Whether you parlez-vous Français, habla Español or sprechen sie Deutsch, learning foreign languages in public high schools has changed in the past 30 years. While the familiar Euro-centric players are still around, some intriguing new options are or will soon be available to some area students.
In suburban St. Charles County in 1987, typically the only foreign tongues taught came from Europe – German, French, Spanish and Latin. To take a different language, one had to attend private school, hire a tutor, wait until college or pay to self-immerse with Rosetta Stone.
Eileen Rodriguez-Kiser, a Spanish teacher at Parkway West High School, sees daily how her students put what they use into practical 21st century applications.
“The one thing I’ve learned from my students about speaking a foreign language and language acquisition is that they want to do real world tasks with it,” she said.
“They want to connect with their peers around the world and they want to do it now. They want to make videos, they want to chat, they want to follow each other on social media to put their language to use to do what they like doing.”
Today’s students have a wider range of options and methods are tied to changing technology, students’ career plans and Missouri education standards, from which area private schools are exempt.
These changes are not confined to other lingoes; the way English is taught has changed, too, as have some of the links between language and literacy.
School credit or real world skills?
During the 1980s, some public schools pitched taking Spanish as a springboard to success. Officials predicted that the number of Spanish speakers would overtake speakers of English and that being bilingual would become the norm. Today, students in the Francis Howell School District can choose from Spanish, French and German, plus Mandarin Chinese, which is new this year. In the early 21st century, career paths dictate, in part, which language students should take.
“As far as the ‘key to success,’ I think that depends on what your personal and professional goals are,” Erin Thurston, a high school English content leader at Francis Howell, said. “For instance, if a student is interested in pursuing a career in health care, Spanish would be advantageous; however, for someone going into investments, German would be advantageous.
“Widely speaking, U.S. employers still demand Spanish over all other languages combined; however, the U.S. State Department has recently named Mandarin Chinese a ‘critical language’ for English native speakers.”
April Burton, Francis Howell’s world languages content leader, concurred.
“With the successful Chinese economy, students interested in international business would undoubtedly benefit from learning Mandarin,” Burton said. “However, there are strong reasons for learning Spanish, French and German, as well, many of which are also rooted in economics.” She advised future lawyers, doctors and musicians to brush up on their Latin.
“In the past, in foreign language I and II classes, you had workbooks and filled in worksheets,” Parkway’s Modern and Classical Language Coordinator Amy Belding said. “In general, [today’s] vocabulary is now focused around themes, making communications intrinsically motivated. In Spanish, we discuss sports and arts using the language versus tio [uncle] and tia [aunt] and now, 90 percent of [language] is focusing on communication more than regulation. It’s receptive versus expressive.
That reception has helped Rodriguez-Kiser’s classes to forge an ongoing collaborative relationship with Prepa Tec Garza Sada High School in Monterrey México, which is part of a large network of Tec de Monterrey, one of the best university and prep school systems in México.
“In this seven-year plus relationship, our students collaborate at least once a month via Skype,” she said. “We work on projects together and share them with each other and they connect on social media. West and Prepa Tec students are expected to incorporate their real world cultural learning in both speaking and writing assessments, but to them, the Skype sessions are just plain fun!”
While even ’80s students can remember some of the words they learned in a foreign language, educators point out that the benefits of taking a second language do not stop with those new words.
“Students who study foreign languages develop a better understanding of English grammar, improve their English reading and writing skills, as well as improve their English vocabulary due to the fact that the English language builds off of many other languages,” Burton said.
“Studies have shown that students who have taken two or more years of a foreign language score higher on SAT or ACT tests,” Burton said. “However, another important factor to consider is that with the global economy that we have today, our students must be developed global citizens who have the skills to collaborate with people of different cultures.”
Fort Zumwalt offers classes in French, German and Spanish. In its next budget cycle, [2018-2019], it will evaluate student needs, survey the local business community and examine area university trends to decide if and what other foreign tongues need to be added, said Jennifer Waters, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
Rodriguez-Kiser highlighted her students’ collaboration with their peers in México as an example of “going native.”
“One of the best parts [of the collaboration] is that we have two exchanges each year,” she said. “In September, the Prepa Tec students come to Parkway West for a first-hand experience of life as a Longhorn, see the sights of St. Louis, take in a Cards game, eat toasted ravioli, St. Louis style pizza and gooey butter cake and be part of our families.
“In February, we have an amazing group of 20 students who will go to México to live with their Prepa Tec hosts for a week, many of whom hosted in September and are looking forward to being with their friends again. We will attend classes at Prepa Tec, see the sights and eat the wonderful foods for which Monterrey is known.”
Know your native tongue
It’s not just foreign language learning that has changed over the past three decades.
In English/language arts classes, personalized learning has settled into public school curricula.
“Before in English, everyone was assigned the same book, for example, ‘Women in America.’” Parkway high school English/language arts coordinator Erin Croley said. “The classroom pacing is different now. You might have 20 texts on women in America and a fast reader may get through six of those 20 books and make connections among the books they read and that’s great. Then, you may have a student who only makes it through one book and that’s fine, too.”
Francis Howell students take English I, English II, English III and one credit from communication arts elective courses. Students need to take two, semester-long communication arts electives to equal one full credit. Fort Zumwalt, Parkway and Rockwood require four English/language arts credits to graduate.
Overall, students across Missouri are reading less literature and more non-fiction texts.
“Since we revised our curricula first to Common Core State Standards and now to the Missouri Learning Standards, we have increased our ratio of literature and informational texts to 50/50 in our English/language arts classes; however, high school students in general see about a 70/30 ratio, with 70 percent of their reading being informational texts, throughout all their coursework,” Thurston said.
At Fort Zumwalt, Holloway said freshman take English I and sophomores take English II while juniors take American literature or AP English and seniors take American literature, an elective class or AP English. Shelley Willott, Rockwood’s director of curriculum and instruction, said the district offers juniors a language arts class focused on American literature plus optional senior British and world literature classes.
Growing global literacy
“There is a clear and obvious connection between oral language development and literacy,” Thurston said. “Many believe it to be one of the biggest predictors of literacy success for students.”
A shift from literature to non-fiction reading has happened in some districts but not at Fort Zumwalt.
“We’ve followed the non-fiction standards since 1993, when the Show-Me Standards were enacted,” Candy Holloway said. She is an English/language arts teacher at Fort Zumwalt East High School. “I think we have learned more effective ways to build history and content for literature we might be using.”
Rockwood strives for a mix of the two genres. “There hasn’t necessarily been a shift in emphasizing non-fiction over literature but a move toward balancing student exposure to both literature and non-fiction,” Willott said. “Teachers share reading strategies for both literature and non-fiction in an effort to prepare students to navigate a wide variety of texts.”
Rodriguez-Kiser said her students’ experiences break down barriers and stereotypes on all levels and allow them to connect with their peers and have real buddies. “There’s just nothing like having an authentic global connection to give students the opportunity to use the language they’re learning in they way they want to use it,” she said.