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Volume 22, No. 1 Fall/Winter 1998

Where is the United States Headed with
K–12 Foreign Language Education?

Rebecca L. Oxford, Associate Dean
College of Education, University of Alabama

In 1987 the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) conducted its first national survey on K–12 foreign language education in the United States. This year CAL reports the results of its 1997 survey (Rhodes & Branaman, in press). These two sets of results, separated by a decade, provide a basis for envisioning where the United States is headed with K–12 foreign language teaching and for commenting on whether this is indeed the direction our country should be going. (For a description and highlights of the 1997 CAL survey, see page 5).

As a framework for discussion, let us use the national standards for foreign language learning (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 1996), which Lafayette (1996) calls "a catalyst for reform." The philosophy statement on which the standards are based suggests that in the United States, all students should develop proficiency in English and at least one other language, modern or classical. Before we can even think about proficiency, we must first consider the percentage of U.S. students who study foreign languages at all. In the period 1987-1997, the percentage of elementary schools teaching foreign languages rose almost 10%, but even with this increase the 1997 figure amounted to less than one third of all U.S. elementary schools. Almost nine out of ten secondary schools offered foreign languages in both 1987 and 1997. Yet not all students in these schools (or in the elementary schools that teach foreign languages) actually studied foreign languages, as indicated by the survey. Thus, foreign language instruction has made its presence known, but foreign language study has not by any means entered the lives of all K–12 students in the United States.

Two of the national standards for foreign language learning (abbreviated here as national FL standards)—Standards 1 and 3—deal directly with language proficiency and are the most relevant to the survey results. (The other three standards, which concern development of cultural understanding, insight into the nature of language and culture, and participation in multicultural communities, are very important but less germane to the survey.) In addition, a valuable set of "propositions" created by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) promotes excellence in elementary and secondary teaching in general, not just in the foreign language field (National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, 1997). NBPTS proposition 2 deals with teachers' knowledge of the subjects they teach and of teaching methods and therefore appears to be relevant to the results of the survey. Therefore, the following discussion is organized according to national FL standards 1 and 3 and NBPTS proposition 2.

National FL Standard 1: Communicate in Languages Other than English

The first foreign language standard involves proficiency in a variety of communication acts, such as engaging in conversation, exchanging information or opinions, expressing feelings, understanding and interpreting written and spoken language on varied topics, and presenting ideas and concepts. Are K–12 students in the United States actually encountering the kinds of language instruction that will allow them to develop such proficiency? Unfortunately, results of the 1997 survey, like those of the 1987 survey, imply that the way foreign language teaching is ordinarily structured (e.g., intensity of instruction and amount of language use) in U.S. elementary and secondary schools actually discourages rather than encourages development of such proficiency. This finding is verified by research (Campbell, 1996) suggesting that if U.S. students know anything of a foreign language, it is usually at a minimal, nonfunctional level.

As of 1997, most elementary schools that offered foreign languages provided only introductory exposure, without encouraging students to participate in the large variety of communication acts noted above. Secondary school foreign language classes engaged in more varied language activities, but fewer than one in five secondary schools offered advanced placement courses in foreign languages, and conversation classes were rare. In both elementary schools and high schools in 1987 and 1997, foreign language instruction was typically non-intensive, amounting to an average of 5 hours per week. This amount of time would almost certainly not be adequate for the development of proficiency.

One of the elements of instruction necessary for proficiency development is the existence of abundant foreign language input during class and many opportunities for using the language in speaking and writing (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992). A very worrisome fact is that in 1997 relatively few secondary foreign language teachers (the survey did not ask about elementary teachers in this regard) tended to use the foreign language in the classroom most of the time. This suggests that they might not have provided sufficient foreign language input to students for proficiency to become a reality. A burgeoning trend, according to the 1997 survey, is increased use of computer-assisted foreign language instruction, but it is unclear whether this form of instruction adds greatly to communicative ability. The survey did not ask about the exact nature of this instructional mode.

If a student had the advantage of beginning to learn a language in elementary school, the likelihood in 1997, just as 10 years earlier, was that further foreign language study in secondary school would not occur in a smooth, unbroken, sensible progression. This suggests that proficiency development would be difficult even for the student who was blessed with early learning opportunities.

The learning of heritage languages is increasing for students whose home language is not English. According to the 1997 survey, language classes for native speakers have shown dramatic increases at both elementary and secondary levels. Campbell (1996) reports that heritage language instruction of a non-immersion sort ordinarily results in proficiency in speaking and listening, fine phonological skills, extensive vocabulary, and cultural appreciation—but also functional illiteracy. Heritage language immersion programs, such as two-way bilingual immersion, produce better results all around for students learning their own native language and for anglophones learning the foreign language (Campbell, 1996).

National FL Standard 3: Connect with Other Disciplines and Acquire Information

The third foreign language standard primarily involves students reinforcing and furthering their knowledge of other disciplines—subject areas such as science, mathematics, social studies, and so on—through the foreign language. One well-recognized way to do this is known as content-based language instruction, that is, teaching regular subject-area content through the foreign language.

The 1997 survey indicated that only 2% of the schools offered subject-area courses taught in the foreign language, even though this is a powerful way to develop language proficiency as well as ability in other subjects. Campbell (1996) summarizes research on results of immersion programs, in which subject-area content is taught through the foreign language throughout the school day or for a significant part of the day. This research shows that graduates of immersion programs have good foreign language receptive skills (listening and reading), low to intermediate proficiency in speaking and writing, good phonological skill, extensive vocabulary, and cross-cultural appreciation—all without sacrificing the development of their first language. Clearly this effective program structure could be more widely used in the United States.

NBPTS Proposition 2: Teachers Know the Subjects They Teach and How to Teach Those Subjects to Students

This proposition causes us to consider the question, "Do the teachers have the qualifications to lead students to proficiency?" The 1997 survey results show that most foreign language teachers in secondary schools are certified to teach foreign languages. However, most foreign language teachers in elementary schools do not have appropriate certification.

In 1997, most secondary school teachers and almost half of the elementary school teachers were aware of the national FL standards or their state's version of the national FL standards. This was a promising finding in that the national standards had just been released when survey respondents completed the questionnaire in the fall of 1996. However, it is critical in the future that the majority of teachers become thoroughly versed in the standards. If some foreign language teachers lack knowledge of nationally accepted goals for their students, they will therefore lack the knowledge or disposition to instruct their students so those goals can become attainable.

If not all teachers have the requisite qualifications, or if qualified teachers need further professional development, in-service training is usually the chosen solution. For foreign language teachers, in-service training might include sharpening their foreign language skills or their teaching skills. According to the 1997 survey, most foreign language teachers at elementary and secondary levels did indeed receive in-service training for professional development. However, this training was insufficient. Inadequacy of in-service training was one of the top problems in both elementary and secondary schools.

Possibly lack of funding, an almost universally identified problem, contributed to the inadequacy of in-service training. Yet other factors might also contribute. In my observation, in-service training generally fails to meet the following criteria provided by Little (as cited in Glisan, 1996): (a) provides meaningful intellectual, social, and emotional engagement with ideas, not just a "hands-on" workshop; (b) via creative structures such as teacher collaboratives or long-term partnerships, takes explicit account of the contexts of teaching and participants' own experiences; (c) offers support for informed dissent; (d) places classroom practice into larger contexts, such as the school culture and the educational careers of children; (e) prepares teachers, as well as students and parents, to use research-focused inquiry; and (f) allows teachers to help plan and design their own professional development experiences.

Should We Rest on Our Laurels?

Although the results of the survey suggest that the deck is somewhat stacked against the development of proficiency, survey respondents in 1997 overwhelmingly indicated they were pleased with the quality of foreign language teaching in their schools. This paradox might be partially explained by the rosy glow we feel in knowing that foreign language instruction is gaining increased attention; after all, foreign language teaching is increasing at the elementary level and is holding its own at the secondary level.

The paradox might also be explained by the generally low expectations held for foreign language teaching in the United States. In my observation, few school teachers or administrators expect foreign language instruction to lead to proficiency, so the failure of foreign language instruction to do so is often deemed acceptable and satisfactory. Survey respondents (principals, department chairs, and language teachers) might have reflected this point of view. (Many parents and students might disagree with the acceptability of non-proficiency-oriented foreign language instruction, but they were not the respondents in this survey.)

I do not pretend to say that foreign language teaching is "a glass half empty" rather than "a glass half full." The profession has made some major steps in the right direction—including the increases noted above and some gains in the teaching of less commonly taught languages—and these need to be recognized. However, the 1997 survey and the 1987 survey should not allow us to believe that the field has yet reached its point of greatest efficacy. Below are some future directions in which the field can and should move.

Future Directions


American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (1996). Standards for foreign language learning: Preparing for the 21st century. New York: Author.

Campbell, R.N. (1996). New learners and new environments: Challenges and opportunties. In R. Lafayette, Ed. National standards: Catalyst for reform (pp. 97-117). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Glisan, E. (1996). A collaborative approach to professional development. In R. Lafayette, Ed. National standards: Catalyst for reform (pp. 57-95). Lincolnwood, IL: Na-tional Textbook.

Lafayette, R. (1996). National standards: Catalyst for reform. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. (1997). What teachers should know and be able to do. Southfield, MI: Author. Available:

Rhodes, N., & Branaman, L. (in press). Foreign language instruction in the United States: A national survey of elementary and secondary schools. McHenry, IL: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Scarcella, R., & Oxford, R. (1992). The tapestry of language learning: The individual in the communicative classroom. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

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