Breathing New Life into Fading Foreign Language Programs

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Following years of growth, elementary foreign language programs have been dying out over the past decade, a new study shows. But amid cutbacks and a recession, curricula like the Sube system for teaching kids Spanish offer signs of hope.

Preliminary results from a Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) survey confirm what many educators already know: the elementary foreign language programs that are supposed to be preparing American children to be 21st century global citizens have instead decreased in number over the past decade, particularly in public schools. ( Yet some schools have found that with the right curriculum, their language programs are able to persist and even thrive in difficult times.

Conducted every decade and funded by the Department of Education, the CAL survey found that the number of elementary schools offering foreign languages in the U.S. declined by 6 percent between 1997 and 2008 (25 percent from 31 percent ten years earlier), a statistically significant falloff. The drop was more pronounced among public schools at 9 percent (15 percent vs. 24 percent). Private schools fared slightly better, falling two percentage points over the same period (51 percent vs. 53 percent).

The numbers are particularly hard to swallow in light of the fact that the previous CAL survey revealed an encouraging 9 percent overall growth in foreign language programs. Between 1987 and 1997, the number of schools with programs rose to 31 percent. But the new survey shows an almost complete reversal of that trend. Over a 20-year span, the total gain in schools with elementary foreign language programs has been only 3 percent, with a 2 percent loss in public schools.

In addition to advantages such as a broader worldview and intercultural understanding, there are well-established cognitive benefits to foreign language study for children. ( Children in foreign language programs tend to demonstrate greater cognitive development, creativity, and divergent thinking than monolingual children (1). The Department of Education and President Obama have stressed that every child should learn a second language, but schools continue to struggle to make progress towards that goal.

Solutions Start with Commitment to the Cause
It's easy to find culprits in this tale of stagnation. School budget cuts have been commonplace, an English-acquisition focus over bilingual education resulting from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and a lack of trained language teachers are all contributors. Now, the recession threatens to sharpen the decline. How can elementary schools reverse the trend?

Agnes Chavez, founder of the Sube language system for teaching Spanish to children, has dedicated herself to children's second language education. She believes it is critical that schools make second language learning a high priority, and one of the best ways to do that is give language teachers the preparation and the materials to succeed in the classroom.

"We hear similar stories year after year. Elementary Spanish programs are started without the necessary resources such as a comprehensive curriculum or proper teacher training. New teachers are often left to piece together a curriculum with minimal budgets and their schools don't realize how time consuming it is to create a curriculum from scratch. The extensive prep time is rarely compensated or taken into consideration when evaluating curriculum costs," noted Chavez (http:/

As an elementary Spanish teacher in New Mexico in the 1990s, Chavez saw firsthand the challenges that language programs face. She saw how teachers were often spread too thin and weren't provided with the resources they needed, and was inspired to create a better approach. She designed the Sube system to be a curriculum that's easy for schools to adopt straight out of the box, complete with lessons, activities and multimedia materials. Schools use the kit to teach beginner Spanish to kids from kindergarten to fifth grade.

"What we're showing schools is that if you set your teachers up to succeed, they will," she said. "With the right approach and the right curriculum, we can begin to overcome the obstacles that often cause program failure."

Finding and Supporting Spanish Teachers
Finding a native Spanish speaker that knows how to work with elementary grade children and has experience teaching a second language is not an easy prospect. It can stand in the way of schools looking to launch a language program. Lacking such candidates, teachers are often brought in without the requisite experience or knowledge of the established scientific research behind effective language teaching, or without classroom experience.

According to Chavez, schools and teachers that find themselves in this position can turn to the Sube system to provide both the curriculum and the guidance they need to effectively teach Spanish to children.

"The reality is that not everyone has the experience or training to successfully teach Spanish as a second language program from the outset," said Chavez. "We've designed Sube to deal with that reality, providing all the tools and direction needed to lead a comprehensive and fun elementary Spanish classroom."

Sube has been field-tested and proven effective for over a decade and in hundreds of schools and language programs across the U.S. It is a hands-on beginner Spanish curriculum that includes specific instructions and proven techniques for teaching a second language to kids in a classroom setting. Free online and phone support is available to help with classroom implementation. A video tutorial series that demonstrates teaching strategies is also included. (

Sube also helps create a seamless learning experience. When a school experiences teacher turnover, evaluation charts and standard aligned tests track student progress to smooth the transition to the new teacher. And because that new teacher will be working from the same curriculum, he or she can pick up where the last teacher left off.

"High teacher turnover is another cause for the failure of elementary Spanish programs because the curriculum leaves with exiting teacher, while the new teacher and students are back to square one," said Chavez. "Schools need to invest in a Spanish curriculum that stays with the school and provides accountability. Teachers need to be able to focus on teaching from day one, instead of scrambling to find materials and develop a curriculum."

Choosing a Methodology that Works
When creating Sube (, Chavez looked to the leading scientific research to design the curriculum. The studies indicated that a multisensory teaching approach which addresses a variety of student learning styles is the best way to engage students, sustain attention and improve retention. Sube teaches Spanish through art, music and games to not only address students' various learning styles, but also to create a learning environment that breaks down the barriers between education and recreation.

Susan Behrens, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders at Marymount Manhattan College, believes a fun and playful approach is crucial to success when teaching children a second language. "They say kids are like a sponge and can learn anything, but you can also turn them off easily," she said. "If you introduce a language in the spirit of play and being embedded in their daily lives, you're going to be much more successful than if you say, 'O.K., you're going to class now."

Sube's multisensory Spanish materials include a music video DVD, Ay Caramba Bingo, Culebra Puzzle and more. The included multicultural music incorporates and reinforces key Spanish vocabulary through songs and motion. With comprehensive lesson plans, materials and teaching strategies all included, teachers have all the tools needed to provide a fun, high quality, research-based Spanish curriculum for children.

In addition to its effectiveness, the most attractive aspect of Sube is its affordability. Schools can acquire the complete kit and video training tutorial, reasonably priced and ready-to-use, or they can purchase Digital Sube and save additional money by assembling the materials themselves. Sube offers hope for schools that see second language programs as out their price range.

"Schools are dealing with extremely tight budgets, so we're doing everything we can to make Sube affordable for them," said Chavez. "We want to help reverse this trend and get our foreign language programs growing again."

About Sube, Inc.
Based in Taos, N.M., Sube Inc. ( was founded in 1996 by Agnes Chavez to create innovative and effective ways to teach language and cultural diversity in schools, communities and homes. The name Sube, which means "to go up" in Spanish, is a reflection of her desire to elevate children's knowledge to prepare them for future success.

Today, the company produces a line of multimedia products that empower teachers and parents to teach Spanish or English as a second language by incorporating research-based teaching methods into art, music and games. The company's vision is predicated on the belief that learning more than one language gives children a global awareness crucial to their success in the world today.

(1) Bruck, Lambert, and Tucker, 1974; Hakuta, 1986;
Weatherford, 1986.


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