“Learning Spanish is interesting,” Michael, who goes by Miguel during weekly Spanish lessons, said. “It’s nice to learn a different language instead of just English. And not everyone speaks English. If you go someplace where they speak Spanish, you can have a conversation.”
Michael’s once-a-week immersion in foreign language is possible through the Westerly High School student-led elementary language enrichment program.
Students from upper-level language classes at Westerly High volunteer their time after school to instruct the year-long program that introduces foreign languages to fourth-graders in the district’s four elementary schools.
This fall, fourth-graders are learning basic Spanish. They’ll learn basic French in the winter and Italian next spring.
“The more they’re exposed to a foreign language now, the more they’ll want to continue learning it as they get older,” said volunteer student teacher Kerry Tiedemann, a Westerly High junior in Level 4 Spanish. “At this age, they absorb everything.”
During the second lesson of the year on a recent Friday afternoon at State Street Elementary, Tiedemann, 16, was teaching her class how to greet others and introduce themselves in Spanish.
“I’ve always wanted to learn this language,” fourth-grader Zoe Mayhew, 9, said. “A lot of people speak Spanish. I want to, too.”
Elementary students are taught basic words and culture. High school students — about 20 of them per language — meet with one of the three high school teachers overseeing the particular language, plan lessons, create activities and gather resources.
“We enjoy the language partnership with the high school,” State Street Principal Audrey Faubert said. “They’re little sponges right now so it’s better to start learning sooner. The exposure to culture expands their vision of the world beyond our school, too.
“They’re so excited to learn a skill in a half-hour. They’re motivated by it.”
Sarah Steverman, the coordinator of the elementary language enrichment program and department chairwoman at the high school, said the high school has partnered with Westerly’s elementary and middle schools for a number of years to bring foreign language to the lower grades.
The fourth-grade program is new this year.
“We have all students teaching,” Steverman said. “It’s a nice opportunity for them for a career path. It builds confidence, and it’s just a way for them to work and serve in the community.”
WHS senior Matthew Perino, a Level 5 Spanish student, is one of the student teachers.
“[The fourth-graders] are enjoying themselves,” Perino, 17, said. “For them to take in languages now will only help them in the long run.”
Experts with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages say it’s “critical” that foreign language instruction be available to all students throughout preschool through the 12th grade.
Martha Abbott, the director of education for the council, said beginning foreign language instruction early sets the stage for students to develop advanced levels of proficiencies in one or more languages.
She also said young learners have a natural curiosity about learning, and they also are “open and accepting of people who speak other languages and come from other cultures.”
Perino said the enrichment program is beneficial for him, too.
“It’s double-sided for me,” Perino said. “I get to help teach Spanish, which helps build a foundation and further their education, and I’m furthering mine, as well.”