Foreign Language Education at the Elementary School Level

I wrote the following seven years ago, as the culminating paper of my master’s degree work.  I publish it here and now for two reasons: 1) because I feel guilty for not publishing anything for a month; 2) so that it might be widely available, to bring together some concepts about foreign language education that may be useful as colleagues work to defend their programs.  Enjoy!


The Foundations for Language Learning: What Brain Research Has Shown

The starting point for understanding language acquisition is the developmental research started by Eric Lenneberg in the 1960s.  As summarized in Brown (1994), Lenneberg hypothesized a “critical” period for learning languages that coincided with the developmental phase known as “lateralization”, in which the brain assigns tasks to either the left or right sides.  The critical period, then, is a phase in which, due to its plasticity and incomplete development, the brain is most able to incorporate the cognitive structures and practices necessary for language learning.  This phase lasts roughly from the age of two to puberty.  Brown (1994) also relates the conclusions of work done by Walsh and Diller, in which they posited—and found evidence for—the claim that “different aspects of a second language are learned optimally at different ages…” (55).  Walsh and Diller concluded that pronunciation is a lower-order process based on earlier maturation processes, while grammar and syntax are higher-order functions that develop later; thus, the critical period may be most applicable to the question of pronunciation and accent, while having relatively little effect on the rest of language learning.  The critical period applies to both first and second (or other) language learning, and presents an extreme limitation on second language learning later in life.  While language learning is not impossible after the critical period, it is severely limited, and reaching a high level of proficiency (or native-like proficiency, when applied to second language learning) is basically impossible.

Erika Hoff-Ginsberg (1998) cites numerous case studies which demonstrate this last point.  Perhaps the most important is the case of “Genie”, a severely abused girl who was locked in a closet by her father and deprived of all linguistic interaction until age 13.  After her rescue from that situation, Genie was only able to attain the linguistic level of an average 5-year-old—despite intensive linguistic rehabilitation efforts.  Linguistic interaction is not simply verbal: a study with deaf children showed that those who learned American Sign Language after infancy did not perform as well on comprehension and productions tests as the early learners.  In terms of second language learning, the most interesting research involves immigrants and their proficiency in the language of the new country.  Studies showed that the most important factor influencing proficiency was not how long the person had lived in the new country, but rather his or her age upon arrival in that country.  The key to linguistic proficiency among young learners is neural plasticity: “…the structure of the young brain is malleable and shaped by its own activity.  The mature brain, in contrast, is stable, and does not have the same capacity to reorganize itself.”  (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1998: 35)

Michael Long (1990) reformulated the notion of the “critical period”, arguing instead that it should be thought of as “sensitive periods”.  He redefines the notion this way: “There are sensitive periods governing the ultimate level of first or second language attainment possible in different linguistic domains, not just phonology, with cumulative declines in learning capacity, not a catastrophic one-time loss, and beginning as early as age 6 in many individuals, not at puberty, as is often claimed.”  (Emphasis added, 255)  Given the general evidence that children in normal circumstances develop linguistic ability at roughly the same age and at roughly the same rate across languages and cultures, Long states that there is indeed a maturation schedule in the development of linguistic proficiency.  He then looks at a number of cases in which children’s language learning has been delayed for various reasons, including a number of the cases cited by Hoff-Ginsberg (1998).  The subjects in these cases developed linguistic skills at a faster rate than normal for regular children, but the end results of their linguistic rehabilitation left them significantly behind the norm, as demonstrated in the case of Genie.  Thus Long concludes that the fact that adults can learn a second language faster than children does not mean they learn it better.

Next, Long turns to studies on second language acquisition, which show a temporary advantage for older children and adults over younger children, in that they acquire second language more quickly, with particular facility in questions of basic morphology (grammar) and syntax.   However, this advantage eventually gives way to the fact that, over time, early learners are able to develop a far deeper command of the language:

Long-term studies (those comparing achievement after several years of foreign language study and/or residence in the SL [second language] environment) have found that younger starters consistently outperform older ones, and that only those who begin an SL as quite young children are ultimately capable of native-like attainment, even after many years of target language exposure.  Learners starting later than age 6 often become communicatively fluent, but also often finish with measurable accents in phonology and, with progressively later starts (e.g., after age 15 for morphology and syntax), with “accents” in other linguistic domains, too.  (265)

This leads Long to posit multiple sensitive periods, affecting different linguistic domains at different times, and with a relation to—but not mechanically tied to or determinant of—general cognitive development.  Long cites the work of Thomas Scovel, who conducted a study in which both native and non-native speakers of English, children and adults in each group, were asked to identify whether the speakers on a number of recordings and writers of short paragraphs were native or non-native speakers of English.  He found “a sensitive period for production on an SL or second dialect phonology by providing evidence of the age-related evolution of accent recognition in [native speakers] and of a sensitive period for accent recognition in non-natives.”  (269)  Additionally, many of the non-native speakers were easily identified as such through their spoken samples, but were not easily identified in their writing—indicating that those who begin learning a second language at a certain point (identified by Long to be between ages 6 and 15, roughly) may attain native proficiency in morphology and syntax, though not in phonology.  Hence, there must be multiple sensitive periods, most obviously for pronunciation on one hand and for grammar and usage on another, but also for learning and learning strategies, recognition of correct pronunciation and usage, etc.

Lastly, Long looks at the potential causes of sensitive periods, which are more generally characterized as maturational constraints: affective or social factors, input factors, cognitive factors, and neurological factors.  Long cites a number of studies that invalidate the claims for affective causes, and points out as well that such claims are: imprecise in locating the causal relation between affect or social situation and the effect on sensitive periods; nearly impossible to measure in any meaningful way; and flat out contradicted by the evidence that sensitive periods occur at roughly the same age across socio-cultural divisions.  Long very summarily dismisses the question of input factors, arguing that wide-ranging types of input and varying amounts of input have been shown to be irrelevant in numerous studies; those that do show them to be significant have serious methodological flaws.  Cognitive factors may well have a role to play, and are most certainly implicated at some level.  However, if it were only a matter of differing cognitive abilities, “we would expect to see evidence of different acquisition processes and sequences…In fact, there has been little evidence of such differences to date, at least where child/adult SLA comparisons are involved…presumably because common general cognitive processes are at work in language learning…”  (277).  Long ends with a discussion of neurological factors, and in particular the loss of plasticity of the brain over time.  Through a process known as myelination, the brain differentiates its functions and assigns them to certain neural pathways around which grow myelin sheaths—a literal “hardening” of the brain.  Neurological development, then, is bound to have an impact on cognitive factors, and so both have an impact on language learning ability.  As a last point, it is worthwhile to note that Long is aware of certain differences between how children and adults learn second languages: in particular, adults have access to metacognitive processes that allow them to see not only the similarities, but also the differences between the first and second languages; subsequently, while adults lack the neural plasticity that allows them to internalize a second language in a deep, almost subconscious way, they nonetheless retain the ability to learn second or other languages.  “Very high standards can be attained starting later, of course, but not, it seems, native-like standards.  Some ability appears to have been irreversibly lost.”  (266)

Before moving from foundations to results, we should briefly discuss this last point further.  Though there are parallels, adults learning a second language are in a qualitatively different situation than children learning a first language.  The next question is: how do adults and children differ in their learning of a second language?  Dulay and Burt (1972) hypothesized that “the child’s organization of L2 [second language acquisition] does not include transfer from (either positive or negative) or comparison with his native language, but relies on his dealing with L2 as a syntax system.”  (244)  In other words, young learners use the same process to grasp a second language as they use to grasp their first language; due to the low level of cognitive development, these learners do not use metacognitive faculties (unlike adults) to supplement their learning.  Therefore, Dulay and Burt (1974) proposed “the existence of universal child language learning strategies” (37) and showed in the same work that Chinese and Spanish-speaking children naturally picked up English morphemes (i.e. grammatical structures) from their English-speaking peers in the same order.  These students learned English apparently without interference from their first language, meaning that the mistakes they made were not mistakes in which they tried to graft Chinese or Spanish morphology onto English, but rather mistakes of the same type made by English-speaking children in learning English.  Brown (1994) responded to Dulay and Burt by noting other studies that do show first-language interference in children, and thus he asserted: “It may be more prudent to assert that the first language, for cognitive and affective reasons already discussed, does not pose the same degree of interference in children learning and second language as it does in adults.” (66)   He continues:

Adults, more cognitively secure, appear to operate from the solid foundation of the first language and thus manifest more interference.  But it was pointed out earlier that adults, too manifest errors not unlike some of the errors children make, the result of creative perception of the second language and an attempt to discover its rules apart from the rules of the first language.  The first language, however, may be more readily used to bridge gaps that the adult learner cannot fill by generalization within the second language; in this case we do well to remember that the first language can be a facilitating factor, and not just an interfering factor.  (66)

Harley (1998) notes:  “Tasks that assess morphology, syntax, and literacy-related skills represent a cognitive dimension of language proficiency on which older, cognitively more mature learners will predictably do better…In contrast, communicative tasks measuring basic interpersonal communications skills, such as oral fluency and phonology, are less likely to show an advantage for cognitive maturity.”  (28)  It is important to note here that Long’s notion of sensitive periods—in the plural—helps to account for this fact.  Harley concludes that “the most prominent advantage one might expect from the additional time gained by an early start is a greater facility in oral communication.”  (29)  On the surface, this conclusion appears to be at odds with Long’s conclusions, in particular, that native-like proficiency is impossible to achieve for those who begin learning a second language after the sensitive periods have ended.  However, this contradiction may be solved by examining what the intended result is: basic proficiency, or native-like proficiency?  This question may be answered in various ways, and can only be practically answered by the appropriate institution—government departments of education, professional organizations, school districts, or foreign language departments.  In any case, it is clear that advantages accrue to those learners who start second-language education earlier in life—and in most cases, earlier than the 9th grade start that is common for most American students.  Particular attention must be paid to the notion of sensitive periods for language acquisition—and, as I will show later in this paper, how these periods are particularly important for cognitive and intellectual development of students.


How Early Second-Language Learning Programs Work

While it is generally true that foreign language education is less valued in the United States than in other parts of the world, and while most foreign language programs in the U.S. are limited to secondary and post-secondary schools, nonetheless there have been experiments in this country with foreign language education for younger students.  Though there is tremendous diversity among these programs in terms of structure, methodology, and goals, Gladys Lipton (1992) has identified three major trends.  These are what she refers to as: FLES, FLEX, and Immersion.

Foreign Language Exploratory programs (FLEX) are meant to develop cultural knowledge and to introduce students to some of the basic expressions of the language; thus, linguistic proficiency is not part of the goal.  FLEX classes usually meet less often than normal classes.   Many FLEX programs have been used as after-school programs, with the resulting downside that students—and adults as well—treat the instruction less seriously.  As a result, FLEX programs are not generally as useful at the elementary level.  Middle schools also use the FLEX model as a separate course during the regular school day, as a way of introducing students to the various languages offered at higher levels.  Though these courses have little effect in terms of preparing them for serious instruction, they do serve the important function of introducing students to foreign cultures, often at an age which, as shown later, may be considered a “sensitive period” for learning about foreign cultures.  On the flip side of FLEX is immersion, a model in which 50% or more of instruction in all academic areas is in the second language.  These programs usually start students out using the target language nearly 100% of the time, though second language use is often reduced in later years.  As should be obvious, functional linguistic proficiency is the goal of immersion programs.  This type of program requires strong parent support, and as a result, is found mostly in magnet or private schools.  It is clearly also the rarest of the three types of elementary foreign language education.

Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES) is probably the most standard and practical of the three trends.  It is a “traditional”, sequenced program in which students meet for one period of time each day.  The content of FLES courses may be related to the school curriculum, but can also operate somewhat independently, thereby accommodating the general need for thematic units in FLES instruction.  The goal of a FLES curriculum—which, to be effective, must generally run throughout the elementary school years and be articulated with programs at the middle and high school levels—is functional linguistic proficiency in the target language.  However, given the different cognitive development of elementary school students as opposed to older children, different teaching methods are in order.

Lipton (1998a) recommends a functional approach to teaching FLES, including an emphasis on vocabulary and on listening and speaking proficiency.  Grammar is generally de-emphasized, as it requires students to have a developed sense of English grammar and syntax, something that is difficult and rare at that level.  Additionally, reading and particularly writing are delayed as well, for much the same reason that grammar is side-lined.  Repetition is important, but one must avoid rote exercises if possible.  Quoting the word of David Ausubel, Brown (1994) notes that, “people of all ages have little need for rote, mechanistic learning that is not related to existing knowledge and experience.  Rather, most items are acquired by meaningful learning, by anchoring and relating new items and experiences to knowledge that exists in the cognitive framework.”  (60)  As a result of this, Lipton (1998a) recommends the use of techniques such as: Total Physical Response (TPR), in which students are encouraged to respond to commands and to apply the spoken word directly to the object or action it signifies; and TPR Storytelling (TPRS), which expands on basic TPR by means of the construction of stories that involve the entire class at times through direct student intervention in the story, at others through question and answer about the story, and at still others through acting the story out.  As Lipton (1998b) notes: “Nothing is assumed to be learned the first time, without coming back for expansion and for utilization in different contexts.”  (69)  TPRS is extremely useful in that it achieves both the repetition and the meaningful contextualization of the language necessary to learning, while also remaining open for precisely the type of expansion and change of scenery that Lipton suggests.  TPRS also allows the opportunity for as much real-world intervention (props, personal experiences and anecdotes, application to situations outside the classroom) into the instruction as possible, in a structured, logical way, as determined by the teacher—who is the ultimate arbiter of the story.  As Miller (1998) notes: “The multisensory approach is essential…The student must interact with the language in as many ways as possible: auditory, visual, touch, taste, kinesthetic.  Save the symbol (the written word) for later—as ‘later’ as possible!  Once a word or idea is well-established orally, its sound can be paired with the graphic.”  (53)

As often unfortunately happens in foreign language instruction, the impulse for FLES came from outside events.  The motivation was not to create a generation of well-cultured individuals, but was rather a mixture of fear and nationalistic fervor: FLES was first implemented in the United States after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957.  Despite the unfortunate cause, many foreign language teachers and schools jumped on the opportunity, and FLES programs blossomed in the 1960s.  However, by the 1970s, many of these programs started to die out, and there was a general feeling that the experiment had not been horribly successful.  Audrey Heining-Boynton (1990) notes among the reasons for this: a) a lack of qualified teachers who were both proficient in the target language and certified to teach elementary school children; b) unrealistic or vague goals for many of the programs—ranging from an undefined goal of “proficiency” to a clearly defined, but nearly impossible goal of native proficiency; c) bad teaching methods, such as: the grammar-translation method, which relied heavily on the written word, long and decontextualized vocabulary lists, grammatical instruction, and translation as the primary goal of instruction; or the audio-lingual method, which relied on rote memorization and decontextualized oral repetition; d) lack of articulation with higher levels of instruction; e) lack of serious evaluation of the programs (which would be difficult particularly if the program did not have clearly defined goals); and f) lack of parent (and by extension, community and governmental) support.  As a result, FLES remained marginal to the elementary school curriculum in the United States, and continues to be marginal to this day.

One exception to this trend was the state of Iowa, which implemented a serious state-wide focus on foreign language education in the mid-1980s and actually put funds into teacher training and teacher and program support in the elementary schools.  Marcia Harmon Rosenbusch (2002) found that it was precisely this willingness to fund stated priorities that was the key to the success of these programs.  The number of active programs in Iowa decreased in the mid-1990s due to cuts to that funding; however, Harmon Rosenbusch notes two positive residual effects that have continued even in the absence of state funding: 1) State policy on teacher qualification, and the initial funding provided by the state, led the state universities to change their programs and their requirements, thereby allowing them to continue to produce highly qualified FLES teachers.  2) Again due to the state’s initial funding priorities, many FLES programs became curricular, as opposed to the extracurricular model that had been dominant prior to the start of the state initiative.  This meant that students, parents, and educational institutions as a whole took foreign language education at all levels much more seriously; that shift in attitudes has continued to this day, and is largely responsible for the fact that, while the number of programs has declined, many programs are still going strong and are funded by the local school districts themselves.


The Results of Early Second Language Learning: Empirical Observations

More recently, research efforts have turned to studying the effects of early second language learning, with a focus on the outcomes of FLES programs.  These outcomes extend beyond the narrow realm of increased oral communication skills.  As Shrum and Glisan (2000) suggest: “…there is evidence to suggest that the advantages on language study for younger learners include a heightened level of oral proficiency, more complex cognitive processing, higher performance on standardized tests and tests of basic skills, and a greater openness to other cultures.”  (77)  In another review of case studies, Deborah Wilburn Robinson (1998) notes that “High proficiency translates into positive cognitive consequences” (37).  Among these cognitive benefits: a) FLES students outperformed monolingual students in metacognitive processing, and also analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, the top tier of  Bloom’s taxonomy; b) FLES students in grades 3-5 outperformed English-only students on English Language Arts tests, even when English-only students had increased English instruction as compared to their bilingual peers; c) students with 4 or more years of foreign language—but fewer than four years of math—performed equally well as students with four or more years of math on the math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). However, she warns that “a certain level of L2 proficiency is necessary before cognitive benefits are discerned” (38).  What we can conclude from this is that students who learn foreign languages from an earlier age actually develop greater cognitive skills, better problem-solving, and a greater awareness of their own communication and thought processes—all of which require language as their medium.  As a result, the student’s metacognition is greatly enhanced as he or she takes knowledge accumulated at a young age and reconsiders it in light of his or her own cognitive development, in particular the development of the ability to analyze what is already there and to come to terms with existing differences in the two language structures of which he or she was hitherto ignorant.  Good FLES instruction creates good thinkers.

FLES also brings with it benefits that are not directly academic in nature, but have to do with the social and emotional dimensions of a child’s development.  Lipton (1998b) cites studies that show that FLES students have better academic self-image and more of a sense of achievement as a result of their engagement with another language.  Part of this may have to do with the FLES instruction engages not just the logical, linguistic portion of a child’s intellect, but also engages the child in a different experience of the world through the use of the target language. Kennedy et al. (2000) conducted research using an attitudinal survey from which they concluded that: “…affective variables contribute more to the end result of second language acquisition than do intelligence, aptitude, method of teaching utilized in the classroom, or time spent learning the language.” (279)  Kristin Hull-Cortés (2002) found in another attitudinal survey that learner attitudes to foreign language among FLES students were influenced by the use of the learned, i.e. non-dominant language at home, as well as by teacher methods.  It seems to me that both of these studies make very clear the importance of adults’ attitudes toward FLES, and the impact of these attitudes on young learners.  What needs clarification here is Kennedy’s assertion that teaching methods are irrelevant in FLES, and the fact that this contradicts Hull-Cortés’s findings.  I have found through personal experience in the classroom (albeit with other children) that teaching methods have a great impact on students’ attitudes to the class and to the content.  Furthermore, good foreign language teaching methods, such as TPRS, use of songs, experience with cultural artifacts such as food or other cultural products, etc., by their nature engage the students on an affective level.  Furthermore, engaging students affectively is a matter not of increasing their potential to learn the second language, but rather of increasing their willingness to learn it—and that, just as much as cognitive development, will have an impact on the final outcome.  So Kennedy et al. are not wrong about the importance of the affect in foreign language instruction—but we must be aware that this is only part of the picture.  Teaching methods are quite important, and must be appropriately designed for the students’ age and cognitive level, taking into account the importance of affective factors and meaningful context in students’ learning of a second language.

One last aspect of the attitudinal benefits is well worth mentioning here.  Wilburn Robinson (1998) cites the results of a study on students’ attitudes to the cultures of the languages under study.  She notes: “The age of ten is said to be a crucial time in the development of attitudes toward nations and groups perceived as ‘other’.  Ten-year-olds were more friendly and open toward people they viewed as different from themselves than fourteen-year-olds” (41).  This may be evidence of yet another sensitive period, that of the recognition and acceptance of  other cultures.  Favorable exposure to other cultures at an early age—in this instance, late elementary school into middle school—may well have the effect of creating a more tolerant group of students.  Aside from the obvious social benefits in a country where 10% of the population has Spanish as its first language, this factor has in impact as well on students’ attitudes toward later second-language study.  As I found with my own 9th grade Spanish 2 students, their attitudes toward Spanish speakers and their cultures were qualitatively different from anything I had experienced before; as a result, they have continued to have a more positive overall attitude toward the class, which has in turn had an effect on how much effort they are willing to put forth, and thus on their overall achievement.


Conclusion and Recommendations for the Future

From the literature I reviewed for this study, it is quite clear that children have a special relationship with and particular capacities in learning a foreign language that are different from those of adults—and even of teenage students.  There can be no doubt as to the benefits of early foreign language instruction on later stages of foreign language education; but it should also be quite clear that these benefits extend well beyond the foreign language classroom, and have a significant positive impact on students’ overall academic performance.  In particular, school districts that are concerned with standardized test scores in the age of No Child Left Behind should take note of the findings cited by Deborah Wilburn Robinson (1998).  As the Iowa experience shows, however, good FLES programs require resources beyond the individual school district—including administrative structures and teacher training programs that are adequately funded.  It will be the task of concerned educators, starting with foreign language teachers themselves, to work toward greater recognition of the need for good FLES instruction—and toward the realization of the programs and resources that FLES instruction requires.



Brown, H. Douglas (1994).  Principles of Language Learning and Teaching.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Dulay, Heidi C. and Marina K. Burt (1972).  Goofing: An Indicator of Children’s Second Language Learning Strategies.  Language Learning 22: 235-252.

Dulay, Heidi C. and Marina K. Burt (1974).  Natural Sequences in Child Second Language Acquisition.  Language Learning 24: 37-53.

Harley, Birgit (1998).  The Outcomes of Early and Later Language Learning.  In  Met (ed.), Critical Issues in Early Second Language Learning (26-31). Glenview, IL: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc.

Harmon Rosenbusch, Marcia (2002).  The Impact of National and State Policy on Elementary School Foreign Language Programs: The Iowa Case Study.  Foreign Language Annals 35: 507-517.

Heining-Boynton, Audrey L. (1990).  Using FLES History to Plan for the Present and Future.  Foreign Language Annals 23: 503-509.

Hoff-Ginsberg, Erika (1998).  Is There a Critical Period for Language Acquisition? In  Met (ed.), Critical Issues in Early Second Language Learning (31-36). Glenview, IL: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc.

Hull Cortés, Kristin (2002).  Youth and the Study of Foreign Language: An Investigation of Attitudes.  Foreign Language Annals 35: 320-332.

Kennedy, Teresa J., Jack K. Nelson, Michael R. L. Odell and Laurie K. Austin (2000).  The FLES Attitudinal Inventory.  Foreign Language Annals 33: 278-289.

Lipton, Gladys C.  (1992).  Practical Handbook to Elementary Foreign Language Programs (FLES*)  (2nd ed.).  Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company.

Lipton, Gladys C.  (1998a).  Guidelines for FLES* Programs.  In Lipton, Gladys C. (ed.),  A Celebration of FLES* (18-23).  Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company.

Lipton, Gladys C. (1998b).  We Can Teach All Students: FLES* Students Rarely Fail! In Lipton, Gladys C. (ed.),  A Celebration of FLES* (69-72).  Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company.

Long, Michael H. (1990).  Maturational Constraints on Language Development.  Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12: 251-285.

Miller, Elizabeth (1998).  A Salad of Language Learners.  In Lipton, Gladys C. (ed.),  A Celebration of FLES* (50-56).  Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company.

Shrum, Judith L. and Eileen W. Glisan (2000).  Teacher’s Handbook: Contextualized Language Instruction  (rev. ed.).  Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Wilburn Robinson, Deborah (1998).  The Cognitive, Academic, and Attitudinal Benefits of Early Language Learning. In  Met (ed.), Critical Issues in Early Second Language Learning (37-43). Glenview, IL: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc.

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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