Schools’ foreign language classes face challenges

August 23, 2011

By Christopher Huber

On almost an annual basis, Tammy Haldeman has had to teach two levels of Japanese language students during the same class period at Skyline High School.

Last school year, she had to pick between teaching a split class of 44 students or make two separate periods out of it. She kept the group together and taught two levels of Japanese, she said, because one class would not be large enough to warrant creating another class period.

She is able to make do, and it ends up working out all right, she said, but the students in those classes lose out on the closer attention they might otherwise receive in a typical language class with one level.

“You’re more like a facilitator of their learning with that,” Haldeman said. “You have to have highly motivated kids in those classes.”

Haldeman’s situation isn’t unique. Teachers and school administrators have to use the resources available. But due to nonexistent class-size-reduction funding and teacher shortages in some languages, foreign language programs in the Issaquah School District are facing similar challenges to arts and other elective programs.

Even so, district officials said they clearly know the benefits to learning a foreign language early and have worked to provide options for students as early as eighth grade. In addition to in-house offerings at the middle schools, many elementary school students have options through PTA-sponsored after-school language programs, too.

“You are very limited in what you can pack in during that six-hour day. It forces you to prioritize,” said Ron Thiele, the district’s associate superintendent. “Even if you had the student interest, even if you could get the teachers, you still have to confront that issue, of ‘what am I willing to stop offering.’ Those become really dicey conversations.”

Getting an earlier start

The district offers accredited foreign language classes starting in eighth grade. Students at every middle school in the district can take Spanish, but only those at Issaquah Middle School and Maywood Middle School have an option for French, according to Sara Niegowski, the district’s communications director.

At the high school level, Skyline, Issaquah and Liberty students have the option to take Spanish, French and Japanese. Issaquah High also offers an American Sign Language course.

The idea of offering foreign language instruction at the elementary school level has become a difficult area to address, Thiele said. Administrators are well aware of the benefits of learning language from an early age. A study of third-graders showed that those who received second-language instruction in three half-hour sessions per week for one semester scored higher in language and math on standardized tests than their classmates who did not receive language instruction, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

The concept is not lost on leaders like Thiele. While schools in Seattle, as well as many across the nation, have waded into the waters of offering language-immersion programs starting in the first grade, he said Issaquah considers it one of those great ideas that needs more student and parent interest combined with an abundance of bilingual, certified Washington teachers who also know how to teach all subject areas well. One problem is that there are not enough native Spanish (or another foreign language) speakers at any one school.

“We looked into Spanish immersion a few years back,” Thiele said. “The problem I had was, I understand the immersion, but you need about half the kids in the class (who) would be Spanish speaking and half would be English speaking.”

In order for an elementary school to offer a sustainable language-immersion program, it has to fill a pipeline of teachers in each grade level.

“I think there’s a reason not a lot of people do it. It’s harder than anyone thinks. For us, we’re still a relatively homogenous population,” Thiele said. “It’s not that we’re not interested in doing that.

“If it’s something that we can make happen, let’s do it.”

As principal of Issaquah Middle School in 2002, Thiele, who has a background in Mandarin studies, actually did implement a Japanese language program for one period per day. Within two years, the school dropped the program due to lack of student interest.

“I could never get more than 17 kids per class,” Thiele said. “I just couldn’t keep the numbers. There has to be a certain amount of student interest. They’re not forced to take Japanese class.”

College requirements, language-immersion trips

Spanish and French are simply more popular still, despite efforts, for example, by Skyline students to get Chinese on the course offerings list. And while other elective subjects like the arts and physical education diminish with tightened budgets, language classes still remain fairly robust at the high school level, Thiele said. That has a lot to do with students seeking to fulfill college entrance requirements — neither the district nor the state and federal governments require students to complete foreign language coursework.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that it is” growing, he said. “As I recall, over 90 percent meet the two years for language requirement upon graduating.”

While school districts have to strike a balance between maintaining a variety of elective course offerings for middle and high schoolers, foreign language teachers have the freedom to organize language-immersion trips or activities to help their students deepen their understanding and experience in the culture and language. These are offered completely independent from the school and tend to happen whenever teachers can get enough students and parents committed to travel, teachers from Skyline and Issaquah said.

Haldeman estimated that roughly one group of Skyline students takes a trip or attends an immersion activity each year, whether that be during winter break, spring break or over the summer. At Issaquah High, Spanish teachers took about a dozen students to Antigua, Guatemala, over spring break in 2010. They attended three days of one-on-one Spanish instruction at a popular language school, lived with a local family and experienced a plethora of festivities during Semana Santa (Holy Week leading up to Easter). It gets students out of their textbooks and forces them to use rules and verbs in fluid conversation. They are planning a second trip to Antigua for the 2011-2012 school year.

“Usually I notice that kids’ interest peaks,” Haldeman said. “It really solidifies their interest.”

Haldeman said she has taken her students to Japan before, but they often opt to attend a two-day full-immersion camp in Seattle. They learn the ins and outs of the culture and compete in speaking exercises.

“They get really excited about doing that,” she said.

It’s a balancing act

Whether students take a trip or not, some teachers in the district supplement the traditional curriculum — standard verb conjugations and memorizing grammar rules — with methods such as Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. It promotes more creativity and conversation among classmates and focuses less on the teacher simply lecturing. Haldeman said it has proven effective but, due to ever-increasing workload and requirements, it’s difficult to consistently incorporate into everyday instruction. She, like many, chooses to teach only in Japanese in her classes from second-year and up.

“My advanced classes are not allowed to speak in English at all,” Haldeman said.

While schools across the country have proven that learning a second language earlier and through new methods leads to higher test results, a variety of factors continue to limit Issaquah and other districts in what they can offer students. In the end it’s all a big balancing act, Thiele said.

“There’s educational value with learning a foreign language,” Thiele said. “But there’s also educational value in learning science or art.”

Christopher Huber: 392-6434, ext. 242, or Comment at

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