When handwriting, phonics drills, and endless workbook pages yield little more than aggravation for kindergarten kids like Claudia who are learning to read, try something foreign. A foreign language, that is, to bolster her budding language skills in English. You can do it even if you don't habla español.
Learning a second language in kindergarten or first grade isn't a foreign thing. As a matter of fact, in terms of brain growth, it's prime time. Pediatric neurologist Harry Chugani, Director of the Children's PET Center at the Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, believes that the time to learn foreign languages is in preschool and elementary school when the chemistry of the brain is charged for it. Using PET (positron emission tomography) scans to measure brain activity, Chugani found an increase in glucose in the brains of kids between the ages of four and ten. This "brain spurt" signals high activity and receptivity. "When we postpone learning foreign language until high school, we aren't paying attention to biological phenomenon," he says.
When kids compare a foreign language to their own, they begin to understand the nature of language itself. As far back as 1961, studies found that English-speaking students who received instruction in a foreign language showed gains in tests of English grammar, reading, and even math.
More recently, a 1994 study of 100 third-grade students in the Pittsburg, Kansas, public schools, showed significant gains in students' language and math on the Metropolitan Achievement Test after receiving only half-hour Spanish lessons three times weekly during the course of one semester.
"Learning a foreign language increases creativity and cognitive skills. Benefits from early language instruction include improved overall school performance and superior problem-solving skills. The more children learn about a foreign language, the more they understand about their own language," says Nancy Rhodes, Director of Foreign Language Education at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC. Most importantly, "foreign language is for all children of any ability," she says. Even kids who get cranky over phonics.
Learning a foreign language early also builds a bridge between cultures. "At an early age, cultural differences are viewed as different and interesting, not right or wrong," says Harriet Barnett, an educational consultant for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. "This early exposure to other ways of speaking and doing things is most effective when children are young and their minds are open," she says.
Several major types of elementary school foreign language programs, summarized below, have emerged in public and private schools. They vary widely, however, from school to school. If none exists in your school, use the resources that follow for help in establishing a program.