Carmen Ayala

Carmen Ayala

SPRINGFIELD — Foreign language teachers in Illinois are being asked to update the way they teach those courses starting in the upcoming school year by putting more emphasis on world cultures and how to use languages across different academic disciplines.

The Illinois State Board of Education on Wednesday released its newly-updated educational standards for world languages, replacing ones that were adopted in 1997.

“The Illinois State Board of Education supports biliteracy, not only to prepare students to thrive in an increasingly global society and economy, but also to build stronger and more connected communities here at home,” State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen Ayala said in a news release. “Exploring and interacting with different cultures and perspectives strengthens students’ critical thinking and problem solving skills.”

In addition to guiding teachers on how to structure their lessons, the world language standards are also used to determine whether graduating high school students have met the qualifications for a State Seal of Biliteracy, an award that recognizes students for achieving a high level of proficiency in two or more languages.

Illinois first authorized public schools to participate in that program in 2013. During the 2017-2018 academic year, 107 public school districts participated in the program. And earlier this year, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill authorizing nonpublic school systems to partake as well.

Traditionally, foreign language classes have focused on memorizing vocabulary lists and rules of grammar so students gain a functional understanding of the printed and spoken word of another culture.

But Kim Johnson, a consultant with ISBE’s Curriculum and Instruction section, said the new standards go beyond that by focusing on the people and the culture behind the language in order to give students studying that language — whether it be Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese or Russian — a broader, more multicultural view of the world.

“It’s going back to that concept of we’re much more global citizens than we ever were in the past, so we’re trying to gain an appreciation of their cultures,” Johnson said in an interview.

The standards outline five different levels of foreign language mastery: novice, intermediate, advanced, superior and distinguished.

A student who is considered a “novice” at a new language, for example, would be able to “communicate with others from the target culture in familiar everyday situations, using memorized language and showing basic cultural awareness.” He or she also would be able to “use appropriate rehearsed behaviors and recognize some obviously inappropriate behaviors in familiar everyday situations.”

A student at the superior level, by contrast, would be able, in both their own and other cultures, to “analyze how products of personal and public interest are related to perspectives” and to “analyze how practices within informal and formal situations are related to perspectives.”

Students who meet the “distinguished” standards are able to “evaluate a wide range of concrete and abstract products from different viewpoints” and “evaluate a wide range of concrete and abstract practices from different viewpoints,” both in their own culture and other cultures.

The Illinois State Board of Education is a nine-member panel appointed by the governor. Its duties include establishing educational policies and guidelines for public and private schools, preschool through grade 12, as well as vocational education. The board maintains learning standards in 13 subject areas.

Those standards generally spell out what students are expected to know and be able to do at each grade level in order to graduate and be ready for college and a career.

The new standards on world languages were approved by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules in February, but a board spokeswoman said the agency just published the final documents on its website Wednesday. Teachers can use them to adapt their curricula and lesson plans for the 2019-2020 academic year.