Howard elementary schools offer lessons in Chinese, Spanish

When you enter Julie Chang's world languages class at Waverly Elementary School in Ellicott City, you leave English at the door. Then, if you know the answer to a question and are told to "qing ju shou," you raise your hand. If you're told, "bu shou hua," then you must keep quiet. And if someone asks about the weather and it's sunny outside, you say, "yin tian."

Chang teaches Chinese, one of two languages offered in the Howard County school system's world languages pilot, which is in its second year at Laurel Woods and Waverly elementary schools. Students in every grade take one semester of Chinese and one of Spanish during the school year, usually for 30 minutes, twice a week.


The pilot was introduced after school officials sought to incorporate foreign languages in early grades using a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum. Classes are centered around a science curriculum, focusing on such topics as weather. It also incorporates lessons in culture, health, language arts and social studies.

"We do games like Simon Says and do bingo games," Chang said. "We try to create gestures for everything."

Chang has filled the walls in her room with images and photos, most captioned with words in Chinese. Occasionally, she will walk the room as students are speaking among themselves to make sure as little English as possible is being used. During a recent second-grade class, students spoke with relative ease, with some occasionally pausing to come up with the right word.

"I'm always learning new stuff. Plus we're starting to make sentences," Waverly second-grader Kevin Baker said. "My favorite words are [those for] introducing yourself, saying hello, asking what other people are doing, and colors, numbers and weather."

Joelle Becker said she learned some Chinese words while watching the Nick Jr. television series "Ni Hao, Kai-Lan," whose main character, Kai-Lan, is Chinese. "It teaches you how to speak Chinese, and Kai-Lan is sort of like your teacher," Joelle said. "And Ms. Chang is our teacher for school. Class teaches us Chinese in fun ways. I hope more children can do it at different schools because it's really fun to learn a new language."

Students are not tested and no grades are given, school officials said.

"The real purpose at the elementary level at the present time is for them to be exposed and to have the opportunity to acquire the language and to learn about different cultures," Waverly Principal Kathy Jacobs said.

Howard Superintendent Renee Foose said the pilot has generated "positive feedback" from the community, and "many of our other school communities are requesting world languages in their schools as well."

Departing Howard school board member Allen Dyer, who helped lead the way in getting the program launched, said, "I'd like to see it go ... to every elementary school."

At Laurel Woods, third-grade students stand and recite Spanish words and slowly make corresponding gestures and hand signals. When teacher Jonathan Browning utters "rapido!" the students repeat the words and gestures in a frenzied pace.

Some students, like Laurel Woods third-graders Marvin Aguilar and Sheyla Rivera, say they already know a lot of Spanish but are learning new words in the class, or new ways to use the words they know. "I like it because we get to do Spanish activities," Marvin said.

Laurel Woods Principal Susan Brown said the school began with Spanish last year, and the classes have generated a positive response in the school's Hispanic community. The Howard schools website says Laurel Woods' enrollment is 21.3 percent Hispanic.

"My friend next to me, when she asks how to say a word correctly, I help her sound it out, and I tell her to keep on trying," said Sheyla, who said she speaks mostly Spanish at home. "Finally, she says the word right."