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Strategies for Launching After-School Language Programs

By Aikeda Aierken & Brenna Fitzgerald — February 21, 2017 6 min read
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While many elementary schools would like to have language offerings for students, many do not have the resources to do so. Out-of-school time programs can help fill this gap, says Aikeda Aierken, Outreach Assistant for the Afterschool Language Program, a program of the Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, and Brenna Fitzgerald, Communication and Outreach Coordinator of Cornell Southeast Asia Program.

Learning a foreign language, especially at an early age, has many benefits such as facilitating the discovery of a new culture, increasing communication abilities, and encouraging open-minded perspectives. According to Barbara Lust, a professor of human development and director of the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL), “Cognitive advantages follow from becoming bilingual. These cognitive advantages can contribute to a child’s future academic success.” Studying a foreign language also broadens children’s understanding of the world, enabling them to better connect with people from different cultures. However, US schools, especially elementary schools, do not typically emphasize language learning or have resources to do so. Thus, youth often don’t reach language proficiency. Extra-curricular activities and out-of-school time programs can be a positive support to formal instruction in this area and can foster the great outcomes that come from learning a foreign language.

The Cornell Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) initiated the Afterschool Language Program for K-6 youth to expose elementary students to a wide array of cultures and languages, foster cross-cultural understanding, and inspire them to study foreign languages. SEAP finds graduate student volunteers that know a language other than English to teach world languages in local afterschool programs. The weekly classes expose youth to new languages through engaging activities that focus on culture, such as games, crafts, cooking, and dancing. We have discovered some key strategies for successfully running an afterschool language program, which might be helpful for other institutions wanting to initiate similar programs:

Spend Time to Gain Time: Using Culture Kits to Shape Lessons
A universal challenge of running an afterschool program is that staff and volunteers have limited time for lesson planning. In this case, spending time to create new resources or organize existing ones can effectively support afterschool educators and minimize preparation time in the long run. SEAP’s digitized lending library provides educational books and culture kits including traditional clothes, art, puppets, and textiles of different cultures. These kits are prepared by content-area experts at Cornell University and geared for use by K-12 and community college educators. They were created to engage both educators and students in developing a deeper understanding of foreign cultures and language.

If a university is nearby and offers such resources, ask for their assistance and borrow available object resources to use for your program. Alternatively, you can contact a National Resource Center or local library for help. Local World Affairs Councils often have culture boxes as well. SEAP’s lending library is able to mail textbooks and non-fragile objects to educators in need. Also, if you have already recruited international volunteers, it is highly possible that they have personal cultural items from their home countries. Ask volunteers to bring their own objects to improve the teaching quality if possible.

If none of the above resources are available, you can create your own cultural kit collections, which might be time-consuming at the beginning, but will save volunteers’ preparation time in the long run. A full list of SEAP’s cultural kits of the different world regions can be found in the lending library, which may provide a guide for what to put in the kits for your program.

We created a sample 6-9 week curriculum.pdf of SEAP’s afterschool language program, which can be modified for any language or timeframe and guide the creation of curriculum kits at your site.

Staffing the Program
Finding staff or volunteers that speak a language other than English is a key factor that determines the success of your program. There are several ways you can recruit multi-lingual staff:


  • If your organization is near a college or university, contact international programs across campus to enlist volunteers.
  • Ask for assistance from literacy centers.
  • Survey staff members, participants’ parents, and partner organizations to determine who can speak a second language and is interested in teaching it in the afterschool program.
  • Contact local heritage organizations, cultural exchange programs, or international volunteer organizations, such as Rotary Club or Kiwanis for volunteers or ask the local Chamber of Commerce for assistance.

To increase interest in volunteering, we provide travel stipends to cover volunteers’ commuting expenses. If you do not have funding to provide stipends, emphasize the benefits for volunteers, such as promoting their own cultures, building resumes, and developing their social skills, or offer to write a letter of recommendation at the end of the program.

It might be even more helpful to consider language skills as an advanced asset when hiring new staff. This reduces the efforts of looking for new volunteers and reinforces that multicultural understanding and language learning is a core part of the organization’s mission.

Pitching the afterschool language program to schools
Elementary schools, program administrators, and parents may seem skeptical about the value of a 6-9 lesson language program and may question whether language learning might be too tough or not exciting enough for K-6 students. Indeed, it would be difficult to expect youth to speak a language proficiently after a short program. To avoid this issue and successfully sell the program to principals, directors, and parents, emphasize that the afterschool language program teaches youth basic vocabulary through culture and fun activities that stimulate their interests in continually learning the language. Also mention that an afterschool language and culture program can open the minds of children to people, languages, and cultures that may be unfamiliar and, thus, promote cultural understanding. Share the general curriculum outline above.

If they still have concerns, suggest offering a one-time language session for K-6 students that is also open to school directors and parents. This will allow you to ascertain children’s interest levels and address questions about the program. For example, one of our Afterschool Language Program volunteers introduced Chinese New Year and taught simple Chinese vocabulary, and after this one-time session, the school agreed to run the six-week program.

If you have enough staff or volunteers to teach a variety of languages, provide several language class options and allow them to choose the one that the children are most interested in or that reflects a core culture of the school or surrounding community.

In a globalized world, teaching world languages and cultures to children is key to building bridges across cultural differences and preparing them to enter the global job market. Afterschool language programs can foster those benefits and help students become globally competent.

Students at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School Enrichment Program singing a song in Hindi.

Follow the Southeast Asia Program and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Video credit: Brenna Fitzgerald. See original on Vimeo.

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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