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What Research Tells Us About Immersion, Part 2

Last week, Tara Williams Fortune of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, wrote about the benefits of langauge immersion. Today she discusses the challenges.

By Tara Williams Fortune

Challenges Faced by Language Immersion
Designing, implementing, and providing ongoing support for language immersion education is no easy task. Pressing challenges include staffing, curriculum development, and program articulation. Program administrators struggle to find high-quality, licensed teachers who can demonstrate advanced levels of oral and written proficiency in the chosen language. Once teachers are hired, the search begins for developmentally appropriate curriculum, materials, and resources that meet local district and state standards. Elementary-level challenges are met with additional secondary-level issues such as scheduling and balancing students' educational priorities as the program moves up and through the middle and high school years.

Inadequate teacher preparation for immersion programs remains a challenge in this field. Teachers need specialized professional development support to meet the complex task of concurrently addressing content, language, and literacy development in an integrated, subject-matter-driven language program. However, teacher educators and immersion specialists who can provide useful and relevant professional learning experiences for the immersion staff are in short supply. In addition to professional development related to curriculum design and pedagogical techniques, both native and non-native teachers report the need for ongoing support for their own proficiency in the immersion language.

Chinese teachers whose educational experiences took place in more traditional, teacher-centered classrooms are aware of significant cultural differences and participant expectations. For example, US schools place a strong emphasis on social skills and language for communicative purposes. Children expect learner-centered activities with real-life tasks. Chinese teachers often hold a different set of expectations for students and thus, they frequently need support for classroom management strategies and techniques.

Immersion teachers face significant hurdles in the sheer range of learner differences. The impact of students' variations in language proficiency, literacy development, learning support available at home, achievement abilities, learning styles, and special needs grows exponentially when teaching and learning occur in two languages. Educators and parents struggle to identify and implement research-based policies and practices for learners who have language, literacy, and learning difficulties. Many immersion programs lack the necessary resources and bilingual specialists to provide appropriate instructional support, assessment, and interventions.

Promoting student understanding of more abstract and complex concepts becomes increasingly difficult in the upper elementary grades and beyond. Some upper-elementary immersion teachers, in particular those who teach in partial or fifty-fifty programs, report difficulties in teaching advanced-level subject matter because students' cognitive development is at a higher level than their proficiency in the second language. This challenge becomes more pronounced in programs where the immersion language is character-based, since literacy development is more time-consuming and demanding.

One of the greatest challenges for immersion teachers is to keep their students using the second language, especially when working and talking amongst themselves. This challenge is particularly pronounced once the children have moved beyond the primary grades. For instance, studies in both one-way and two-way immersion classes point to fifth-grade students using English more frequently than their non-English language. Facilitating student use of the immersion language in ways that promote ongoing language development is an uphill battle for teachers.

Finally, outcome-oriented research reveals that immersion students, especially those who begin the program as native English speakers, don't quite achieve native-like levels of speaking and writing skills. Studies consistently find that English-speaking immersion students' oral language lacks grammatical accuracy, lexical specificity, native pronunciation, and is less complex and sociolinguistically appropriate when compared with the language native speakers of the second language produce. Further, students' use of the immersion language appears to become increasingly anglicized over time, and can be marked by a more formal academic discourse style. Even in high-performing immersion programs, advancing students' second language proficiency beyond the intermediate levels remains a sought-after goal.

To see the full publication, and all footnotes, please download the report.

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