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Online Resources: Digests

December 2003
Updated October 2004

Teaching Foreign Languages to Children Through Video

Nancy Rhodes and Ingrid Pufahl, Center for Applied Linguistics

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The teaching of foreign languages at the elementary school level has changed immensely over the past two decades. Growing public awareness of the benefits of early foreign language learning has led to an increase in both foreign language teaching and professional development for language teachers at the elementary school level (Rhodes & Branaman, 1999). In 1996, the release of national standards for foreign language learning had an extremely positive influence on K–12 foreign language teaching. State education agencies developed standards based on the national model, and school districts began to implement these standards at the local level.

This positive trend, however, has been jeopardized by a shortage of trained language teachers (Duncan, 2000) and by budgetary constraints. In addition, parents and educators are increasingly concerned about a lack of equity in elementary school language programs, which are viewed by some as special classes for a select group of students. School districts are now looking for ways to provide language classes for all students (Steele & Johnson, 2000).

Many administrators who are convinced of the importance of early foreign language education but who don’t have the resources to offer foreign language classes taught by trained language teachers are looking for affordable alternatives. Video programs that do not require the use of a certified foreign language teacher offer a unique possibility. Such programs claim to be less expensive, easier to administer (Morris, 2000), and capable of reaching a wider audience than traditional language programs (Steele & Johnson, 2000). To date, however, only a small number of video-based elementary school language programs have been formally evaluated, either by independent evaluators (Rosenbusch, García Villada, & Padgitt 2003) or by evaluators affiliated with the video programs (Morris, 2000; Steele & Johnson, 2000).

From 2001 through 2003, the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) undertook a study of the five foreign language instructional videos most commonly used in U.S. elementary schools. The study examined the programs’ goals, implementation, outcomes, and user feedback. This digest reports the results of that study, including the conclusions drawn about the benefits and drawbacks of using video-based programs to teach languages to young children. (For a complete description of the research questions and methodology, see Rhodes & Pufahl, 2004.) The digest also summarizes each of the programs, outlines how they are being used in the classroom, presents advantages and disadvantages from the teachers’ point of view, and offers recommendations on how videos can best be used for classroom language instruction.

Five Video-Based Language Programs

Each of the foreign language instructional video programs included in CAL’s study is described briefly below.

Elementary Spanish. Designed for use in Grades 1-6, this program introduces students to Spanish language and culture. It includes 300 20-minute videos, a teachers guide, a student workbook, audiotapes, and a CD-ROM. It is also available in DVD and via the DISH Network. (Web site:

Español para ti. This five-level program, based on the Viva el Español textbook series, teaches the basics of Spanish to students in Grades 1-6 while reinforcing content material. It consists of 312 15- to 20-minute video lessons, a teachers manual, a resource book, activity audiotapes, song and assessment audiotapes, workbooks, flash cards, a visuals package, and storybooks.
(Web site:

Muzzy. Appropriate for use in Grades K–8, Muzzy is available for English as a second language, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. Language is taught through animated stories in the target language and mini-lessons reinforcing vocabulary and grammar. Materials include five 35-minute story videos, vocabulary and grammar videos, teacher guides, audiotapes, CD-ROMs, and student materials. Muzzy is also available on DVD. (Web site:

SALSA. This program teaches Spanish to students in Grades K-2 through stories in the target language. It uses puppetry, animation, live interaction with children, and authentic footage of children in other countries. The program includes 42 20- to 30-minute video lessons with activity guides. SALSA is also available via satellite delivery. (Web site:

Saludos. Students in Grades 1-4 receive a basic introduction to Spanish language and culture through story vignettes in a variety of settings. The program includes 36 15-minute video lessons, a teachers guide, activity sheets, and audiotapes. Saludos is also available via local cable and satellite. (Web site:

How Teachers Use Videos in the Classroom

CAL researchers found video-based foreign language programs being used in one of four ways in the classroom. Each of these is described below.

1. The video-based program is used as the foreign language curriculum by a classroom teacher who learns the language along with the students. In this commonly used model, which appeals particularly to administrators, the video-based program is used as a stand-alone curriculum, and the classroom teacher, who doesn’t speak the foreign language, serves as the facilitator. For example, Elementary Spanish and Español para ti are used in many Arizona and Nevada schools, respectively, by non-Spanish-speaking classroom teachers who learn Spanish along with their students. Because the students and teacher are learning the language together, the students typically progress in the language only as far as the teacher does. Teachers in this type of program, as well as teachers in programs that have weekly access to foreign language professionals (see model 2 described below), report that students’ interactive language skills are somewhat limited but that they gain “lots of comprehensible input, which is necessary, especially at the beginning levels; some understanding of syntax and basic grammar, reading ability, and vocabulary development in the target language; and increased confidence and motivation to continue studying languages” (Ñandu Online Chat, 2001).

2. The video-based program is used as the foreign language curriculum by a classroom teacher and is reinforced on a weekly basis by a foreign language teacher or aide who speaks the language. This model differs from model 1 only in that it provides important additional language reinforcement from a fluent speaker of the language. For example, in Toms River, New Jersey, foreign language specialists regularly reinforce SALSA videos that the classroom teachers have already shown. Similarly, students in Garland, Texas, watch Español para ti videos daily and have a weekly lesson with a Spanish language specialist who reinforces and expands on the video lesson. Classroom teachers are present during the Spanish teacher’s lesson and learn Spanish along with their students.

3. The video-based program is used by a language teacher as a supplement to the foreign language curriculum. In this model, a language specialist uses components of the videos in conjunction with a separate foreign language curriculum. This model is a promising one because the teacher can select those components of the video program that dovetail with a standards-based, proficiency-oriented foreign language curriculum. Several teachers reported that they use Muzzy videos to introduce or reinforce specific language objectives or to help new students catch up. The video can also be used as a reward for good behavior or as a student motivator.

4. The video-based program is used by a language teacher as the foreign language curriculum.
In this model, a foreign language teacher uses a video-based program as the sole curriculum. This model is not commonly used because elementary school language teachers typically develop their own curriculum or follow a district-wide curriculum. New teachers, however, sometimes use a video-based program as their sole curriculum.

Pros and Cons of Instructional Videos

The use of instructional videos, like the use of any type of instructional method, has distinct advantages and disadvantages. These are some of the pros and cons most commonly cited by users of foreign language video programs.


  • Is cost-effective

  • Facilitates lesson scheduling

  • Can serve as a substitute during the absence of the foreign language teacher

  • Provides new students with ready access to parts of the program they have missed

  • Allows students who have missed a lesson to review it

  • Appeals to children

  • Creates visual contextualization

  • Appeals to different learning styles

  • Develops listening comprehension skills by exposing children to native speakers with a variety of accents

  • Provides access to aspects of the culture not usually available to U.S. teachers


  • Requires video technology

  • May be boring if overused; may encourage passive learning

  • Lacks feedback and reinforcement if the teacher does not speak the language

  • Does not foster interaction among students and between students and the teacher

  • Does not allow teacher control over content and vocabulary

  • May give administrators a false sense of how much language students are learning

  • Does not comprehensively address the national standards

  • Often does not articulate with long-sequence programs


Based on suggestions and commentary from teachers and other educators, specific recommendations revolving around five key issues have been developed for the implementation of video-based language programs.

1. Use video-based programs as a supplement to the curriculum. The model most highly recommended by the foreign language teaching profession, concerned as it is with proficiency-based language instruction based on the national standards, is one in which a trained language teacher uses the video program as a supplement to a quality language curriculum. Videos provide children with much-needed interactive listening activities, a view of aspects of the culture that they wouldn’t have an opportunity to learn about in the classroom, language models with a variety of regional or national accents, and the visual reinforcement of concepts learned in class.

2. Use video-based programs as the main curriculum only if a regular classroom-based foreign language teacher is not available. All educators agree that the best way to teach foreign language to children in a classroom setting is to have an elementary school teacher who is fluent in the language and certified to teach foreign language to children. Although the notion that a minimal introduction to a foreign language is better than no instruction at all remains a subject of debate, several language educators noted that in the absence of trained foreign language teachers or a budget to hire a foreign language specialist, a well-planned and well-taught video-based program can begin to meet the needs for foreign language instruction. Interestingly, some teachers pointed out certain advantages of a classroom teacher who does not speak the target language over a language teacher who visits the class only once a week. They suggested that classroom teachers who learn along with their students demonstrate to their students that learning a language is a worthwhile undertaking. Furthermore, they suggested that classroom teachers are able to integrate the foreign language into the overall curriculum more effectively than a language teacher who visits once a week.

3. Provide native speakers as resources. If the program is being implemented by a teacher who does not speak the target language, it is strongly recommended that a fluent speaker be regularly available as a resource. Fischer, Moore, and Díaz (1987) found greater Spanish gains when Saludos was implemented by a Spanish-speaking teacher than by a non-Spanish-speaking teacher. Teachers noted that once students reach a certain level of proficiency, they need to interact with a teacher who speaks the target language in order to progress to higher levels of fluency and idiomatic usage.

4. Offer follow-up activities. Providing a variety of follow-up activities after each video viewing, with a focus on activities that relate to the regular curriculum, helps children practice the language and see its usefulness. One Spanish teacher in Toms River, New Jersey, described an integrated activity she uses with SALSA’s version of the Three Billy Goats. After the children have viewed the story on the video with their third-grade classroom teacher, the Spanish teacher incorporates vocabulary from the story (e.g., big, medium, small, etc.) into a geography lesson using a world map. Applying the Spanish they have learned from the video and the material covered in the regular geography curriculum, the children respond to directions and questions in Spanish, such as "Put the small goat in Asia" or "What continents and oceans does the monster have to cross if he wants to go from Australia to North America?"

5. Make foreign language learning a school-wide activity. All teachers in the school should be encouraged to incorporate foreign language activities into their daily lessons to help reinforce the goals outlined in foreign language and social studies standards. Activities introduced in the videos can be used as a springboard for school-wide or district-wide activities for all students, whether they receive language instruction or not. These multicultural activities could include such efforts as talent shows with students performing songs and dances from around the world, international school fairs, poetry competitions and poster contests with an international theme, student cultural performances at local malls where administrators promote the school, and language clubs.


While the profession agrees that a qualified language teacher is the most important factor in foreign language instruction, instructional videos do show promise as an alternative or supplement to traditional approaches to foreign languages teaching. Advances have already been made in the use of video to address some of the goals set by the national standards, in particular those of cultures, connections, and communities. Moreover, recent federally funded projects (Rosenbusch, García Villada, & Padgitt, 2003; Tollefson, 2003) have shown great promise in the use of video to overcome some of the obstacles to foreign language instruction in traditionally underserved areas.


Duncan, G. (2000). Language and culture through SALSA. Learning Languages, 5(3), 8-11.

Fischer, N., Moore, N. A., & Díaz, V. T. (1987). A study in the implementation of the elementary foreign language program: Saludos, 1986-1987. Broward County, FL: Broward County Public Schools.

Morris, R. S. (2000). An exploratory case study: Investigation of videotaped instruction of foreign language in the elementary school. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northern Arizona University.

Ñandu Online Chat. (2001). Teaching languages to children: Is video a viable option? Summary of Ñandu online chat, archived at

Rhodes, N. C., & Branaman, L. E. (1999). Foreign language instruction in the United States: A national survey of elementary and secondary schools. McHenry, IL, and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Rhodes, N. C., & Pufahl, I. (2004). Language by video: An overview of foreign language instructional videos for children. McHenry, IL, and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Rosenbusch, M., García Villada, E., & Padgitt, J. (2003). IN-VISION project evaluation: The impact of one year of language study on K-5 students. In K. H. Cárdenas & M. Klein (Eds.), Traditional values and contemporary perspectives in language teaching: Selected papers from the 2003 Central States Conference (pp. 149-165). Valdosta, GA: Lee Bradley.

Steele, E., & Johnson, H. (2000). Español para ti: A video program that works. Learning Languages, 5(3), 4-7.

Tollefson, A. (2003). WyFLES: A national model for delivery of elementary school foreign language programs. Unpublished manuscript.

The information in this Digest is drawn from Language by Video: An Overview of Foreign Language Instructional Videos for Children (Professional Practice Series No. 4) by Nancy C. Rhodes and Ingrid Pufahl (2004), available from the CAL store: or 1-800-551-3709. The research described therein was funded by the National K–12 Foreign Language Resource Center at Iowa State University and the Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory At Brown University through grants and contracts from the following:

U.S. Department of Education
Office of Postsecondary Education
International Research and Studies Program
Grant No. P229A99015-01

U.S. Department of Education
Office of Educational Research and Improvement/Institute of Education Sciences
Contract No. ED-01-CO-0010