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Chinese Language Immersion Design 101

The US-China relationship is arguably the most important global connection that defines the 21st century. What the two nations do with their economies, development, environmental security, and military have reverberations throughout the world. And yet, according to the U.S. Census bureau, fewer than 1% of Americans speak Chinese as a primary language, and Chinese language programs, although growing in number, are still few and far between. This month, I've invited language immersion experts to give practical advice on how schools and districts might approach Chinese language immersion programs, particularly at the elementary-school level. Whereas the blog posts will focus on Chinese, the lessons can be applied to any language program. The United States is a multilingual nation; it's a strength we should continue to build upon.  

by Myriam Met and Chris Livaccari

Designing a language immersion program requires a level of commitment on the part of the administration, teachers, students, and parents that is far beyond that of many other types of instructional programs. In making the decision of whether and how to begin an immersion program, it is critical to consider a number of key questions and to clarify the purposes and goals of the program, the student population who will be served, and how the program aligns with other programs within the school or school district. While there are many cognitive and academic advantages to providing students with a rigorous and engaging immersion curriculum, it is crucial to design the appropriate type of program that best meets the needs of students, parents, and the school community.

Definition of Language Immersion

First, it is important to clarify some key terms in the field. For the purposes of this article, a language immersion program is defined as one that involves the use of two languages as the medium of instruction for academic content for no less than 50 percent of the school day. The goal of a language immersion program is to develop a student's (1) proficiency in English; (2) proficiency in a second language; (3) intercultural competence; and (4) academic performance in the content area, at or above expectations.

For the most part, in this article we will refer to one-way or foreign language immersion, which focuses (in the United States) on populations of students who have little or no exposure to the target language (in this case Mandarin Chinese) when they enter the program. There are also two-way immersion programs, which generally involve equal numbers of English-dominant and Chinese-dominant students, and aim to support both groups in building their skills in both languages. All immersion programs are predicated on the concept of additive bilingualism, the notion that, simply put, two languages are better than one.

There is no better way to learn a language successfully in a school context than in an immersion program. Since the language teacher and the content-area teacher are one and the same, students are exposed to a much richer palette of language and a more sophisticated range of concepts than they would be in traditional foreign language programs. Because teachers must function as both language and content teachers, language immersion programs are cheaper to staff than traditional foreign language programs.

Immersion programs differ by student population, entry grades, parent, and community goals, and most conspicuously by their program model. The program model determines what percentage of instruction is done in English and what percentage in Chinese, and how this changes over time and across grade levels.

Three Critical Questions to Answer

There are three critical questions that someone considering an immersion program should carefully consider.

  1. What is the fundamental mission of the program?
  2. What Chinese levels (speaking, listening, reading, writing) do students in immersion programs intend to reach?
  3. What do immersion programs cost and what needs to be itemized in the budget?

What Is the Fundamental Mission of the Program?

In thinking through this question, there are three steps: (1) identify the audience; (2) decide how students will be able to continue expanding their Chinese proficiency after the elementary grades; and (3) define a program model.

Step One: One-Way or Two-Way Immersion?

Pinpointing your audience is an essential starting point. Will the immersion program principally focus on bringing Chinese to a largely monolingual, Anglophone population of students, or are there large numbers of Chinese-speaking students, or students that are speakers of other languages? In addition to the makeup of your student population, take into consideration other segments of your audience: parents, fellow schools, and other members of your community. Does your community include large numbers of native Chinese speakers or heritage learners? Or will students usually come to the program with no prior exposure to the language?

If your program is primarily focused on students with little or no Chinese background, you will be building a one-way immersion program. If, however, your community includes large numbers of Chinese-speaking students, you will likely want to adopt a two-way model that is structured so that both the English-dominant and Chinese-dominant students are able to build their proficiencies in both languages over time. In that case, your program design should include opportunities for the two groups to support each other in their language development.

Step Two: How Long Will the Program Last?

For student language proficiency, both in terms of bilingualism and biliteracy, it is of course ideal to have an immersion program that begins in pre-kindergarten and extends through university. For many schools, however, that is simply not an option. Also, it is important to remember that any program that builds across grade levels--no matter how successful--will see some degree of attrition. To offset this attrition in later grades, any program needs to have a large enough number of students in the program in the early grades. For good retention rates, both students and parents need to be satisfied with the quality of the program. They should see clear and definite gains in language proficiency each and every year; students must continue to be engaged in the program.

For schools that do not have the option of building a pipeline beyond the elementary grades, consider whether and how the students might be able to continue to build their Chinese proficiency in middle school and high school. The problem of articulation across grade levels is critical--too many graduates of successful immersion programs move into programs in later grades that do not allow them to continue to develop their language skills.

Step Three: Which Program Model?

At this point, you should consider identifying the appropriate program model. Originally most US immersion programs were modeled after the Canadian immersion initiative in which students were immersed in their new language 100 percent of the school day. English was introduced at grade 2 or 3 and gradually increased to 50 percent of the elementary school day. Later, US programs began to vary how time was allocated to each language. Today, particularly in Chinese immersion, there are a variety of program models. The majority of Chinese immersion programs divide the K-5 school day according to a fifty-fifty model: 50 percent of instruction is delivered in Chinese and 50 percent in English. Other programs start with 80-100 percent of instruction in Chinese and then offer fifty-fifty in third or fourth grade, for example. (See the Program Profiles throughout the full handbook for examples of program models.)

Program planners recognize that each model has its own set of advantages. It is important to note that all programs eventually are fifty-fifty before the end of elementary school.

For further guidance, you may wish to consult some of the following resources:

Dr. Myriam Met is an independent consultant. Chris Livaccari is Upper Elementary Principal and Chinese Language Program Director at International School of the Peninsula. This post is excerpted from the Asia Society book, Chinese Language Learning in the Early Grades, available to EdWeek readers as a free download. 

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