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Tying the Knot

From curriculum planning to teacher collaboration across and within grade levels, articulation keeps

The foreign language steering committee at Chartiers Valley School District in suburban Pittsburgh has a lot to talk about. In fact, to describe a typical monthly meeting agenda as ambitious would be an understatement.

A recent meeting opened with a group of K-5 language teachers outlining a proposal for the timing of assessments. Also on the agenda: an update from the middle school principal on the curriculum writing project for her school; an update from the high school foreign language department head about teacher preparation efforts for incoming students; planning for the summer curriculum writing project; and an elementary teacher sharing content-based curriculum strategies with high school teachers.

Katherine Gori, the district's director of instruction whose duties include overseeing the foreign language program, explains that the committee members are fully committed to their goal of ensuring that students learn a second language, and learn it well.

Considering that the committee has been meeting regularly for seven years and some of its members only speak English, this ongoing excitement is no small feat. "I chair this committee but I don't have to remind other people of their responsibilities. They all put their heart and soul into this," Gori says.

The committee formed in response to a vision of the administration, school board, staff, parents, students and community: students need to know a second language. Superintendent Bernard Sulkowski says, "An early bilingual education offers our students an incredible competitive advantage. As we move to a global business environment, our students will be sought after in almost any career field they enter." Besides Gori and Sulkowski, the committee includes principals, foreign language department heads and other language teachers, Richard Donato from the University of Pittsburgh and Richard Tucker from Carnegie Mellon University.

Why such a mix? The district wants a well-articulated program, one where student achievement is based on logical steps to proficiency. And articulation, experts say, should be at the forefront of any district's foreign language program.

Stepping Stones

Articulation has many angles. It means the program is structured for student achievement of the district's goals. Vertical articulation helps students progress logically in fluency as they move through the school system-or as they move to a higher level of the program within their grade. Horizontal articulation is about ensuring teachers of the same grade across a district are teaching similar content in similar ways, so students progressing to the next grade level are in sync.

Articulation issues are especially prevalent in larger districts with more schools, more teachers and more levels within each grade. These districts may also have a large population of students who aren't native English speakers, which in itself requires an articulation strategy.

"Our research has found that it's very easy to start programs in the early grades," says Donato, an associate professor of foreign language education. "As kids progress through the years, getting them up to functional levels of proficiency becomes a challenge. All the little songs kids did in grades 2 and 3 aren't as cute in grades 4 and 5."

And then there's the jump to higher education to consider. Tom Lovik, a professor of German at Michigan State University, says, "There's been an ageold discussion between high school and college programs about articulation.

Some of us have tried to bridge the gap over the years." Colleges and universities don't want students who have taken a foreign language for years to start over in that language. Pursuing advanced studies to increase fluency or building on second language learning skills by studying a new language will serve them better.

The bottom line also values articulation. Marcia H. Rosenbusch, director of the National K-12 Foreign Language Resource Center at Iowa State University, says, "If you don't have articulation, you're wasting time and money." Students who graduate with only the basics of a second language won't be able to function in a global marketplace.

Foreign language education may now be considered a patriotic duty, as well. Patricia Paulsell, co-director of the Center for Language Education and Research at Michigan State University, recently helped organize a national conference on less commonly taught languages and other issues. The attendees agreed that the U.S. needs more citizens who are proficient in language and culture (particularly languages such as Arabic and Japanese). And proficiency's roots lie in long, well-articulated sequences of foreign language education.

The Domino Effect

The first consideration in articulation is what students will learn and when. The national Standards for Foreign Language Learning ( recommend linking content with other subject areas within the grade level, an approach that districts find comes naturally.

Several years ago, Springfield (Mass.) Public Schools put together a group of foreign language, regular classroom and special needs teachers to study the elementary curriculum in math, science, social studies, language arts and health. They determined what topics could be reinforced in a second language after it had been covered in one of those areas. When students learn about nutrition, for example, language teachers use the food pyramid to introduce vocabulary. They can also bring culture into the mix to show that the way food groups are addressed in Springfield is "not the way you'd address [them] if you lived in Mexico or Martinique or Taiwan," says Director of Foreign Languages Kathleen M. Riordan.

"If you don't have articulation,
you're wasting time and money."
-Marcia H. Rosenbusch, director, National K-12 Foreign
Language Resource Center, Iowa State University

As students progress in elementary school, teachers may begin to focus more on comprehension and writing than on basic oral language skills and cultural awareness. The sixth grade program at Chartiers Valley has students reading excerpts of the same story-and learning about literary devices-in English and then Spanish.

For middle and high school programs in districts with an elementary program, there's a strong domino effect to recognize. Harriet Barnett, a consultant for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says, "Teachers can't do what they used to do. Students might not conjugate a verb correctly, but they are [entering high school] knowing how to use that verb correctly. It's terribly important for the different jumping points between schools or levels [that teachers] know the goals before and in grades coming up."

Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education at the Center for Applied Linguistics, says that high schools need to adapt their programs-not just try to fit these students into their existing programs. While the Chartiers Valley students who began foreign language learning in kindergarten are only in fifth grade now, Donato explains that the district is currently thinking about changes in the delivery of the high school curriculum. "You can't wait until August of the year they're entering," he says.

Another consideration is how to deal with students who transfer from other districts without elementary foreign language programs. Chartiers Valley has developed a number of options, including additional classroom support, tutoring during recess, a teacher-staffed homework hotline, a two-week summer academy and tutoring by advanced high school students.

Teachers as Partners

Getting foreign language teachers talking-with each other and with regular classroom teachers-is essential to articulation. Because this requires resources and time, districts rely on administrator support.

In Chartiers Valley, Sulkowski's commitment is contagious. "We've been meeting almost monthly during the academic year [for years]," says Tucker, a professor of applied linguistics who heads Carnegie Mellon's modern languages department. "And I'll be darned, the superintendent has not missed a meeting."

Springfield's superintendent at the time of the district's program overhaul was himself a second language English speaker who strongly believed in the ability of all students to participate in a foreign language program. For her part, Riordan has filled in for teachers so they can observe other classes or collaborate.

On professional development days, Springfield foreign language teachers might work on curriculum and assessment issues or share teaching strategies. Before this school year, for example, they discussed book making techniques. High school French students later wrote stories, created bound books and read them to elementary students at lunch.

Then the elementary students shared what they were learning by performing French songs. Rita Oleksak, a workshop organizer and one of the district's three foreign language mentor teachers, says, "It was wonderful for me to see teachers at a variety of different grades and levels using this medium as a mode of communication."

Ideally, language teachers should meet a few times a year or more with colleagues of other grade levels to discuss curriculum, review individual goals and talk about how those goals can mesh with other grade levels, Rhodes says. Whether the format is a workshop, project, brief teaching stint in another grade or observation, good articulation requires that the information is used.

In Springfield, language teachers are also encouraged to share content and methods of future grade levels with students. For example, elementary language teachers explain to their classes that, beginning in middle school, they will have textbooks and written (not just oral) evaluations. "It's important for the students to know that the teachers know what's happening [in the years before and after]," Riordan says.

K-16 Connections

Higher education partnerships can help districts with articulation and other issues-and the faculty is often ready for the call. "We have a responsibility to seek out linkages with the local community and to work with them as best we can, rather than standing on the sidelines," Tucker says. Donato adds that universities can provide information and be co-investigators in language program design.

In turn, districts can become research sites for higher education faculty. Tucker says that one doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon is working with the curriculum team at Chartiers Valley on research for her dissertation. At Michigan State, Lovik worked with a local district to poll high school German students about whether they will continue study in college.

Here are some tips on partnering with colleges and universities:

Don't call on university partners to sell the idea of foreign language instruction to district stakeholders-bring them in once the district is committed

Contact schools that large numbers of your graduates attend

Consult your state's foreign language consultant or the CAL about local universities that might be a good fit for your district

Don't expect university partners to come in with all the answers.


Assessments can help districts find answers about what makes an effective program. In 2003, the National Assessment of Educational Progress will offer a foreign language assessment for the first time. Other assessments include the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview for K-12, which rates student proficiency on 10 levels from "novice low" to "superior," and CAL's Student Oral Proficiency Assessment for elementary students. In addition, CAL has compiled a searchable database of language assessments being used in U.S. elementary, middle and secondary schools (

Internal assessment development is the route Springfield has chosen. All third graders take a listening comprehension test, and other elementary teachers can use optional assessments created in teacher workshops. In grades 8-10, writing and speaking assessments are mandatory. Teachers evaluate each student and then send the tests to Riordan. Then, late each spring, teachers work together to randomly reevaluate about 25 percent of the tests. comments and scores are returned to teachers with the student work.

This exercise allows the district to make comparisons among schools and consider curriculum strengths and weaknesses. In addition, it gives teachers "another set of eyes and ears. ... It provides an opportunity to think about how they evaluate student work," says Riordan-an opportunity that teachers welcome. Oleksak says, "It's a great push for [us] to then think about activities and how we [each] do things differently." And because the tests reflect the curriculum, she says, students encounter topics and methods, such as speaking into a tape recorder, that are familiar.

Other districts consult Riordan for advice in expanding their foreign language programs, and sometimes she'll notice "the same district calling back year after year-and they still haven't done anything." She says it's important to move beyond the talking stage and take action. "You can never say, 'This is perfect ... and there's not going to be a glitch.' " Instead, Riordan views her program as a work in progress. "You have to always be alert and looking at the program as objectively as you can."

Melissa Ezarik,, is features editor.