TNCS’s Foreign Language Program Embraces the 5 Cs

One of the main questions that came up in last month’s Town Hall meeting was, “How I can continue developing my kids’ foreign language skills at home?”. In fact, this question has been asked since The New Century School‘s inception, and, as multilingualism has become the linchpin of TNCS’s scholastic identity, parent interest has grown apace.

TNCS’s Foreign Language Program—the 5 Cs

TNCS students learn two languages besides English—Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. These particular two will serve them well in our ever-globalizing, internationally collaborative society. Immersion in another language is far and away the proven best method to learn that language, and TNCS incorporates immersion style throughout the grade levels in varying degrees, from offering complete immersion in the pre-primary program to having assistant teachers who speak only in their native languages (Chinese or Spanish) in the primary and elementary classrooms. For the upper grades, however, a bit of academic rigor becomes necessary if the students are to effectively read and write in other languages. Thus, TNCS administration has been steadily refining and tightening the foreign language program to be reproducible each year. Immersion is wonderful to develop the cadence and feel of a language—fluency—but by its very nature, it is not able to be structured, reproduced, or measured.

These two talented, dedicated women overhauled the foreign language curriculum to be exciting for kids, highly educational, and reproducible for staff.

These two talented, dedicated women overhauled the foreign language curriculum to be exciting for kids, highly educational, and reproducible for staff.

So, jumping off from the groundwork laid by former Foreign Language Curriculum Specialist Lisa Warren, Xie Laoshi and Señora Capriles took over the curriculum for the 2013–2014 school year and really brought it to life. They espouse the national standards set by the American Council on Foreign Language Teaching (ACTFL)—the 5 Cs of Language Learning: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities.

Communication

“Communication is at the heart of second language study, whether the communication takes place face-to-face, in writing, or across centuries through the reading of literature.”

Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century

Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities.

Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities.

“Reading is a big part of both classes,” explains Xie Laoshi, “and the kids average about 85% correct comprehension and pronunciation.” Xie Laoshi works very hard to make sure that the students are really learning rather than boring them with nothing but rote exercises. Communication occurs in “real-life” situations to emphasize what students can do with language rather than what they know about a language, such as how many vocabulary words. There is a necessary repetitive component, of course, to learning a foreign language, but Xie Laoshi believes in absorption over memorization. Exercises like creating a pictorial dictionary, in which her students must write a vocabulary word in pinyin (phonetic transcription of Chinese characters into the English alphabet) and in the Chinese character as well as illustrate it, reinforces the understanding of that vocabulary word far more deeply than simply repeating it to oneself several times. “When they connect a word or concept with something personal like objects in their bedroom,” she says, “they absorb better.”

Students even write their own illustrated stories in Mandarin.

Students even write their own illustrated stories in Mandarin.

This is one teacher who knows how to engage her students. She has a natural intuition for what lessons and materials will work and what won’t. In fact, she famously ordered and then rejected an entire semester’s worth of Mandarin workbooks and then made her own, based on her understanding of how kids learn. She makes learning active and interactive. In addition to making pictorial dictionaries, she has students record dialogues of their own creation and play them back for analysis (another means of communication). This kind of commitment is critical to teaching Mandarin, which is among the most difficult languages in the world, not least because it’s tonal. “In order to differentiate meaning, the same syllable can be pronounced with 4 different tones, but then it can have 2–10 different characters and meanings that must be understood in context,” she explains. These meanings are not necessarily related, to intensify the complexity. The word yuè, for example, means “leap,” “moon,” “to cross,” “weapon,” and “months,” depending on how it’s pronounced as well as the context in which it occurs! Then there’s the grammar, the “radicals,” the character-writing—oh, and the fact that some words simply don’t have an English pronunciation equivalent . . . it’s pretty amazing that anyone could learn Mandarin as a second language, given its level of difficulty, but our kids are certainly doing it! “It’s okay if they get frustrated and give up temporarily,” says Xie Laoshi. “I don’t want to stress them out; they’ll come back to it when they are ready!”

Pictured is a third-grade elementary student's Mandarin workbook. She is able to both read and write in Mandarin and, by her own account, loves it!

Pictured is a third-grade elementary student’s Mandarin workbook. She is able to both read and write in Mandarin and, by her own account, loves it!

Besides actually teaching Mandarin to the elementary students, Xie Laoshi also provides Mandarin materials for all levels. The materials are all variations on the same theme, but her expectations for how they are used and what the student will get out of them depends on age and skill level. The younger students focus largely on comprehension and pronunciation, while the older students incorporate reading and writing.

Cultures

“Through the study of other languages, students gain a knowledge and understanding of the cultures that use that language and, in fact, cannot truly master the language until they have also mastered the cultural contexts in which the language occurs.”

Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century

Active learning is the goal in Spanish just as in Mandarin, and bringing culture in is a great way to make lessons interactive. “The big issue is how to inspire the child to learn the language,” said Señora Capriles, “so we cook Spanish food, we make piñatas, we sing Spanish songs, and we dance Latin dances.” The students are absorbing the language without realizing that they are learning—because they are so engaged in the classroom excitement.

Lead pre-primary Mandarin teacher Lin Laoshi moonlights in the elementary class to teach the abacus. he is also a member of the prestigious Chinese American Abacus Association.

Lead pre-primary Mandarin teacher Lin Laoshi moonlights in the elementary class to teach the abacus. She is also a member of the prestigious Chinese American Abacus Association.

During Mandarin lessons, students also sing, cook, and experience Chinese customs. Learning the ancient abacus was one such recent cultural element. Parents might wonder why their kids are learning the abacus instead of working on, say, Mandarin vocabulary, but, says Xie Laoshi, “it’s knowledge. It’s not just a cultural event—it’s a connection between the language and another subject.” An upcoming lesson will be calligraphy, which will be another opportunity to deepen language-learning while learning a new skill.

Comparisons

“Through comparisons and contrasts with the language being studied, students develop insight into the nature of language and the concept of culture and realize that there are multiple ways of viewing the world.”

Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century

 “Highlighting the differences among our countries, such as that, in Venezuela, there is no Spring, helps us understand each other better,” said Señora Capriles. She put a premium on cultural experiences so the kids begin to see the world through another perspective.

Says Señora Capriles, lessons are tripartite. First, students listen to her describe each item in Spanish. Next they are asked to identify each item according to her repeated Spanish description. Finally, they must reproduce the correct description themselves. Listen, identify, reproduce.

Says Señora Capriles, lessons are tripartite. First, students listen to her describe each item in Spanish. Next they are asked to identify each item according to her repeated Spanish description. Finally, they must reproduce the correct description themselves. Listen, identify, reproduce.

Connections

“Learning languages provides connections to additional bodies of knowledge that may be unavailable to the monolingual English speaker.”

Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century

Just as with Mandarin instruction, Spanish is taught slightly differently among levels. Pre-primary is, again, complete immersion, whereas primary and elementary students not only learn Spanish as a language, but they also learn other disciplines in Spanish. “A foreign language is not just learning words, it is itself a tool for learning,” explained Señora Capriles. “That’s why we teach in the language to make the lesson concrete and meaningful. It should be an extension of the [geography or math] lesson but in a different language.” A simple lesson with three pencils teaches vocabulary words for colors and other adjectives as well as math and geometry when the students are asked to add and subtract the number of pencils or rearrange them in various ways.

Communities

“Together, these elements enable the student of languages to participate in multilingual communities at home and around the world in a variety of contexts and in culturally appropriate ways.”

Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century

Cultural studies are a part of every student’s day at TNCS, to learn about other places and people inasmuch to begin to understand how our smaller communities fit together as larger, global ones. Parent volunteers present information on their cultural heritage, for example. These lessons serve to expand the student’s knowledge and also remind him or her that we share as much as we differ. Where the 5 Cs intersect is where language-learning takes place.

Just as Xie Laoshi does, Señora Capriles also created materials and modeled how to teach for the assistants during professional development days for staff. Having very recently returned to her native Venezuela, Señora Capriles has turned over the reins of lead Spanish teacher to Señora Medel, who worked alongside Señora Capriles all year to ensure a seamless transition for the students. Señora Medel is originally from Cuba, where she earned her BA in Education and worked many years in the classroom before joining TNCS in 2012. Adiós, Señora Capriles, le deseamos buena suerte!

What To Do at Home

“The key is practice,” said Señora Capriles. “The more opportunity there is for practice, the easier it gets.” One way to open up additional practice opportunities, she says, is for parents to also study the week’s vocabulary and themes. “I encourage parents to bring foreign languages into the home . . . to bring home books in another language, perhaps, or watch TV in another language.” Also, she reminds us, make sure the kids do their language homework! Xie Laoshi strongly agrees: “Parents sometimes object to the homework, but it is a must in order to learn Chinese,” she says.

TNCS strives to include parents in the ongoing acquisition of foreign languages, providing multiple ways to access and dovetail with their kids’ lessons. The Mandarin and Spanish “Word of the Week” is posted on TNCS’s home page as well as on Facebook each Monday, for example. “The kids can create dialogues and teach and practice with their parents,” says Xie Laoshi. This blog itself offers a Resources and Links page with several multilingualism articles and is also now updated with a list of language-learning resources.

That list is the product of efforts by TNCS mom Corrine Keet, who generously volunteered her time to collect and compile these resources, and by our resident expert, Xie Laoshi. Ms. Keet says, “Thanks to those who sent in reviews of foreign language resources! It’s a mixture of apps, games, books, cds, etc. meant to be useful for helping the kids with Spanish and Mandarin outside of class.”

Before she departed for Venezuela, Señora Capriles left us with this important insight: “For parents the big question is, ‘how important is a second language for my child?’ If it’s a tool, the child will put more time into learning it and show more interest. A tool leads to progress, which in turn leads to self-realization.” Multilingualism is, indeed, a tool that unlocks amazing learning potential. It’s the heart of TNCS, and TNCS students will reap its staggering benefits.

9 thoughts on “TNCS’s Foreign Language Program Embraces the 5 Cs

  1. Though we were sorry to bid Señora Capriles farewell, our “Jewel” continues to shine :)!

  2. Love the picture of Jewel and Maria!

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