It is evident that class size impacts a multitude of factors related to teacher efficacy and student success across all disciplines, including K-20 World Language education. Communication is at the core of the World-Readiness Standards and students are learning to interact with cultural competence, connect with other disciplines, and use the language to investigate and interact in order to participate in multilingual communities. Maintaining smaller class sizes has a positive effect on student achievement and satisfaction. High-leverage teaching practices are more effective when students are provided frequent opportunities to communicate in a learning environment that lowers the affective filter and provides timely feedback.
ACTFL’s best practice of 90%+ use of the target language by both teachers and students is progressively more challenging to implement as classes grow larger. Large class sizes reduce a teacher’s ability to have productive one-on-one communication in the target language and provide sufficient feedback especially on written tasks (NCTE, 2014; Muldrow, 2013), potentially influencing the number of students achieving biliteracy. This is a critical concern given that the foundation of standards-based language learning and proficiency development is immersive communication in all modes (Interpretive, Interpersonal, and Presentational), with time for frequent formative assessments and individualized feedback. Immersion in the target language while supporting learners’ comprehension is essential for language acquisition and while possible in larger classes, large class sizes make it difficult to provide feedback and engage in open-ended communicative tasks.
The world language classroom and the English Language Arts classroom are environments in which larger class sizes can be a detriment. Research suggests that there is a positive effect in reading achievement when class size is reduced. (Filges, Sonne-Schmidt, & Nielsen, 2018).
Some other factors for effective language learning that may be impacted by class size are:
assessment of language performance, given the time needed to successfully assess student performance toward growth in proficiency in the target language using tools such as Integrated Performance Assessment;
ability to give students sufficient feedback for achieving learning goals (Russell & Curtis, 2013);
quality and quantity of student-student and student-instructor interaction (Russell & Curtis, 2013);
ability to lower the affective filters of students and encourage confidence in using the target language;
differentiation to provide varying levels of rigor and challenge to promote learners’ growth in language proficiency;
accommodation of the needs of all learners, especially those from underserved populations and those with individual education plans (IEP or 504 plans).
Teacher recruitment and retention is increasingly challenging in the world language field. Working conditions, including large class sizes, are a significant factor for recruiting and retaining beginning or experienced teachers and those entering through alternative licensure or as career changers. Large class size impacts the instructor’s ability to create a communicative language learning environment and teacher expertise is often underutilized in large classes (Russell & Curtis, 2013). As many as 34% or more of public school world language teachers across the United States cited large class sizes as a source of job dissatisfaction leading to their ultimate departure from their school or the teaching profession altogether (Ingersoll, 2013).
ACTFL is committed to investigating and advocating for ways to ensure that all world language educators can confidently maintain a standards-based language program, whether online, in blended, or in face-to-face contexts. As class sizes increase, it is crucial that teachers be afforded more support and resources to provide quality world language instruction, based on high-leverage teaching practices, and to help retain our teachers.
Call for More Research
Given that scant research has been conducted on language class size over the past several decades, there is a gap in our present body of knowledge on optimal class sizes in K-16 settings for language learners at the Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced levels. Moreover, the optimal class size for online and blended language classes is also unclear. More studies are urgently needed, especially given the growth in online language learning that has occurred as a result of the worldwide pandemic. Future studies should examine how class size affects language learning outcomes and student success rates, as studies such as these will paint a clearer picture for administrators and other stakeholders who make decisions about class size.
Small class sizes for improving student achievement in primary and secondary schools: a systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews: 14(1), 1-107.
Why schools have difficulty staffing their classrooms with qualified teachers. ACTFL Assembly of Delegates, November 16, 2017.
A new approach to language instruction-flipping the classroom. The Language Educator, 8(6), 28-31.
Why class size matters today. Retrieved January 21, 2021.
Comparing a large- and small-scale online language course: An examination of teacher and learner perceptions. Internet and Higher Education, 16, 1–13.