Special Report

eSN Special Report: Learning a language online

Posted on November 27, 2013

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 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 (see sidebar).

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.

Colvin Run Elementary School in northern Virginia wanted a language-learning solution that could support and expand its existing Spanish curriculum, while also serving as the foundation for an independent study program in languages for which no teacher was available, such as Chinese.

Colvin Run is using Rosetta Stone’s online lessons to supplement its Spanish language program, and the K-6 school is using the company’s TOTALe PRO system to teach students Chinese. TOTALe PRO combines online lessons with web-based practice sessions conducted with live native speakers, through a platform called Rosetta Studio.

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