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Foreign Language Proficiency for All

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While most Americans study a foreign language in school, few are able to actually converse in that language. That’s a situation that Shannon Norquist, chair of the Spanish department at Barrington Christian Academy, sees as a tragic missed opportunity.

BCA has long included Spanish language exposure across the grade levels. Starting in September 2017, Norquist initiated the SPAN program, a systematic, proficiency-based approach to language learning that starts in kindergarten. The ultimate goal? Proficiency for all BCA graduates.

Norquist and her colleagues apply a growth mindset to second language acquisition. Instead of focusing on language graduation requirements, SPAN emphasizes growth in proficiency. Students are able to chart and measure their own progress with the help of standardized proficiency exams (AAPPL) and teacher feedback. According to Norquist, “the goal is not to finish a graduation requirement, but rather to develop conversational proficiency and take that into an immersive language experience.”

Language acquisition research has established that the early elementary years present the greatest opportunity for long term language retention for most learners. This, says Norquist, is the reason BCA introduces formal language learning so early, enriched with “lingua café” Spanish conversation sessions with high school students and rich cultural experiences. Students learn language skills as they taste flavors, sing songs, and move to the beat of Latin rhythms.

The early results are compelling, as older students are already pushing the boundaries of the existing Spanish curriculum. This year, a college-level class in Spanish literature and film will provide learning opportunities for those who have already passed AP Spanish. Several of this year’s eighth graders are expected to pass AP Spanish their sophomore year, opening even more opportunities for advanced courses and other immersive language experiences on campus, in the community, and around the world. Among them: a trip to Ecuador to partner with local teens in a variety of service and learning projects, with Spanish the sole medium of communication.

“Ultimately, we are about our students leading by serving in every arena of society. We see foreign language proficiency as a vital piece of that,” explains Sean Hunley, head of school at the academy. “I see our bilingual students going out into the world with the confidence to reach out and connect with people, with so many opportunities for friendship, travel, ministry, and business.”

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