Girl Student Hand at Computer

Special Report: Learning a Language Online

Web-based programs help fill gaps in world language instruction.

In tiny Weybridge, Vermont (population 833), the most common industry is farming. Yet the fifty or so students in the town’s K-6 elementary school are preparing for a much larger world of opportunities by learning a second language.

With just four full-time teachers at Weybridge Elementary, that poses a challenge. The school does have a part-time Spanish teacher who comes in three days a week, says Principal Christina Johnston—but it’s an online curriculum developed by Middlebury Interactive Languages, in collaboration with faculty from nearby Middlebury College, that is helping to fill the gap.

“Students can access the curriculum at home, which is a huge advantage in a monolingual culture,” Johnston said, noting that Weybridge has an overwhelmingly English speaking population. “The online program helps bring Spanish into students’ homes, which shifts everyone’s expectations about the importance of language learning.”

Nationwide, support for foreign language instruction is dwindling amid tight budgets and a laser-like focus on the high-stakes subjects of English and math. That has some experts alarmed at the ability of U.S. students to compete in a global economy.

Yet Weybridge Elementary is one of several schools that are bucking this trend by turning to online curricula, allowing students to work independently and learn foreign language skills when a teacher isn’t available.

While Weybridge is able to provide a part-time Spanish teacher, other schools are using online curricula to teach languages for which they can’t find—or afford—a teacher at all.

Authentic Interactions Are Key

At Weybridge Elementary, students use the Middlebury Interactive Languages program in the library on laptops that are part of two mobile laptop labs that travel to the classrooms throughout the day.

“For the language program, we set the laptops up in the library, so students are the ones traveling rather than the laptops,” Johnston said. “This saves us on setup. Students can also access the program at home and in the classroom.”

The Middlebury Interactive Languages curriculum was developed by academics at Middlebury College’s renowned Language Schools.

The college has offered summer language immersion programs for a century, including a program for students ages 12 to 18 that began five years ago.

Students who participated in this summer immersion program found it quite valuable, said Aline Germain-Rutherford, Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer for Middlebury Interactive and a Surdna Professor of Linguistics at Middlebury College. But many students noted that, when they returned to school in the fall, they didn’t have the opportunity to practice their newly acquired language skills.

“So, about four years ago, we decided that creating online courses with the same immersive approach could help bridge this gap,” she said.

Middlebury College partnered with eLearning provider K12 Inc. to develop its online language curriculum, which covers five languages—Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Latin—for grades three to 12. K12 provided its expertise in online learning, and Middlebury faculty—including Germain-Rutherford—provided expertise in language acquisition.

The Middlebury Interactive curriculum is based on principles that research shows to be effective in language instruction, such as the use of authentic materials and experiences. For instance, Middlebury faculty have recorded real interactions between native speakers in different countries.

“We’ve built language learning activities using these videos, as well as authentic written resources such as newspapers,” Germain-Rutherford said.

The use of authentic materials helps students learn not just the language, but also the culture. When watching videos of people greeting each other in Spain, compared to Argentina, “students can see the cultural differences between the two,” she explained.

“It’s not just about the words and the structures.” That cultural understanding is as important as learning the language, Johnston said. She noted that it helps meet curriculum goals in social studies, as well as fulfilling a key objective of Weybridge’s Spanish language program: to develop “cross-cultural awareness…, preparing children to participate effectively in the world.”

Another principle of the Middlebury Interactive curriculum is that, to learn a new language, “students must interact and negotiate in a meaningful way,” Germain-Rutherford said. Toward that end, the curriculum includes task-based activities rooted in a real-life purpose, such as ordering in a restaurant.

To recreate this kind of interaction online, the curriculum embeds audio inputs within the dialog, and there are also opportunities for students to interact asynchronously or in real time with a certified online instructor.

For Weybridge, giving students access to an online instructor helps fill the gaps when the school’s part-time Spanish teacher isn’t there. This personalized instruction also helps students develop confidence in their speaking skills, Johnston said.

Students can practice their pronunciation privately online, she explained, which helps those “who might be hesitant to speak in front of the class. They can bring that confidence to class after using the online curriculum.”

With help from this online program, students not only are learning a skill that can prepare them for life and work in a global society, Johnston said; they’re also enhancing their English competency.

Weybridge’s Spanish language progran “meets so-called 21st century skills,” she said, “but it also increases students’ metacognition of the English language. They can see that word order makes a difference. They realize: It makes a difference in Spanish—and, oh yeah, it makes a difference in English, too.”