Parlez-vous Francais? Cape Elizabeth 1st-graders do

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CAPE ELIZABETH — In an attempt to create global citizens and increase proficiency, Pond Cove Elementary School is now offering world language classes to first-graders.

Prior to this school year, the school offered language classes to students in second grade and above. Now, first-graders are learning French. Next year’s first grade class will learn Spanish, and the languages will alternate thereafter.

World language teacher Marcia Chase said starting a year earlier gives students more time to learn and understand the language by the time they reach high school. At the beginning level, Chase said she starts slowly to build a foundation.

“It’s proficiency over time, rather than immersion in the moment,” she said. “The ideal experience is to have frequency over an extended period of time.”

First-grade students have French class one day a week for 45 minutes. Chase introduces language to the first-graders through games, activities, and songs, and uses culturally themed stuffed animals to put the younger children at ease. She said many children can feel self-conscious when first starting a new language.

“The focus is on environment and play, not anxiety,” Chase said. “We want comfort … first, and then the language should follow.”

In first and second grade, students only practice language orally; they move to reading and writing in third and fourth grades. The focus on grammar doesn’t start until middle school.

“We’re trying to get language across in a meaningful context for kids,” Chase said. “I’m really an advocate of having play be the feel of a world language classroom. It creates an environment where they can learn effectively.”

Chase will teach the students how to use greetings and talk about animals, weather, and colors, among other things. She said she will incorporate many hands-on activities, so children can have a deeper understanding of the words and concepts they are taught. She said she wants children to really understand new words and how to use them to speak with others.

“The whole goal is authentic communication,” Chase said. “The application is having them use it for something that’s real for them.”

Chase will also be taking context from other classes the students are taking and teach the material in the language class. When first-graders are being taught a unit in their science class, Chase will also teach them about the subject in French.

Students will be tested on their knowledge of the language by showing Chase they understand. They will use movement and art to show what they have learned, and to be able to “show proficiency in a real way,” she said.

“This allows kids to show their comprehension to me by actually doing what I ask them in that language,” Chase said.

Chase will also teach children about French culture by bringing in props and examples. She said she wants students to see culture, rather than be lectured on it. Chase said it’s important for them to be aware of other people in the world and to develop a “global mindset.”

“We hope to make them citizens of the world,” Chase said. 

Principal Kelly Hassan agreed. She said they want to prepare children to be “productive members of this world.” 

“The younger they learn language and culture, the sooner they see its relevance,” Hassan said.

Hassan also said teaching language at a young age is important because the younger the student, the easier it is to learn. She said they hope to introduce world language to kindergartners in coming years.

“They rapidly absorb the language and can become proficient easier,” Hassan said.

Hassan said even though the first-graders are only having language classes once a week, the “shorter bursts” are meaningful.

“It’s really just enough,” she said. “It gives them a taste, but it’s consistent.” 

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Sidebar Elements

Pond Cove Elementary School teacher Marcia Chase leads Cape Elizabeth first-graders Elliot Northup, left, Celeste Tourangeau, and Vivian Schultzel in a French song.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.