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Students, faculty help local schoolchildren learn foreign languages

Nov. 28, 2006
By Dru Riley Evarts

Como esta usted? Muy bien. Y usted?

These are among the courtesy greetings a visitor to Athens' West Elementary School might hear when the children ask one another, "How are you?" and reply, "Very well. And you?"

Student teacher Jessica Andersen. Photos by Kim Walker.The foreign-language program is not new to Athens-area schools. In fact, modern languages faculty members Barbara Reichenbach and Betsy Partyka have been supervising as many as 60 students per quarter as they have gone out to work with elementary-school pupils in the Athens, Alexander and Nelsonville-York school systems over the past five to seven years.

But what is new this fall is that West Elementary has gone to an all-Spanish program for its foreign-language component, and Vision OHIO has recently contributed $2,000 to the overall program as part of the outreach campaign to aid initiatives that will benefit Southeast Ohio.

Reichenbach, who had taught at Nelsonville-York for 23 years before she joined the Department of Modern Languages full time, said that research shows that synapses in children's brains change in such a way beginning at age 12 that introducing foreign language at high school age is too late to take advantage of children's best language-learning years. Athens Middle School introduces foreign language at age 12, which is better then other area schools, which do so at age 14. But introducing these languages at the grade-school level is advantageous, she said.

Ohio University students helping these grade-school pupils with Spanish, French or other languages of special interest, do so mainly for the experience in teaching, for exploration of a future career, or simply for community service. Internship credit (which cannot count toward either a major or minor) is possible, but few students opt for it. Reichenbach and Partyka recruit the students, arrange the schedules, work out transportation and coordinate with the schools.

When Partyka began her work at Alexander five years ago, she had a startup grant of $1,500 from the Honors Tutorial College and used mainly Honors Tutorial students. That money was used to buy children's books and music in Spanish. Both teachers have, in the past, also paid for necessary supplies with their own money, but the grant from Vision OHIO will take care of many of those: printer cartridges, workbooks, materials, video tapes, DVDs and software for possibly as long as two years, Partyka estimated. 

College tutors go to their elementary school classes two days a week for lessons. Schedules vary because they must fit the college students' availability as well as the slots during which the grade schools can make time for these lessons. Partyka supervises students serving 15 classrooms with a total of 375 pupils at Alexander. Reichenbach supervises the programs at West (14 classrooms, with 308 pupils), plus the other four Athens elementary schools, and the centralized elementary school pre-K to 6 in Nelsonville-York, which has a spring-quarter program. 

Heretofore, the language being introduced in each classroom has been the choice of the college student, who, understandably, would like to practice teaching the language in which he or she is most specialized. Therefore, elementary pupils in one classroom of a particular school may be speaking French, those in another Spanish, and those in a third another language (German? Russian? Chinese? Even Portuguese can be had by request). Moreover, a single pupil within that school may have been introduced to French one year, Spanish another, and so on. 

West Principal Joan Linscott said the more intensive foreign-language program at her school came about largely because of the efforts of a parent. Theresa Moran is an Ohio University instructor in management systems whose husband, David Bell, is an assistant professor of linguistics. The couple has two daughters at West. Moran worked with Linscott and other parents, including state Rep. Jimmy Stewart, to encourage Ohio University to develop a cooperative relationship with local schools to assist their foreign-language programs. She said she was especially interested in furthering foreign-language programs because she had lived abroad for many years and knew from personal experience that young children absorb language instruction readily.

West is an experiment this year to see if an entire school's concentration on one foreign language would mean more progress for the students. West librarian Jenny Strickmaker said she loves hearing the children chattering in Spanish phrases as they enter the library. She is building up a special corner of Spanish-language storybooks children can check out to read. Presently, these are mainly American stories translated into Spanish, but she would like to get some elementary storybooks actually used in such places as Puerto Rico and Mexico so children could absorb the culture while enjoying the stories.

Although all of the elementary schools are open to these foreign-language lessons, teachers within each school have the choice of whether to participate or not. Presently, West is the only school in which all teachers participate in the program. Reichenbach would like to see one of the other elementary schools in the Athens system become an all-French school next year if this experiment works. After that, other decisions on the program will be made. 

Dru Riley Evarts is university editor with the Office of the Provost. Photos by Kim Walker.

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Published: Nov 28, 2006 8:55:34 AM
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