tone, or depth of interpretation. When an artist creates something from the heart, we feel it. It doesn’t have to be complex to provide this quality. These images provide the student with a rich context for language, and their open-ended quality provides teachers with an opportunity for a living, dynamic exchange.

●       games and activities that have infinite possibilities to evolve, twist, and turn into living, dynamic exchanges of language.

●       student-created art projects that provide students with a creative, hands-on connection to language concepts and that invite a living, dynamic exchange of language.

Part of what makes the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum so effective is that it includes all of these components. My word of caution in evaluating elementary school and preschool Spanish curriculum materials is to avoid materials that claim to provide a platform to teach language effectively “without any prior knowledge of the target language.”  These materials lack the open-ended opportunity for a living, dynamic exchange of language. Look for materials that provide a framework for you to bring out the language that is already alive in your classroom. Unfortunately for the students currently enrolled in my high school, they find themselves in a predicament where they have less effective second language-learning opportunities than I had twenty-eight years ago. I hope that this trend reverses and that someday my argument for three years of Spanish and French seems inadequate because the school district has implemented a teacher-led, K-12 world language or immersion program which provides for a living, dynamic exchange—because that is in fact how students acquire a second language.

Blue Lindner is co-founder of Sonrisas Spanish and co-author of the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum. She has bee a Spanish teacher for twenty years.

preschool spanishGenerally speaking, learning a new language is much easier the earlier you start. Most studies suggest before the age of 10 is ideal, but starting kids as early as five is becoming more and more popular. In the latest example of just how much importance is being placed on learning a foreign language early, a New York City preschool has announced they will begin offering preschool Spanish lessons.

According to the neighborhood news site DNAinfo.com, toddlers attending the new enrichment center the New York Kids Club is opening on East 94th Street next fall will have the opportunity to take preschool Spanish lessons. In addition to preschool Spanish lessons, children will also be able to take gymnastics, cooking, art, and music on top of traditional subject areas.

“Every semester is different for us,” said Pam Wolf, who founded the preschool in 2001. “We follow trends in learning. It used to be yoga and cooking that were very popular. Now it’s chess and science. We follow that and we’re always offering what seems to be the most beneficial in educating young people.”

According to Wolf, the school updates the classes they offer each year and they decided adding a preschool Spanish curriculum would be a great and fun way to get kids started early. Not a bad idea considering studies show bilingual employees earn 20% more per hour than monolingual employees, on average.

Overall, more than two-thirds of the world’s children are bilingual. However, in America only 17% of the total population speaks a second language in addition to English, according to the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Even though it’s a Spanish curriculum for kids, Wolf and school officials are hoping that the young children they serve will be able to get help from home too. There is of course a price to pay for these service and they don’t come cheap. The total cost for 2-year-olds attending five days a week, three hours a day is $19,670, according to the school’s website.

Starting a preschool Spanish curriculum is an excellent opportunity. If you don’t live in the Big Apple, or have an extra $20,000 to spend on it, check out the innovative homeschool options we have available today.

Over the years, one of the most common questions we have received from teachers looking for elementary Spanish curriculum is, “Do you have student workbooks?” For many years, our reply was, “no.” We were hesitant to create one because the Sonrisas Spanish curriculum was designed in a way that workbook activities weren’t really necessary. The lessons were designed so that the teacher could check for understanding orally through the activities and also through the one-on-one work built into the art projects. We didn’t want to encourage teachers to replace any component of the lesson with a workbook activity that didn’t provide the depth of learning that these activities provided. We also didn’t want to encourage any part of Spanish class to contain “busy work” that didn’t necessarily contribute to the rich learning experience that our curriculum provided.

As we continued to teach and develop our Spanish curriculum, we gradually began to refine our assessment piece. Previously, the assessment rubrics in our curriculum relied on a teacher’s memory of students’ performance from class. This could be very challenging for a teacher with many students. We came up with a solution of combining “workbook-like” activities, communication objectives, and language outcomes to create a comprehensive portfolio which includes formative and summative assessments. In doing so, we knew that we had created something much more than a workbook. The Student Portfolio is not only a useful assessment tool for teachers, but also an ongoing record of student learning. The Student Portfolio contains portfolio activities, student assessment pages, and home reports.

The portfolio activities were designed so that, if completed independently and effectively by students, they provide performance indicators for the language concepts taught in each lesson. They also provide a tool to help the teacher ask questions that guide the evaluation of student progress. For example, in the portfolio activity for Lesson 11 in Sonrisas Level I, La ropa, students are asked to label articles of clothing in a picture of a girl dressed in winter clothes. If the student does this independently, it demonstrates the language outcome of being able to identify clothing vocabulary. The teacher can record this on the student assessment page. However, the deeper concept in the Communication Objective for the lesson involves students providing information about the clothing they and others are wearing by answering the question, “¿Qué lleva la niña?” with a complete sentence, “La niña lleva ___.” A teacher has two possibilities here. She can use the portfolio to jog her memory to the activity in class that involved asking and answering the question and remember if the student was able to do this effectively, or she can use the image in the portfolio to assess the student right there. The activity provides an opportunity to ask the question. If the student can answer it correctly, the teacher has evidence that the concept has been taught effectively, and she can record this on the student assessment page. If the student struggles, the teacher has a formative assessment tool at her disposal—she can revisit activities that allow the student to master the communication objective.

If used in this way, the Student Portfolio provides so much more than a workbook. It provides an opportunity for evaluation and reflection that informs effective instruction, and it provides a record of student progress. This allows teachers to teach effectively and to communicate effectively with parents about how their student is doing. Ultimately, the Student Portfolio is a useful assessment tool and a comprehensive look at the progress of each student.

spanish story booksStarting a homeschool Spanish curriculum for kids is one of the best advantages you can give a young child. At a practical level, it’s been proven that bilingual employees earn, on average, 20% more per hour than monolingual employees. Aside from that, Spanish is the official language of 21 countries worldwide, so if you think there’s a chance they’re ever going to want to travel the world knowing some Spanish will be in their best interest.

Even if you don’t homeschool your child, helping them learn the language after school is a great idea considering most school districts in the United States don’t provide the opportunity for an elementary Spanish curriculum. One of the best ways to get children started is through Spanish story books. As is the case with any language it’s often better to teach through this more interactive way than simply giving them flash cards to memorize.

The earlier you introduce your child to a foreign language the better; it seems that before the age of 10 is ideal, or even before the age of five, if possible. Reading them Spanish story books is the perfect way to begin their bilingual journey. Here are three great options to get you started.

  1. Amigos: Amigos is a playful Spanish story book that helps kids learn about shapes, colors, sizes, and even to appreciate diversity in others. That’s something everyone in the family can benefit from in today’s day and age.
  2. Cali y Mona: Inspired by a true story that the author, Pepe Valle, once read about in a newspaper, Cali y Mona follows a heartwarming story about a blind girl and her guiding pony. The book is written in Spanish and Braille, providing you the added bonus of teaching your child about one of the world’s most common physical disabilities.
  3. Juegos Tradicionales: Not all Spanish story books have to be about morals and such. Juegos Tradicionales is not so much a story, but rather a collection of 34 of the most popular games played by children in Latin America. Learning about a society’s culture is one of the best ways to truly understand it and the games they play can be something every child can relate to and will probably be interested in.

What books would you recommend? Let us know in the comments.

elementary school Spanish curriculumLearning a second language is one best things you can do for yourself or a child. Not only has there been numerous studies and research proving the effects it can have on other intellectual capabilities, but in the increasingly global world of today it’s becoming more and more crucial to be able to speak something other than English. Here are just three of the many important reasons school districts across the nation should be implementing an elementary school Spanish curriculum.

    1.) Overall Prevalence: While one can obtain many of the benefits of language by learning virtually any foreign language, an elementary Spanish curriculum for kids is especially important because of the already prevalent and growing nature of the language. Spanish is the second most-spoken language in the world. With 387 million native speakers, more people on earth speak Spanish than English, according to census reports. America’s proximity to Mexico and other Latin/South American countries has contributed to the massive influx in immigrants from these Spanish-speaking countries, meaning more and more people in this country speak Spanish as their primary language.

    2.) Makes It Easier: Starting children with elementary school Spanish curriculum’s will put children at an advantage when it comes to grasping the language. Similar to most things, the earlier you learn it the easier it will come to you. Research suggests that before the age of 10 is ideal, or even before the age of 5, if possible. Between ages 8 and 12, a child will lose the ability to hear and reproduce new sounds as they did when they were younger, making foreign language acquisition not impossible, but more difficult.

    3.) Future Opportunities: A Spanish curriculum for elementary school is not just about learning the language to use when they’re young, but something that will be invaluable going forward. It’s been proven that bilingual employees earn, on average, 20% more per hour than monolingual employees. In addition to that, being fluent in Spanish at a time when the population of speakers has never been higher in the U.S. will make a person more marketable overall.

Most schools wait until middle or high school years to start teaching foreign languages, but incorporating an elementary school Spanish curriculum is more logical when it comes down to it. Aside from the educational, intellectual, and monetary benefits, Spanish is the official language of 21 countries worldwide. Keep in mind, those countries are home to many exquisite and fun travel destinations.

spanish curriculumThe benefits of learning a second language are numerous and substantial. Whether it’s a Spanish curriculum or really any foreign language, it’s been proven that bilingual employees earn, on average, 20% more per hour than monolingual employees. With statistics like this in mind, more and more school districts across the country have started implementing, or are considering, “dual-language programs,” according to NationalJournal.com.

The specifics of these programs vary across the board. Some emphasize the programs early with things like preschool Spanish lessons or an entire elementary school Spanish curriculum and then transition to English-only after a few years. Others continue the programs indefinitely, but the overall goal is to build literacy and proficiency in more than one language.

While many of these types of programs were primarily started to help children of minorities who speak only a foreign language at home, the effects have helped English-speaking kids as well. One Michigan State study in 2013 found that there was a “substantial spillover effect” for children who enrolled in schools with bilingual education programs from English-only homes.

Theoretically a new language can be learned at any age, but early involvement with foreign language, like an elementary Spanish curriculum, is profoundly better. Many countries mandate the introduction of foreign language in schools by age eight. Students in the United States, however, may wait until junior or senior high school for their first exposure to a foreign language curriculum, thus only having four years of study versus 10 or 12 years when introduced earlier.

One school in particular that has taken this approach with much success is Los Angeles’ Cam­ino Nuevo Charter Academy. Since they are a charter school they are allowed to begin teaching dual-language Spanish curriculum for kids as early as kindergarten. They also emphasize culturally relevant literature in the programs.

Whether it be for children learning English as a second language or native English speakers, the evidence is that learning a new language can help in many more ways than just being fluent in a foreign tongue. Of course it’s also been proven that children who learn a second language can learn a third faster as well.

The Sonrisas Level II lessons are divided into seven thematic units. We designed these themes to have relevance in the context of young students’ lives. In each unit, students interpret written and spoken language, engage in conversations, and present information using background knowledge from their own lives while learning new language concepts. This allows them to acquire meaningful and useful language skills, rather than merely learning vocabulary in isolation. All of the thematic units are centered around one big idea, or central question, “What are the experiences that make us human?”

One of the biggest differences between humans and animals, plants, or objects is simply that humans possess the gift of language. We are able to communicate in thousands of languages, and in doing so, express our worldviews, cultures, and values. By centering our thematic units around diverse topics related to the human experience, we give our students an awareness of the power of language to interpret the world around us with our uniquely human perspective. As humans, we have a history of using cultural and linguistic differences as barriers. If we can help our students see that our differences are expressions of our shared humanity, then we are teaching them tolerance and compassion in addition to language skills. If this seems like a lofty goal for the language classroom, we would argue that the foreign language classroom is perfectly suited for this purpose. By learning Spanish, our students have the unique opportunity to remove one barrier between themselves and the Spanish-speaking world.

By organizing the units thematically, we also provide an opportunity to engage our students in more complex and sophisticated thinking and language use. Because no skills are taught in isolation, the focus stays on developing skills for effective communication. The questions in the graphic below are the essential questions that guide each thematic unit:

The essential question in each thematic unit connects the content of each lesson to the theme. At the beginning of each thematic unit, you will find a thematic unit overview page with a graphic map (similar to the one above) that illustrates the connection between the lessons and the essential question. The essential question also allows you to differentiate instruction based on your unique knowledge of Spanish-speaking cultures and your understanding of your students. You can bring each lesson to life by making a personal connection between the content and your students. The thematic unit overview page also provides guiding questions that help you do this, such as:

  • What matters about this theme to my students?
  • What will be engaging about this theme for my students?
  • How can I ensure that they see the connection between this theme and their own lives?
  • How can I use my own experience with Spanish-speaking cultures to give my students a unique perspective of the target culture in relationship to this theme?

Planning your lessons with the thematic overview in mind will allow you to maintain a focus on the theme of the unit as you teach. This will make all of the activities in your lessons more effective.

Nineteen years ago I started teaching Spanish to elementary and preschool students in Austin, TX. At the time, I did it because I was asked to by parents. Parents in my neighborhood wanted their children to learn Spanish. I was a certified ELL, bilingual elementary and early childhood teacher, and so I started teaching Spanish to youngsters.

I now find myself living and working in a community in Colorado where parents, not schools, are still leading the charge to get their children learning foreign languages in elementary school. I’ve read all the research behind early exposure to second language learning, but it’s been a while and I decided to give myself a refresher lesson. I found no less than dozens of well-documented studies—all pointing to tangible benefits of FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools) programs. I write this as a plea to public school administrators to make early second language programs a priority.

Reason #1 Research says elementary students learn a second language better than older students.

Experts say young children are especially wired to learn foreign languages in the most natural ways, through play and exploration. Research indicates that the brain is at its optimum to learn foreign sounds in children under 10. Students who learn a language early improve their chances for native-like pronunciation and a high level of proficiency later on (www.aatg.org).

On the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) website, multiple studies (reprinted with permission from the Center for Applied Linguistics) are referenced in support of more effective language learning in younger students. One study shows 11th grade French students with just 80 minutes of instruction per week starting in third grade outperformed another group that started French in 7th grade. The FLES French students’ performance was better in every area. In another study, classes of third-grade children in New York City and suburban New York schools were taught conversational French for 15 minutes daily. After 1 year they were evaluated for French skills. Children were judged to have pronunciation and fluency in French superior to that of high school students with the same amount of instruction. Another study shows FLES students outperforming non-FLES students on AP foreign language exams (www.actfl.org).

How many of us who start studying a foreign language in high school actually become fluent in that language? I don’t know the answer, but I know it’s a slim figure. If we want to produce bilingual citizens, we need to start teaching language earlier.

Reason #2 Research says people who learn another language are smarter.

Multiple studies show that early-start language learning improves cognitive skills and academic performance. Foreign language study contributes to brain development and overall learning. People who learn a second language score higher on reading, verbal fluency, and general intelligence assessments. In fact, the more languages people learn, the higher their scores, with speakers of over four languages scoring consistently higher than any other group. Furthermore, learning a second language improves fluid intelligence and ‘executive functioning,’ because you have to control the two languages you know. While you communicate in one language, you’ve got to manage and control the other language (Kathryn Doyle, Washington Post, June 9, 2014).

The ACTFL website cites multiple studies (again, reprinted with permission from the Center for Applied Linguistics) that support this claim. A study in Cincinnati demonstrated that students involved in a foreign language magnet program (from a broad demographic cross-section) scored well above national norms in reading and mathematics. Another study supported the claim that bilingualism fosters better verbal and spatial abilities. Another study showed improved reading achievement after participation in a voluntary before and after-school FLES program. Another study of 4th graders receiving 20 minutes of Spanish instruction per day showed greater reading, vocabulary, and comprehension on the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills), while another study showed improved ITBS scores after just 30 minutes of FLES instruction per week. Other studies showed FLES students outperforming non FLES students in divergent thinking ability, IQ tests, SAT math and verbal tests, reading skills, expressive oral productivity, verbal and nonverbal intelligence, math skills, listening skills, speaking skills, writing skills, mental flexibility, and creativity (www.actfl.org).

Why and how does this happen? Children gain a deeper understanding of English as they learn the structure and vocabulary of other languages. This understanding translates into more confidence in English and a greater command of the language. Furthermore, learning a second language fosters a flexibility of thinking that translates into math, creativity, and problem solving. Because students have enjoyed the benefits of early foreign language study, they are less likely to treat language as a meaningless academic requirement later on—instead seeing language as a tool to be used for a wide range of educational applications, career choices, and personal enjoyment. The research is prolific and undeniably in support of the claim that learning a second language in elementary school makes us smarter.

Reason #3 Demographics are changing in our country, and we are now living in multilingual, multi-cultural communities.

Even in rural communities such as mine, this is true. Speaking other languages continues to be an important asset that gains more value with each passing year. Our world is an increasingly interdependent world. We are no longer an isolated country in which there are no tangible benefits to speaking other languages.

When we make second language learning a priority in our elementary schools, we develop a greater openness to other cultures at a younger age. As students learn a foreign language, they learn about the people and countries where the language is spoken—including the history, traditions, customs, and geography of those countries. Learning a second language broadens students’ global awareness and sets the stage for global competency. Students acquire a more global perspective and gain insight into their own language and culture. Studying a second language in elementary school develops an early understanding of the relationship between cultures and languages.

Many developed countries require instruction in one or two foreign languages in elementary school. Slowly, states are starting to recognize the value in this. In 2002 Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming all had state mandates for elementary second language study. Indiana, California, and Kansas state governments had policy language that highly encouraged elementary school study of second languages (http://www.ecs.org/html/Document.asp?chouseid=3983 ). In 2008, Utah became the first state to legislate funding for large-scale implementation of dual-language and immersion programs. Delaware has a plan to bring programs to more schools (Michael Alison Chandler, The Washington Post, October 31, 2014). New Jersey provides foreign language instruction in 90% of all public schools, including elementary schools (http://www.state.nj.us/education/aps/cccs/wl/stateofwl.pdf). Despite being a local control state with no state mandates, by 2011 over 215 school districts in Pennsylvania offered FLES programs (http://www.ncssfl.org/). I find this last statistic the most intriguing— a state implementing wide-spread foreign language study at the elementary level not because of a state mandate, but because they recognize that it’s best practice in education. Perhaps it’s most intriguing to me because I too live in a local control state—one that hasn’t been as proactive on a local level as Pennsylvania. Perhaps Pennsylvania can serve as a model for Colorado to use local control to implement best practice in our public elementary schools.

After teaching Spanish to children for most of my adult life, I decided to write this blog to remind myself why I do this. Early language learning contributes to learning languages better, higher performance in all academic areas, and most important, a lifelong ability to communicate effectively. Parents want this for their children. Perhaps the question I started with needs to be reworded: Remind me why every elementary school in our country doesn’t teach foreign languages?

Blue Lindner, Sonrisas Spanish

Sonrisas Spanish creates, publishes, and sells preschool and elementary Spanish curriculum. The Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum consists of fun, effective, standards-based Spanish lessons for children.

One of the important changes in the recent revisions of Sonrisas Level I and Sonrisas Level II is the addition of the student assessment pages in the student portfolios. They serve as valuable summative assessments for teachers and students. Combined with ongoing formative assessments, the new student assessment pages contribute to the effectiveness of the Sonrisas Curriculum. Below is an explanation of how to use the different assessment pieces while implementing the curriculum.

In the Sonrisas Curriculum, you can assess your students’ progress using both formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments are ongoing assessments that monitor student learning and guide instruction. The goals for each lesson are listed in both the Communication Objective and the Language Outcomes. Keeping these in mind while you teach can help you assess the progress your students are making in achieving these goals, both through observation and by looking at their written work.

Through the songs, games, lesson activities, shared reading, and conversations during Story Time, Art Time, and Partner Time, you can get a very clear picture of how well each student is communicating. This type of formative assessment will guide which activities need review and practice in subsequent lessons. Of course, every student is different: Some perform much better in a group environment—while they are engaged in interpersonal communication—than they do during independent activities. Observational assessments can provide you with this insight.

You can also use students’ written work in Partner Time, Art Time, and Portfolio activities as formative assessments to see how well they have retained and integrated the Language Outcomes for each lesson. This will help guide which activities need more repetition and reinforcement. If you find that students are unable to demonstrate correct usage of the Language Outcomes, you can adjust your instruction to address their needs. Language concepts that need more work can be reviewed by doing lesson activities from previous lessons during Circle Time. You can continue this review until you feel that students are proficient with the language concepts. If need be, you can also repeat Partner Time and Portfolio activities.

Summative assessments evaluate student learning using specific metrics. The Student Assessment page in the Student Portfolio is a summative assessment that covers each lesson. It contains the Communication Objective for each lesson along with “I can” statements and a check box for each Language Outcome in the lesson. The Communication Objective and the Language Outcomes provide the metrics by which you can evaluate student learning. In order to achieve the Communication Objective, students need to demonstrate correct usage of the Language Outcomes. There are three different ways to fill out the Student Assessment page: You can do it, the student can do it, or you and the student can do it together.

If you are filling out the Student Assessment page without the student, use the art projects, Partner Time activities, Portfolio activities, and your observations to complete the assessment. Depending on the age and skill level of your students, they can fill out their own assessments by reflecting on the art project, Partner Time activity, and reviewing their Portfolio Activity as evidence for the assessment. (It’s worth noting that it can be very empowering for students to realize how much Spanish they have mastered.) Choosing to fill out the assessments with your students will give you the most accurate, complete summative assessment possible. If you are able to engage your student in Spanish during this assessment and observe their proficiency of the Language Outcomes, you will have the most accurate picture of their skills.

Keep in mind that each level of the Sonrisas curriculum is designed to be repeated for a second year. Chances are, your students will not fully achieve the Communication Objective the first time, which is completely acceptable. Ideally, through the repetition of the lessons in the curriculum and the ongoing review of lesson activities, students will master the Language Outcomes that support the Communication Objectives. We recommend keeping a copy of each student’s Student Assessment, so the second time you teach the lesson, you are able to note progress between the initial summative assessment and the second summative assessment.

Along with your own observations, the Student Portfolio is your most valuable assessment tool. Here are some tips that will help students keep their portfolios organized and tidy:

  • Keep several three-hole punchers on hand so that students can add work to their portfolios as soon as it is complete.
  • Give a mini-lesson on how to use the hole punchers accurately, including paying careful
    attention to placing the holes on the left side of the page.
  • Consider a place other than students’ desks to store portfolios. This will keep them in better shape throughout the school year.
  • For younger students, consider putting work in their portfolios for them.

Another option is to purchase an individual spiral-bound hard copy of the Student Portfolio for each student. You can buy these in bulk on the Sonrisas website.