Time is Ripe to Start an Elementary Chinese Language Program

John Eaton Elementary School in Washington, DC

More elementary schools are considering implementing Chinese language programs, and whether you are proposing or maintaining a program, focusing on the right questions and crucial decisions during the planning process can help lead to stable and effective programs.

From immersion programs to programs with very limited time in the target language, research findings and real-world experience can help teachers and administrators tackle everything from creating a planning committee to recruiting Chinese teachers. This article outlines some key things to keep in mind.

Why foreign language and why Chinese?

This might be the first question administrators or parents ask. Several studies have shown many benefits of teaching young children foreign language, including:

  • Young students appear to learn to speak a new language more easily.
  • Overall academic achievement is higher among students who study foreign language.
  • And young children are more open to learning about people from other cultures.

In addition, everyone from parents to the Obama administration is calling for more foreign language instruction, and Chinese, in particular, is garnering more attention as China’s economic and political influence grows.

Create a planning committee and garner support

One of the first steps in planning is establishing a committee comprised of major stakeholders, including language department representatives, the school board and administrators, said Carol Ann Dahlberg, professor emerita in education at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. Good candidates for this committee will have enough time to research and make thoughtful decisions, and will be responsible for building public awareness and support for the program, as well as identifying effective teachers and materials.

And when it comes to the planning committee’s composition, be sure to include the teacher’s union, Dahlberg said.

“Because there will be issues of whether your teacher is licensed like everybody else,” she said, referring to teachers recruited from other countries, who may not yet have a state teaching license. “And if you have already left out that important person representing all the important teachers, you could have problems.”

Choosing a program model

One of the first tasks for the planning committee is to determine the program’s goal. Does the program seek to introduce students to a new language and culture? Or are students expected to become proficient?

Experts say some of the main determinants of whether a program will be successful are the length and frequency of class time, as well as the effectiveness of teachers.

For a program to lead to proficiency, students should be in class at least three times a week, and weekly should instruction total at least 90-120 minutes, Dahlberg said.

Schools like the Yinghua Academy in St. Paul, Minn., take an immersion approach, Students there are taught in Mandarin Chinese —including math, science and other classes — anywhere from half the time to all the time. Yinghua starts with immersion in kindergarten, but by sixth grade, students spend half the day in Chinese and half in English.

“Most of our parents are committed to the high-proficiency level,” said Betsy Lueth, director of the Yinghua Academy. “They are really wanting their children to come out with near-native fluency.”

Recruiting and supporting teachers

Perhaps the most important determinant of whether a program will be successful is its teachers.

Lueth said she looks for teachers “anywhere and everywhere,” including through advertisements in local and national papers, as well as networking at conferences and among her current staff. Top candidates generally are passionate and have experience working with the age group they would be teaching. Lueth said she tends to avoid teachers who have taught college students and is upfront with candidates about the challenges of working in a pioneering environment.

“This is tough,” Lueth said. “And we don’t have all the answers.”

Regardless of where you are in your planning or evaluation, now is a good time to start, said Marcia Harmon Rosenbusch, director of the National K-12 Foreign Language Resource Center at Iowa State University.

A new political and economic climate has spurred, among other things, federal initiatives that support Chinese programs.

“You have to recognize this unique moment,” Rosenbusch said. “It will not last.”

Author: Amy Fletcher
February 2009