Considerations for High School Language Programs

Studying Chinese

Keeping students on track to reach appropriate levels of proficiency can be tricky without a well-articulated curriculum, but two U.S. schools are using models that can help provide guidance to teachers and help students reach their goals.

Fairfax County in Virginia is using a Chinese pacing guide that breaks down, by year, the skills and knowledge students need to be successful. The program requires four speaking and writing assessments each year.

Similar to Fairfax County, Boston’s Scope and Sequence model outlines the topics to be covered, tasks students should be able to complete and such linguistic aspects as question formation and demonstrative pronouns.

“More or less our teachers are moving at the same pace, no matter where you teach … even if you use a different textbook,” said Yu-Lan Lin, senior program director of world languages for Boston Public Schools, adding that the textbook is viewed as a tool to plan lessons or their syllabus.

Both models include an articulated curriculum that is designed by looking at upper-level objectives and working backwards. Each level should be aligned with national standards, as well as state standards, where applicable.

“Curriculum needs to be designed from the top,” Lin said.

Curriculum at Fairfax County was revamped after staff realized that fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice exams were not preparing students well for the Advanced Placement test said Paula Patrick, coordinator of world languages for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. She compared the quality of learning to what would happen if a piano teacher played most of the song and then asked the student to supply the missing note.

“We can’t just [have] fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice ... and then expect at the AP level they are going to write an essay,” Patrick said.

Critical to both programs are things like professional development and a mentor program.

“You cannot have success unless you have well-thought-out professional development, and it has to be ongoing,” Patrick said. “You can always learn, and you want to make professional development new, fresh, engaging -- just like with students.”

In Fairfax County, professional development days occur the first Friday of every month, where teachers gather as a group to share strategies and then break out by language. The world languages department also encourages peer observations, for which teachers are allowed to use substitute days. Worksheets help ensure the time is productive.

“We definitely encourage peer observations,” Patrick said. “So they can pick up strategies from other teachers and also give really good feedback.”

In Boston, experienced teachers mentor first-year teachers by observing the new teacher’s class and providing feedback throughout the year.

Professional development times can be an opportunity to set clear expectations that teachers will develop lesson plans that have clear learning goals and opportunities for assessment. There should be ample opportunities for students to practice and process new information. Also, when teachers are observed, there should be evidence of research-based methods.

“So we don’t just give professional development,” Patrick said. “We want to see that these kind of research-based strategies are being used.”