NJ foreign language teachers reach students with immersion
Spanish class today is not how you remember it.
Across New Jersey, foreign language teachers are giving their lesson plans complete makeovers, aimed at having students actually absorb target languages.
The key, educators say, is immersing students in the language — offering an interactive experience that gives students the opportunity to communicate.
"Gone are the days of saying, 'This is a noun, this is a verb, this is how you conjugate.' We don't do that anymore," said Dana Pilla, a Spanish teacher at Haddonfield Middle School. "That's not so useful in real life."
Instead, Pilla uses Spanish as a vehicle to teach other areas of instruction, such as a biology lesson that would most likely be part of the students' curriculum anyway. And using context clues, students know exactly what's going on.
"I will teach them what they will normally learn in science class, but I'll teach it in Spanish in a way that they can actually learn the content and the language at the same time," Pilla explained.
And when class is in session, she speaks 100 percent in Spanish, and students are told to do the same.
According to Amanda Seewald, president of the Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey, there has been a strong movement over the past 10 years to change the way teachers approach instruction.
"The U.S. has traditionally focused on an English-driven language learning experience, rather than teaching through the actual target language," Seewald said. "That's the fundamental difference between education in the U.S. and abroad."
And it's resulted in a better success rate, she said, of students being able to use the target language beyond the classroom.
But students are likely better off in districts where immersion techniques are part of instruction from an early age. So by the time a child reaches sixth grade, he or she isn't alarmed by all-foreign instruction; the student expects it.
In January, Gov. Chris Christie signed the Seal of Bilteracy bill, approving the creation of an award given to students who attain a high level of proficiency in a second language by high school graduation. The seal would go on students' diplomas and transcripts.
"That carries with them both to universities, and to future employers, as a way to show what they know and as a way to demonstrate the type of knowledge they have in a second language," Seewald said.
Pilla said she likes to think she's preparing her students for the 21st century workforce.
"We're preparing them for a real-life skill," she said. "We've moved away from this idea that language is taught in a vacuum. No, you're speaking language for a purpose, and it's for communication."