Milford expands Spanish instruction, adds staff

Elementary Spanish Teacher Eliza Smernoff, immerses her kindergarten class with songs and dance, all in Spanish, at Live Oaks Elementary School.

Elementary Spanish Teacher Eliza Smernoff, immerses her kindergarten class with songs and dance, all in Spanish, at Live Oaks Elementary School.

Kathy Bonetti /Contributed

MILFORD — Learning multiple languages greatly enhances student development, according to local educators, and the district has committed the staff and funds to make that a reality.

Amy Fedigan, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said the school system has expanded the Spanish curriculum throughout its eight elementary schools and has hired six Spanish teachers who rotate schools.

“When young children have the opportunity to explore and learn a second language or in some cases a third, there are academic benefits, benefits to their mental health and certainly future benefits for college and career readiness,” Fedigan said.

“We know that when our students learn a different language, they also have the opportunity to learn and gain a different perspective and appreciate the beauty of different cultures around them,” Fedigan added. “So we know that our students will be better prepared civic-minded here in Milford and wherever their adventures may take them.”

Beth Mauro, instructional supervisor of humanities for pre-K to 5, said the language offerings started with kindergarten and first grade, then moved to grade two last year during the pandemic, and now its moved into third grade.

“We found it essential to keep growing with the students,” Mauro said, “so we want to make sure that those initial students that we had continued to have the language experience as they go through. The proposed expansion for next year is to go to grade four which would make sense, and continuing it on, from there.”

Mauro said they are working in the background with their secondary colleagues, so students have one aligned vision through high school.

“Our world language team is tremendous, and we have doubled in size,” Fedigan said.

Fedigan said in the past, elementary schools did have world language Spanish instruction in sixth grade for a time, and then that program was cut. Then there was only Spanish instruction in grades seven through 12. Four years ago, the district brought Spanish back to the sixth grade.

“When we were starting in seventh grade, we were getting kids right when all these other things in child development are taxing on the brain and have a lot of other competing interests with priorities of other things they are learning in school,” she said. “But if we start when they are first with us in kindergarten and hopefully in the next year Pre-K, it becomes second nature. Just like when children are learning to read and learning mathematics instruction in school, it becomes something that is natural to them.”

Fedigan said teachers have created a hands-on approach for their Spanish lessons, and students will often say that Spanish is one of their favorite classes.

“There is very little English spoken while they are in the Spanish class, I would say 95 percent is in Spanish, and it’s amazing what students are picking up,” she said. “I was in a classroom last week, they have little hello and goodbye signs, the kids have already picked up on the songs when they students see the world language teachers in the hallways they great them in Spanish, it’s very sweet.”

Mauro said the program they are teaching is proficiency-based and focuses on a communicative approach.

“So it’s very different how people before learned a language who might have learned through a textbook, conjugating verbs, thinking about the mechanics of language,” she said. “We know the best practice is a communicative approach so that the language has meaning and the students are making language.”

“You don’t land in a Spanish-speaking country, get off the plane and use I see, you see, he sees, they see, nobody is talking like that, so that’s not the approach we are teaching young children,” Fedigan added. “We also know that we want children to think about mastering the world language, but we want them to also find an identity in using language and using creativity.”

One of the things the world language teachers are proud of is comprehensible output, according to Mauro, because not only are they outputting 95 percent of the time in Spanish, but they are also looking for output from the students.

“Certainly, as the students grow with the program, the output they are looking for is more and more,” she said. “So for our third-grade students, this year will be looking for more output from them.”

The output the teachers are looking for is not necessarily always verbal. Sometimes teachers look for visual clues to make sure the student is understanding them.

“You’ll watch in the classroom a lot of times students are doing hand motions for si or no, and they are spending to their teachers that way,” Mauro said. “So they are not only looking at the output verbally speaking but also what they are understanding through hand motions, through interactions and they are constantly formidably assessing where the students are and where they need to take them.”

“When you introduce world language to very young children, beyond the grammar and structure of world language, they are better able to make sounds and reproduce sounds that are more authentic and more natural to the language they are learning,” Fedigan added.

Mauro said there are some native Spanish speakers throughout the district, and teachers give them opportunities to showcase their native language.

“And even students who maybe don’t have Spanish but maybe have one of our Indian languages, they’ll use those students to talk about the differences in languages and talk about the importance of language and language development in general,” she said.

Both Fedigan and Mauro said the response of the teachers, students and parents to the expansion of the Spanish instruction have been positive.

“We are so fortunate to be in a community that has thrown its support behind this,” Mauro said. “We’ve met with parents, and they’ve said their kids favorite time of the day is Spanish, and they are coming home counting in Spanish, greeting them in Spanish and talking at the dinner table of words that they’ve learned in Spanish class or what they did.”