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Implementing an ES Mother-Tongue Literacy Program

By Marga Akerboom and Nancy Kroonenberg
Implementing an ES Mother-Tongue Literacy Program

The American International School of Rotterdam (AISR) is in the third year of offering an expanded mother-tongue language program in grades PreK1 through Grade 5. Prior to the expansion, our only offering was Dutch language. Since 2013–2014, we have expanded our mother-tongue program to include French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish. We are fortunate that we have space for dedicated language classrooms, and the international environment of Rotterdam ensures that we can hire qualified native-speaking teachers locally.
Our language philosophy, based on a wealth of educational research, emphasizes that recognition of a child’s home culture and native language is an important feature of any language learning approach. Provision for the maintenance and further development of the native language also helps to address many social, emotional, and academic needs of the language learner. Children who maintain their first language can extend their cognitive development, helping them to learn another language more easily. Literacy in one’s first language thus supports literacy in learning second and additional languages.
When we first expanded the program, there was a priority to secure materials based on the various national curricula. We included language teachers in professional development about differentiation in the classroom to meet the needs of all students.
Now in our third year of this expanded program, we have sought feedback from our parents and teachers to build upon an already strong program. Parent approval ratings were all over 90 percent, with particular praise for the professionalism of the teachers. Teachers appreciate that their students can continue studying their native languages outside their home countries. Their language classes are grouped as follows: PreK1–K (ages 3–5), Grades1–2 (ages 6–7); Grades 3–5 (ages 8–11).
With teachers, facilities, materials, and positive feedback, you would think that we are sitting on our laurels and gloating. Nothing could be further from the truth. While we believe that we offer exemplary mother-tongue courses, we do not yet have a unified and aligned program. Thus, with grant support from the Stichting Internationaal Onderwijs – SIO (Foundation for International Education in the Netherlands), we continue to bring our program to even higher standards.
We have a multi-pronged improvement approach. One aspect is providing additional training for our teachers to learn and engage in similar teaching strategies and approaches. Our teachers did some online research to narrow the areas of focus. This research led to bringing in on-site specialists in August and January in the areas of vocabulary learning strategies and curriculum development.
Teachers’ professional goals were based on the August vocabulary workshop, and department head and peer observations focus on these goals. In pre- and post-observation conferences, the department head works with teachers to link professional development with classroom practice.
While we are convinced that appropriate teaching and learning is taking place in our mother-tongue classes based on national curricula, we are unsure exactly how mother-tongue literacy transfers to the learning of other languages and subjects and how we might approach this in a more systematic way. While our language teachers (along with all teachers) have been trained in differentiation, the range of ages/grades in a single language classroom means that sometimes certain students have not begun to read or write in any language, while the older children in the group are making headway in these areas.
Another challenge for us is the area of alignment. Teachers are working on curriculum maps in Rubicon Atlas, but how are the various languages aligned with each other in terms of outcomes, standards, etc.?
We further complicate our alignment quest when we take into account: IPC (International Primary Curriculum), AERO (American Education Reaches Out), CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) and WIDA (EAL/ESL standards), as well as keeping in mind the standards of the IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Program). This is a monumental and at times an elusive task.
Our program is not the be-all and end-all. We seek the expertise of other schools and programs in our ongoing quest to better align our courses into a cohesive program. Input has included visits to other schools in the Netherlands, extensive online research, professional development, and classroom observations, all resulting in our manual Implementing an Elementary School Mother-Tongue Literacy Program: A Guide for Administrators and Language Teachers (
Rather than being the GPS for professionals, we view this as a road map. It remains a guide in progress, not a finished product. The AISR way to an effective elementary school language program is but one road map, and we offer it as a guide for other schools as they implement and modify their programs.

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