At a time when the Oyster River Cooperative School District (ORCSD) is reexamining several facets of education, including the effectiveness of the traditional grading system and the role of technology in education, the world language department is exemplifying the reexamination mentality by implementing a series of changes to the way they teach world language.
At the root of these changes was the transition from the traditional model to the proficiency model, which was implemented three years ago. Following this change, the Oyster River Middle School (ORMS) and Oyster River High School (ORHS) world language departments adjusted the curriculum so that students who had taken a world language in seventh and eighth grade could move on to level three of their language in high school, given that they were ready, rather than taking level two when they start high school as past students had. These students, including Denise Nadig (‘23) and Justin Partis (‘23), are now in language classes with sophomores and juniors. Two years ago, when Nadig and Partis were in seventh grade, ORMS also decided to begin offering world language in sixth grade, rather than in seventh grade as they had in the past.
The Proficiency Model
Proficiencies are a series of goals, similar to competencies, students aim to achieve as they work their way through the levels. At the beginning of level one, all students are in the novice low range, as they achieve the proficiencies, they move up, hopefully ending level one in the novice high range. This means that each level has proficiencies students aim to achieve by the end of it, rather than a list of topics or textbook chapters that need to be covered, as the traditional model had.
The world language departments use the proficiencies created by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) to inform their curriculums, according to Michelle Pennelli, a world language teacher at the middle school. The proficiencies are expressed through a series of “can do” statements, which explain what a student should be able to do with the language in various topics at each benchmark.
For example, the benchmark for a novice low student when looking at informational texts is, “I can identify memorized or familiar words when they are supported by gestures or visuals in informational texts.” The benchmark for a novice high student is, “I can identify the topic and some isolated facts from simple sentences in informational texts.” Both of these statements are from the ACTFL list of proficiency benchmarks, which explains the expectations for students at the novice low, mid, and high benchmarks in presentational speaking.
Pennelli explained the switch from the traditional model to the proficiency model. “Year one would be moving up to the novice high proficiency level. Whereas for us before, when we were in the traditional model, year one was separated by textbook chapters.”
Todd Allen, the assistant superintendent and a member of the world language committee, said, “the advantage to proficiency is that the focus is on mastering the target language. In the traditional model, which is what we’ve always had in our district, there certainly are kids who reach a level of mastery or fluency […] but for the most part, not a lot of our students reach that level.”
Barb Milliken, a French teacher at the high school, said, “when you’re teaching a proficiency way of teaching, the focus is on communication and elaboration.” She said that the purpose of the “can do” statements is to clarify the learning target for each lesson, describe what the student can do with the language, and clarify the next step for students to take with the language.
Partis, one of the aforementioned freshmen in level 3, said he noticed a clear difference between proficiencies at the middle and high schools. “We don’t really talk about it unless it’s for a grading rubric, but everything we do is kind of based around it. In middle school, literally everything we did was based around it, and here it’s not as proficiency based […] We don’t learn based on the ‘I can’ statements here as much as we did in middle school,” said Partis.
Nadig said she experienced the opposite, “last year I did see them on rubrics but my [language] teacher didn’t tell us how we were doing with the ‘I can’ stuff.” She said she’s seen and heard a lot more about proficiencies in her language class this year than in the past. However, she suggested that there was variation in experience with proficiencies based on the teacher.
The Transition from Middle to High School
The departments have worked to ensure that level one and level two at the middle school use the same curriculum and competencies as level one and level two at the high school to make sure there’s no gap in knowledge between freshmen and juniors when students reach level three. However, Milliken said that they’re still working out the kinks. Milliken explained that while the curriculum, skills, and proficiencies taught are standard across all level one and two classes, the teaching style is different at the two schools.
Milliken said, “the biggest difference is that our kids have had more direct instruction, meaning discussion on how to form certain things. Whereas in the middle school, it’s been more organic, where it just comes up through usage.” In Partis and Nadigs’ experiences at the middle school, there’s been more focus on learning naturally through conversation, whereas at the high school they taught grammar and vocabulary more directly. Milliken attributed this to the high school teachers’ experience with both preparing kids for higher levels and teaching the higher levels. The high school teachers directly taught students verb forms, irregulars, and other grammar so that students would be able to build on these skills in level three. The middle school teachers helped their students to acquire these same skills but didn’t teach them directly.
Milliken spoke about the changes that the world language departments are currently working on to smooth out the transition “We anticipated that this first year with freshmen in level three might be difficult. This is a big learning curve for us all. We realize now we need another phase in our curriculum development. Our next step is to take our new curriculum for years one through three and align the needed structures across each level. Once we do this, I feel that the transition from middle school to high school will be much smoother.”
“Both the middle and high school teachers, as well as Mr. Allen, have met monthly to analyze level three work. Our next phase is to create an addendum to our new curriculum which outlines the new structures in level one, two, and three that all our students need to learn,” said Milliken.
Milliken said, “at the high school we teach multiple levels and have a perspective on how to move students from the beginning levels of language to AP. At the middle school, they have historically only needed to prepare students for level 2.”
In an email following the interview, Milliken said, “our growth issues are due to us all learning how to marry our tried and true practice in a more direct teaching model where we talked ABOUT the language (grammar) with more current methods of acquiring language by exposure and USING it.”
Partis explained what this looked like in the classroom. He said, “in seventh grade it was very immersed; we almost never spoke English unless it was to explain a lesson. In eighth grade we had a few lessons on grammar that were in English that helped me personally understand, but I know a lot of people preferred to speak in [the language]. This year we had far more lessons when it comes to grammar, but I think we use the language just as much as we did in middle school.”
Partis said of the change in teaching style, “I personally enjoy learning how a language works, but a lot of people would rather get the experience speaking it. If you actually had to use the language outside of school, it’s easier to utilize if you’ve already been speaking it in school, instead of just knowing where pronouns go or how to conjugate a verb.”
While Milliken said she had to backtrack to teach the freshman this year some of the “puzzle pieces” so that they would be able to create with the language as they were expected to at the intermediate level, for the most part, they were on track. She said, “in general, all of them had the same issues […] It’s an issue of proficiency, not of age.”
Partis agreed with Milliken that all students were on the same track. However, Nadig disagreed and said there’s a noticeable gap between the freshmen and the juniors in level three. “There’s definitely a difference between the freshmen and juniors and their knowledge in French, which makes it hard because you’re learning different things and you have to catch up with the juniors and there’s a bunch of new information thrown at you and you’re trying to comprehend everything,” said Nadig. Specifically, Nadig noticed a difference between the juniors’ understanding of grammar and the freshmen’s understanding of grammar. Nadig noted that students who had a different middle school language teacher may not have this problem.
Both Pennelli and Milliken said that developing consistency is an ongoing process. Pennelli said, “one of the things we’re working on is looking at what our goals are both here and at the high school. We’re looking at calibrating to make sure that we’re on the same playing field.” As a part of this process, the two schools are creating standardized rubrics and “calibrating” their grading, or ensuring that all teachers grade things equally.
The Changing Course Track
In the past, students would take level one French, Spanish, or Chinese in seventh and eighth grades and could choose to continue on to level two of their chosen language in ninth grade or retake level one. After the proficiency model was implemented, when Nadig and Partis were in seventh grade, the middle and high school world language departments met to write the curriculum and decided that students should take level one in seventh grade and level two in eighth grade. For the first time this year, freshmen who were ready were able to start high school in the level 3 course of their chosen language. The middle school also began to offer world language in sixth grade; the current eighth graders were the first grade to begin world language in sixth grade at ORMS.
Jay Richard, the ORMS principal and member of the world language committee, spoke about the decision to introduce world language in sixth grade rather than seventh grade. “As a school community, we feel it’s really important for kids to learn a second language […] There’s a lot of research to support that knowing multiple languages increases academic achievement,” Richard said. For the first year of the program, the sixth graders had thirty minutes of world language every day; now they have forty five minutes each day.
Pennelli explained the departments’ decision to put students in level three after two years of the language in middle school. “If a student succeeded through those two years then what we saw as the progression was for them to go into that year three,” she said. Pennelli explained that when the levels at the middle school were no longer divided up by textbook chapters, it became clear that students could take level one in seventh grade and level two in eighth grade.
The course path for students in world language will continue to change as time goes on to accommodate the new backgrounds. Milliken said that because of the developmental differences, the current eighth graders will still start in level three language courses as freshmen, despite having already taken three years of the language. The school plans to continue to offer the lower level world language classes as an entry point for students who move into the district and students who decide to start a language later on.
Two years from now, when Nadig and Partis are juniors, ORHS will offer level five courses to juniors and AP language courses to level six language students to accommodate students who started high school in level three and chose to continue with world language
Changes to Come
In the future, Richard hopes that students will be able to begin world language in fifth grade to increase their exposure to the language. However, this would require a budget increase to hire a new teacher, which would require school board approval. Richard said that the average annual cost of a teacher is approximately a hundred thousand dollars, this includes their salary, retirement, payroll taxes, life, disability, and dental insurance, and the 403b contribution.
The next big step would be the implementation of a kindergarten through twelfth grade world language model. This idea is several years in the future, so there’s no way to know exactly what the model would look like, however, the world language committee has been visiting school districts with elementary through twelfth grade world language to investigate the most effective model. The committee has already reported their findings to the school board, but the board won’t make any definitive decisions for years to come. According to Allen, the committee has found that, “the earlier you can get kids [learning the language], the more your brain accepts it.” Allen said that in Glastonbury, Connecticut, they start world language in first grade, 96 percent of their graduates continued with world language throughout school, and many students took several languages.
According to Richard, if the ORCSD were to have a kindergarten through twelfth grade model, the schools would offer only one language to all elementary students. Richard said it would most likely be Spanish because, in his experience, there are more Spanish teachers than French or Chinese. The district would have to hire a new teacher for fifth grade and one at each elementary school. Allen estimated that the cost for teachers would be about 330,000 dollars and the cost for materials and resources would be about ten dollars per student with 600 to 700 students currently taking world language.
It’s impossible to see into the future to know exactly what world language at Oyster River will look like in the years to come, but we can expect the world language departments to continue to push the program forward. “The exciting thing about the change in the world language model is that it didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from the superintendent, it didn’t come from Ms. Filippone, it came from teachers working on it and really realizing, ‘this is the environment we want to create,’” said Allen.