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Needham Elementary School launches Spanish program

Principal says research indicates learning another language is easier at a younger age
Caroline Araiza teaches a first grade class Wednesday at Needham Elementary School. This is the first year of Needham Elementary School’s Spanish pilot program. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Students as young as kindergartners are learning Spanish at Needham Elementary School.

The district has launched an elementary school Spanish program to further the understanding of other cultures as well as to diversify skill sets for when students are ready to enter the workforce.

“The research is clear that language acquisition among young children is far more rapid than in adolescents and adults,” said Needham Principal Riley Alderton. “Young children are more willing to make mistakes, engage with new ideas and commit information to memory which makes a language program at the elementary level ideal.”

Alderton said he was inspired to launch the program after discussing the Portrait of Graduate competencies with 9-R Superintendent Karen Cheser.

While the elementary students are a long way from making career decisions, data has shown that being fluent in a second language has its benefits when it comes to employment.

According to a 2023 survey conducted by Prebly, an online language learning platform, 40% of multilingual employees said language skills helped them land a job, and they earned 19% more than single-language speakers. They were also more likely to have received a raise in the last year.

“I was fortunate enough to study a second language and have seen how the world can open up in new ways when you are able to communicate in more than one language,” Alderton said. “As a school, we are trying to prepare our students to make a global impact and giving them the skills they need to communicate in a second language is a critical piece of this.”

River June Bilbrey, 7, and fellow students listen to Spanish instructor Caroline Araiza as she teaches a first grade class Wednesday at Needham Elementary School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

On Wednesday, shared school Spanish instructor Caroline Araiza led a Needham first grade class using interactive learning opportunities to help students retain the language.

Utilizing different methods such as songs, games and worksheets, Araiza garnered the utmost attention from her students. She’s the instructor for all Spanish classes grades K-5 at Needham.

“What makes it so fun for me is that they seem to be having a great time learning another language, and I feel like there's a natural curiosity that they have about this topic,” Araiza said.

Araiza said she likes to use different methods to ensure students are retaining information. In one instance, she had students play a game in which she points to body parts like the head or the knees and says the word in Spanish.

“I usually like to have a story, a song and a game and then some individual work during each class,” Araiza said. “I find that it provides a good basis for hitting all those learning styles. Hopefully, if they don't like one thing, they'll like the next.”

Alderton praised Araiza’s teaching, saying she was the perfect person to take on the role for all of the school’s Spanish classes. He said she has several years of Spanish language instruction experience within the district.

“She is passionate about students learning Spanish, and that comes through in her instruction,” Alderton said. “She brings the content to life through interactive games, songs and real-life depictions. This resonates with students because it is interactive, engaging, and because they can measure their own progress so readily by engaging with the language through these different mediums.”

Spanish instructor Caroline Araiza works with students during a learning game Wednesday at Needham Elementary School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Alderton said the school has had Spanish programs before but none that were as immersive as the new program. Araiza speaks to the students almost exclusively in Spanish. Students will often ask questions in English to which Araiza responds most of the time in Spanish if the explanation is simple enough for them to understand.

“Immersion is the quickest way to learn a language,” Alderton said. “Students also have access to their own Rosetta Stone accounts that they can practice on during certain parts of the day and at home. This gives them additional time to practice language outside of the lessons that Ms. Caroline provides,” Alderton said.


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