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Posted on Mon, Nov 30, 2009 : 6:04 a.m.

Ann Arbor third-grade students getting chance to learn Spanish

By David Jesse


University of Michigan senior Shelagh Fehrenbach works with a group of third graders on Spanish words during a class at Ann Arbor's King Elementary School. Melanie Maxwell |

As the third-graders started giggling, Shelagh Fehrenbach quickly stepped up to make sure she didn’t lose control of her class.

“Estudiantes. Atencion. Atencion.”

Her command worked. The students quickly calmed down and continued with their lesson - learning how to describe each other in Spanish.

Fehrenbach, a University of Michigan senior, was one of two U-M students teaching the class almost entirely in Spanish.

The students were catching on quickly - calling out words when Fehrenbach would point to a piece of clothing she was wearing.

The class isn’t just confined to Ann Arbor’s King Elementary School. It’s one example of the new push by the district, in cooperation with the university, to offer all its third-graders Spanish instruction. The program will grow with the students, with plans to add higher elementary grades next year.

University of Michigan students who are training to be foreign language instructors are teaching the classes, supervised by Ann Arbor elementary school media specialists.

This is the first year the program has been offered at Ann Arbor’s elementary schools. Some other elementary schools in the area also offer an elementary world language program.

The third-graders go twice a week for 30 minutes at a time.

District administrators say they're excited about offering it.

“This is all third graders in all 21 elementary schools,” said Lee Ann Dickinson Kelley, the district’s elementary administrator. “This is not about gifted and talented. This is about giving all third graders a skill that will allow them access other opportunities in their future.

“We are a multi-lingual world, and our children have to have this skill.”

It’s also been wonderful for the 37 U-M students working on the project, said Maria Coolican, a U-M faculty member working with the program.

U-M professors observe their students every other week in the classroom and work with them on structuring lesson plans and then deconstructing what happened in the classroom.

The lesson plans are worked in with the student’s social studies curriculum, district administrators said.

The goal is to make sure students are getting the opportunity to embed their Spanish learning into their curriculum.

School officials say they're also seeing another benefit. 

Some native Spanish speakers who might be having struggles in other topics or are sometime marginalized in their classes are emerging as key leaders in their classes during these sessions.

“It’s so amazing to see,” Coolican said. “It really levels the playing field.”

David Jesse covers K-12 education for He can be reached at or at 734-623-2534.



Wed, Nov 30, 2011 : 9:43 p.m.

My children hate this Spanish class so much they want to change schools. The principal said that it was a AAPS required class and they could not elect out of it. They have been taught Spanish from a certified teacher at their prior school and enjoyed it very much. They dislike this class because it is being taught like Dora level Spanish. It sounds like they need to put a little more thought in their curriculum.


Tue, Dec 1, 2009 : 9:04 p.m.

What a great program! Not only is this program fantastic for young learners to learn Spanish, but research also shows that learning a foreign language at an early age helps students in other disciplines as developing stronger math skills. Also, the younger the learner, the more likely s/he is to retain and/or build upon his/her foreign-language base, ie: the more languages an individual knows, the easier the next language is to learn.


Tue, Dec 1, 2009 : 11:30 a.m.

Learning another language is great if it doesn't come at the expense of other learning. How about teaching financial the third grade too early for that? Or is that something that parents should teach their kids?


Mon, Nov 30, 2009 : 4:33 p.m.

This is a wonderful program. I can't wait for my daughter to start it next year. I only wish they started younger and offered more languages. It's basically free to the city and benefits U of M as well. Additional languages are best taught to the very young. What a great synergy!

Steve Norton, MIPFS

Mon, Nov 30, 2009 : 3:56 p.m.

@belboz, Actually, foreign language education at the elementary level should be a priority, and for reasons beyond simply learning a language. First off, evidence shows strongly that children who learn a second language at a young age find it much easier to acquire another language later in life, even a different one. Second, learning a second language in elementary school has been shown to improve student's ability to use and comprehend their own language as they get older. Since the total cost to AAPS is the salary for one person to administer the program, this seems like a pretty good bargain to me.


Mon, Nov 30, 2009 : 2:31 p.m.

3rd graders learning spanish... Not to go against the grain of the comments and article, but is this really a priority for kids this age? How about more emphasis on Economics at this age. Something that will be more value added in their life in our Society ad Economy. Foreign language, unless used every day, and consistently taken as a class over the years, is eventually forgotten. Once kids are at the end of High School or in college, with a better grasp of what they may pursue, I'd think foreign language is appropriate. But, there is no value to our economy or society for my kids at this age to be taking foreign language. There is already enough soft subjects at that age. If a parent feels that strongly about it, then I'd suggest private lessons. But, not public money.

David Jesse

Mon, Nov 30, 2009 : 2:20 p.m.

It's my understanding that the program is slated, right now, to be expanded next year, moving up in grades with the students. I'll check on the teachers. David


Mon, Nov 30, 2009 : 2:18 p.m.

Way to go, Shelagh! My question is what will happen next year? Will they provide instruction to 3 and 4th graders? Is the plan to ultimately teach Spanish in all the elementary grades? If so, who will teach the classes? My understanding is that the current teachers are UM students majoring in Education, not foreign language teachers in training. Are there enough Ed majors who are qualified to teach Spanish even though Spanish is not a required class for them? Or are they really Spanish language majors? THanks for the info! My son is a 3rd grader at Eberwhite and he loves the classes so far.


Mon, Nov 30, 2009 : 12:59 p.m.

I am a lifelong student of languages and definitely think this country could go much further in their support for language education. For this kind of program, it sounds like an investment in the kids of the community which would ultimately give them better equipped tools in the future world. For this intention, Mandarin would make a better investment. As a child I also thought it was much more fun learning characters. Start them young and on the right path.