Meeting the Needs of all Students in FLES Classrooms: A Call for Differentiated Instruction

Dr. Frances S. Hoch
Raleigh, North  Carolina

The FLES (Foreign Languages in the Elementary Schools) program model is designed to provide a sequential language learning experience to all students. Access and equity lead the list of characteristics that the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign  Languages (ACTFL) has designated for effective elementary school programs. ACTFL states: “All students, regardless of learning styles, achievement levels, race/ethnic origin, socioeconomic status, home language or future academic goals, have opportunities for language study.”

The Different Challenges

The challenges are numerous for FLES teachers committed to teaching all students. Spanish is the language of choice for many FLES programs, and the Spanish teacher must search for ways to address the needs of all children from many different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds who represent the total spectrum from struggling to gifted. In addition, the FLES teacher often sees students for limited class time, usually as a visitor to their regular classrooms. As the teacher moves from class to class, seeing hundreds of students each week, it is difficult to meet the individual needs of every child.

How Do We Differentiate Instruction?

Differentiated instruction describes a variety of ways in which teachers respond to the needs of their students. Carol Ann Tomlinson suggests that elementary teachers can differentiate at least four classroom elements:  content, process, products, and learning environment. Let’s look at her model in the Spanish FLES classroom.

Content

Differentiating content can be accomplished by choosing unit themes and vocabulary that activate prior knowledge. Students relate to what they already know or are being taught in the regular classroom. Moreover, the ideas need to be presented through both auditory and visual means.  Finally, students can benefit by developing language buddies who can help them access the content.

Process

Process refers  to the variety  of activities  in which  students engage to access  the content. When possible, tiered activities, which  allow  students  to work  on the same  content  but with different  levels  of support,  can help  all students  learn  the language. The use  of manipulatives and other hands-on means of support  should  be made  available. Once written  language is introduced, means  of support  such  as word  walls  and personal dictionaries should  be provided.

Products

Products are the ways in which students demonstrate what they learn. Because young students often understand more language than they can produce, it is important to provide them the opportunity to point or physically demonstrate their learning. Teachers should also use rubrics that match students’ skill levels. Self-assessment is useful even in the elementary grades. The junior version of LinguaFolio, a self-assessment system for foreign language students developed by the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages, is one instrument that can assist students in monitoring their own development.

Environment

Finally, the learning environment, which is the way the classroom looks and feels, is important to FLES students. As the Spanish teachers move from class to class, they need to look for creative ways to make each classroom reflective of the target culture. They also need to ensure that all students feel comfortable and willing to participate, regardless of their abilities or backgrounds.

FLES programs provide the foundation for communicative competence in a second language. Differentiated instruction can enable all students to feel success and can encourage them to continue studying other languages in middle  school, high school, and beyond.

Bibliography

Blaz, Deborah.  Differentiated Instruction: A Guide for Foreign Language Instruction. New York:  Eye on Education, 2006.
Tomlinson, Carol A. “Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades,” Eric Digest, 2001.

Tomlinson, Carol A. The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: 1999.

The “Characteristics of Effective Elementary School Foreign Language Programs” is available at www.actfl.org. It is based on work  begun at the 1989 ACTFL Priorities  Conference  and continued  at the 1990 ACTFL Annual  Meeting.

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