Burning Questions: Second Language Research

Language teaching is as much an art as it is a science. Effective teachers excel at the art of language teaching, and we at CASLS understand the science behind second language research. With help from practicing teachers, we have identified and provided answers to the top burning questions about language learning.

What proficiency level do high school students achieve?

The majority of students studying a world language in a traditional high school program reach benchmark level 3 in reading by the fourth year of study, regardless of the target language.

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Students typically reach benchmark level 4 in writing and speaking by the fourth year of study. Interestingly, the data suggest that students progress faster in speaking and writing than in reading.
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Does block or traditional scheduling affect success in language programs?

Since the 1980s, teachers have debated the benefits of organizing class time according to different types of schedules.

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Many schools have replaced the traditional schedule, in which classes meet forty to fifty-five minutes each school day, with a block schedule, which meets for twice as many minutes every other school day. Our data showed that students do equally well in either scheduling format after two years of instruction.
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Do early language programs improve high school proficiency?

Teachers often hear that beginning language study early will help students become more proficient, and many schools now offer early language programs.

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But does it matter whether students begin in elementary or middle school? Our data showed that students who begin in elementary school are about 70% more likely to reach basic communication levels by high school. Students who begin in middle school are about 50% more likely.
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How many hours of instruction do students need to reach Intermediate-High proficiency?

Teachers, administrators, and parents often underestimate the amount of time students need to reach Intermediate proficiency.

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They are then disappointed in students’ learning outcomes later. So how many hours of instruction do students need? Our data showed that only 15% of students reach Intermediate-Mid proficiency even after approximately 720 hours of study, which is about four years in a typical high school program.
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What motivates students to study world languages?

We know it’s important for students to take extended sequences of world language classes, but many students just want to get the requirements over with as soon as possible.

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How can we motivate them to continue studying world languages? Motivating students is a challenge for teachers of all subjects, and a complete answer would take a book (or two). Our study showed that one factor, high levels of language proficiency, correlates strongly with students’ desire to continue studying language. Successful learners were eleven times more likely to want to continue, which would lead to even greater mastery.
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How do proficiency levels compare between K-12 and university students?

High school students with three years of study have approximately the same proficiency levels as university students with one year of study.

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Eighth grade students with 540 hours of instruction have had about as much class time as third-year high school students. Students’ productive skills are often slightly higher than reading scores. Most students in U.S. programs do not reach proficiency levels that allow them to effectively communicate in the language.
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How do heritage students perform on proficiency tests?

Heritage students show higher levels of language proficiency in all skills, but the difference is strongest in productive skills.

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Heritage students have markedly higher speaking and writing scores than those of non-heritage students, particularly in the early years of high school language programs. By the fourth year, non-heritage students are catching up. The progress of heritage students is slower overall, probably because most high school programs do not challenge these students to reach high levels of proficiency.
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What factors are important for an effective K-8 program?

Teachers understand that it’s better to start teaching world languages in elementary school. But what kind of program would be best?

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In terms of bang for the buck, immersion programs lead to the highest proficiency levels. For non-immersion programs, such as FLES, the two key factors for effective programs are time and intensity. Language programs that meet several times each week during the whole school year and continue for multiple years are generally the most effective.
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What levels of proficiency do immersion students achieve?

Virtually all students enrolled at a young age in immersion programs succeed in reaching the ACTFL Intermediate proficiency levels by the end of high school.

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At these levels, students are able to successfully handle everyday communicative tasks in the target language. In traditional four-year high school language programs, less than half the students completing the program reach these proficiency levels.
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