The three R's are joined by an S at Stevenson Elementary School -- and it stands for Spanish.

It might seem counterintuitive to teach a new language to youngsters whose reading and writing skills in their first language are developing.

In fact, it's a natural part of their learning, said Emily Deprez, Stevenson's Spanish teacher.

"At this age, their brains are so flexible," Deprez said. "For them, it's not like they're learning a new language. They are just learning more words."

Language acquisition actually is easier for young children, she said.

"I used to teach high school Spanish, and it's been interesting to me to see how much more naturalistic elementary students learn language and how much they can do with language than my freshman students could do," Deprez said.

For children, learning a language is part of their brain chemistry, she said.

"They are built to absorb information," Deprez said.

For older students, it can be harder to learn a new language because they have accepted that English is their language, she said.

'One big bubble'

Stevenson's Spanish program is in its third year.

"I'm so excited to see the students in third grade and the progress they've made from first grade to third," Deprez said.

"I'll have parents and other teachers tell me that they hear the children mix in Spanish words when they're talking," she said. "Language is just one big bubble to them and both English and Spanish are in that bubble."

Grandview now offers Spanish classes in grades K-12, Chief Academic Officer Jamie Lusher said.

"This is a big year for us because now that we have students ready to enter third grade who have been taking Spanish since kindergarten, we have all the data we need to complete our effort to align our foreign-language curriculum from kindergarten through students' senior year," she said. "Our foreign-language teachers have been working really hard on this process."

Before the implementation of an elementary school foreign-language program, middle school students took "exploratory" classes that lasted just nine weeks, Lusher said.

Beginning next year, middle school students will have Spanish classes two or three times a week for 40 minutes, she said.

The number of weekly sessions will alternate with music classes, Lusher said.

Eighth-graders will have the opportunity to take Spanish I classes and earn high school credit, Lusher said.

"Our goal is to have as many eighth-graders as possible to take Spanish I so they don't have to take that class in high school," she said.

Getting students started with Spanish in kindergarten will allow more of them to take Advanced Placement foreign-language classes in high school, Lusher said.

French classes are offered beginning in seventh grade in Grandview, she said.

"Our focus on creating an aligned K-12 foreign-language curriculum is part of a global language philosophy," Lusher said. "Learning a second language is an essential skill for being a global citizen and succeeding in the modern world."

The elementary school foreign-language classes can be compared to the math lessons students learn at a young age, Deprez said.

"You start out learning addition and subtraction and that lays the foundation for the math you'll be learning all the way through school, all the way up to advanced calculus," she said. "It's the same with Spanish. The basic skills the students are learning now will set the stage for their future exploration of the language."

Laying groundwork

Students in grades K-2 learn Spanish in 30-minute classes twice a week. Deprez teaches third-grade classes for 30 minutes three times a week.

"In kindergarten, we don't do units per se," Deprez said. "Students are learning basic Spanish vocabulary through stories and songs and games and we're covering basic things like numbers, colors, weather and family."

On a recent day, kindergarten students participated in a counting activity. Each student was given a bag containing beads of various colors. They were asked to count -- in Spanish -- how many beads of each color were in the bag. The students then circled the number word on a worksheet and wrote the corresponding color next to the number.

If there were four red beads in their bag, they circled "cuatro" and wrote "rojo" by the number word. If they counted five blue beads, they circled "cinco" and wrote "azul" next to it.

In grades 1-3, classes cover several thematic units, with a growing complexity each year.

One of the units is about identity.

In the first-grade identity unit, students learn to give a basic introduction about themselves in Spanish, answering the question, "Who are you?" Deprez said.

"Second-grade student learn to also describe themselves and in third grade they also talk about what they like and don't like," she said.

Throughout the elementary grades, "a lot of the learning is done through storytelling," Deprez said.

Second-graders recently completed a unit on time and place.

"We did a story about a student who lost her lucky pencil," Deprez said. "The student goes from classroom to classroom looking for her pencil. I made up masks of our teachers and each student portrayed a teacher speaking in Spanish.

"It's a fun way to get them involved," she said.

Another second-grade project included learning about Pablo Picasso.

"They created portraits done in the Cubist style of Picasso and then I had them write a description of their work in Spanish, just like an art critic would do," Deprez said.

The students' artwork and their written descriptions are on display in the hallway near the Spanish classroom on Stevenson's second floor.

"The culmination of our elementary Spanish program is when students write a story in Spanish at the end of third grade," Deprez said.

'Pretty cool'

Spanish class is fun, said second-grader Grayson Shockey.

"It's pretty cool because you're getting to learn a whole other language," he said. "It's awesome to know words in another language."

Second-grader Cooper Bauer said he feels lucky to be learning Spanish.

"Most people in America really don't know Spanish," he said.

Emina Osborne said she likes Spanish class because her teacher makes it fun.

"We get to do all kinds of fun things and she tells stories about characters and we get to answer in Spanish," the second-grader said.

Learning Spanish is rewarding, Grayson said, but he added he can think of some other benefits.

"I think I'll want to do a lot of traveling someday and it will be nice to be able to speak Spanish in the countries I visit," he said.