Curriculum Opinion

Five Steps for Reimagining World-Language Learning Goals

By Shuhan Wang & Joy Kreeft Peyton — November 17, 2016 7 min read
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Language programs in the 21st century must help students gain the language and literacy proficiency they will need to succeed in the real world. This means that relying only on traditional ways of measuring student progress (e.g., time spent in a class), without measuring what students can actually do in the language, is not enough. A critical component of all competency-based language programs in K-12 is to clearly articulate the knowledge and skills that students will acquire and demonstrate. This can be done by taking a backward design approach of using expected student learning outcomes to drive curriculum and instructional decisions. Shuhan Wang and Joy Kreeft Peyton, of Asia Society’s Chinese Early Language and Immersion Network (CELIN), discuss strategies based on a recently published research brief, Mapping Chinese Language Learning Outcomes in Grades K-12.

After looking at students in two distinct types of language programs, we recommend five key steps for any language program to consider and implement to create outcome-driven learning paths for students. The two language programs we focus on are: a K-8 immersion program in which students spend at least 50 percent of their time learning the Chinese language and some academic subjects in Chinese; and a world language program, in which students begin the study of Chinese as an elective in grade 6 and continue through grade 12.

In the first program scenario, a typical student in a 50/50 immersion program may reach Novice High to Intermediate Low levels on the Language Proficiency Scale developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) at the end of grade 5. Similarly, a typical high school student who has learned Chinese starting in grade 6 may reach the same levels after six years, by the end of grade 12. This means that these students will be able to: initiate or maintain conversations with native Mandarin speakers with connected sentences or at the paragraph level and respond to topics that are related to the curriculum in academic and social interactions. They can recognize and read words and phrases that are commonly used in daily life or relate to the curriculum. They have knowledge about the Chinese writing system and are able to write meaningful short paragraphs.

In real life, they can travel in a Chinese-speaking region and interact with native speakers to shop, get around, find lodging, tour landmarks, and enjoy street life without too much trouble. Such competency-based descriptions are much more meaningful to students, parents, future program administrators, or employers than simply stating the number of years for which a student has studied Chinese.

Step 1: What are the end goals of the program?
To make language learning meaningful, a program needs to decide what its overall goals are for all students at all levels. These need to be aligned with nationally and internationally recognized standards. Some key goals as described by ACTFL include that students will:

  • Be able to use the language effectively in three modes of communication: interpretive (listening, reading, and viewing); interpersonal (listening, speaking, reading, and writing with others); and presentational (speaking and writing in different types of performance).
  • Be able to use the social and academic language of different content areas such as math, social studies, and science.
  • Have language proficiency in all of the following arenas:

    • Comprehensibility (be able to be understood)
    • Comprehension (be able to understand others)
    • Language control (use the language with accuracy)
    • Vocabulary usage (have vocabulary appropriate for the content and the context)
    • Communication strategies (be able to communicate effectively in a variety of settings)
    • Cultural awareness (understand and be able to communicate in various contexts, with people in different geographic, linguistic, ideological, and cultural settings and orientations)

These overall goals provide the backbone of all programs and instruction.

To avoid the pitfall of focusing on how many years a student has learned a language, learning outcomes must be defined in terms of these standards. Moreover, due to the difference in the purpose of and instructional hours devoted to an immersion program versus a world language program, the profiles and proficiency levels of students in these two types of programs will vary tremendously. For example, students in an immersion program learn in the language and use it approximately half of the school day in both content and language courses. They are often exposed to rich, academically challenging language and interact extensively with peers. Their use of Chinese is often more natural and approximates that of a heritage language speaker (who is born and raised in a Chinese-speaking household in the United States).

On the other hand, students in a world language program spend less time using and learning the language. Instruction might focus more on grammar than on fluency, and they may demonstrate more grammatical control than students in immersion programs. Consequently, it is important to understand the program type, the intensity of instruction, and the starting age of students to determine realistic language learning outcomes.

Step 2: What are students expected to know and be able to do at different levels, after different periods of time?
The answer to this important question depends on many factors, including the location of the program; the key characteristics of the program; the ages of the students; students’, parents’, teachers’, and administrators’ goals for learning the language; the type and quality of instruction offered; the amount of time spent learning in the language; and the richness of the language used.

The CELIN Brief provides a detailed chart showing possible learning outcomes for K-8 immersion programs and grade 6-12 world language programs.

These learning outcomes are derived from a set of field studies of well-established and outstanding Chinese immersion programs: Chinese American International School in San Francisco, CA; Yinghua Academy in Minneapolis, MN; and Portland Public Schools, OR; as well as a national study of world language programs in high schools in 30 states. These findings can provide the basis for setting goals for programs in a school or district.

Step 3: How will we determine and document student learning?
The language field has benefited greatly from government- and field-developed assessment instruments that are nationally and internationally recognized. Many different assessments can be used to measure student-learning outcomes in grade K-12 programs, which are also recognized by districts and states across the nation. These include the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), ACTFL Writing Proficiency Test (WPT), Avant Standards-Based Measure of Proficiency (STAMP Assessment), College Board Advanced Placement (AP) Examination in Chinese Language and Culture, Early Language Listening and Oral Proficiency Assessment (ELLOPA), Hanban Chinese Proficiency Test (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, HSK), and Student Oral Proficiency Assessment (SOPA).

Step 4: What are our curriculum and instructional strategies?
Now that you have set program goals and outcomes, curricula and instructional strategies to be used with students at each level can be articulated and implemented. When considering curricula and instructional approaches, there are many sources to consult. The CELIN web pages may be a first step in finding resources in these areas.

Step 5: Where will our students go next?
In order for their language abilities to be useful, students benefit a great deal by continuing the study of the language at their next level of schooling, through virtual learning, or in study abroad programs. In the academic setting, students often have options to pursue different pathways after completing the initial program offered. For example, high school graduates may consider taking courses at a college or university or enroll in one of the many flagship programs offered by universities.

For middle and high school students who have been in an immersion program throughout elementary school, different pathways will accommodate their needs, because their proficiency and literacy levels are much higher than those of students who started learning a language later or in an elective course. Portland Public Schools and Seattle Public Schools are two examples of school districts that are developing middle and high school pathways for these students.

When program and curricular goals are clear and everyone involved knows what students are expected to learn at different levels and after specific periods of time, a plan can be put in place to document student learning and to develop aligned curricula and instructional activities. Students will achieve at high levels and be able to pursue a number of interesting and challenging academic and career pathways. Their knowledge, skills, and cultural understanding will become critical personal and societal assets for them to live productively in our interconnected world.

Connect with the Center for Global Education at Asia Society on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Portland Public Schools.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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