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County's Early Language Program Pays Off
Enrollment, Fluency Up in Middle School

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

A spiky rubber porcupine flies through the air, passed between Spanish teacher Elizabeth Gueits and her seventh-graders as they go back and forth with questions and answers in Spanish. One student tiene hambre-- is hungry; another está cansado-- is tired.

Although it's just the fifth week of class, some roll their R's like pros, and Señora Gueits doesn't have to utter a word of English. Many of these Seneca Ridge Middle School students have studied Spanish since they were 6 as part of an unusual program in which all children in the Loudoun school system take Spanish classes in grades 1 through 6.

The first students to be exposed to the elementary classes are now in ninth grade, and foreign language participation rates in middle school show the effects of the program. Spanish, long the most popular foreign language, hasn't grown in dominance over other languages, but total enrollment in language classes at the middle school level has surged, said Suzette F. Wyhs, who oversees foreign language instruction for the school district.

Two years ago, before any of the students with elementary school Spanish had reached eighth grade, 16 percent of Loudoun eighth-graders did not take a foreign language. The number has plummeted.

Wyhs said the figures suggest that students who have been through the elementary program are less intimidated about pursuing foreign language studies -- and with good reason, she said, pointing to research that shows that learning one nonnative language makes it easier to learn another.

Loudoun's elementary school language program is unique in the Washington region. Although other area school systems have language programs at the elementary level, they don't provide them to every student at every school.

"We teach basic skills in elementary school anyway, and Spanish is becoming a basic skill," Wyhs said.

Loudoun children get 30 minutes a week of Spanish instruction in grades 1 and 2, an hour a week in grades 3 through 5, and 30 minutes every other day in sixth grade.

For seventh- and eighth-graders, the school district offers Latin, French, German and Spanish. In high school, students also can take Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language.

For students who took Spanish as youngsters and stayed with it, the effects are clear.

"They're very fast learners. They catch things very easily," Gueits said of students who have been in the elementary program since the beginning.

The students in her seventh-grade class get 90 minutes of instruction every other day. They do everything from singing Spanish-language karaoke to playing grammar board games in a room spattered with posters from Latin American countries, cartoons illustrating vocabulary and a calendar that displays the day of the week in Spanish.

Children who are native Spanish speakers also take part in the elementary Spanish program, known as Foreign Language in the Elementary School, and they benefit, too, Wyhs said.

"What we have is 'illiterate' Spanish speakers," she said, describing children who can speak Spanish but have poor reading comprehension and haven't done any writing in the language.

Gueits said that children who speak some Spanish at home are also good to have in her middle school classes.

"It helps the others" to have someone who understands a little more quickly than the rest, she said.

Gueits can sympathize with the language struggle. She grew up in Puerto Rico and the Bronx, N.Y., and learned English in middle school. Until she came to Loudoun three years ago, she taught English as a second language in Puerto Rico.

"I've been teaching languages forever," she said. "The only thing that changed is the language."

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