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Immersion Teaching: Successful Approaches

We continue our series on language immersion by turning to teaching strategies.

by Chris Livaccari 

Immersion teachers must first clearly understand what content must be taught at each grade level. They need to be familiar with "comprehensible input," which emphasizes that students should be exposed to new words and patterns in contexts that facilitate comprehension and assimilation. Teachers should consistently weave together familiar language with new words and information, so that students continually develop their language proficiency. In this way, language acquisition in an immersion program closely mimics the natural learning curve for a first language, in which a child is constantly prompted to assimilate new language and meaning from unfamiliar words and expressions. Immersion also includes more elements of discovery- and inquiry-based learning than do other kinds of instructional practices. Students must constantly and consistently decipher inferences and context clues.

Immersion programs come with a high standard that teachers must reliably meet.

Language-immersion instruction consists of language and content lessons, including functional usage of the language, academic language, authentic language, and socioculturally correct language. Unlike a standard foreign-language classroom, the immersion setting provides more opportunities to teach students colloquial versus academic language. Immersion techniques also introduce a language's cultural and social contexts in a meaningful and memorable way. It is particularly important that immersion teachers connect classwork with real-life experiences. For example, students should learn when to say, "what's up" and when to say, "it's a pleasure to meet you, sir." They should grasp when to say, "it's freezing out here" and when to note, "today's temperature is fifteen degrees below the average mean temperature for this time of year." By applying a broad range of communication styles, instructors instill the expectation that students will use the language in real-life situations as well as in their studies.

The Top Five Immersion Teaching Skills

  1. The ability to use visuals, gestures, body language, expressions, modeling, and movement to complement verbal cues. For students to learn a new language in meaningful contexts, teachers must use every instructional strategy available to them, including the use of actual objects (realia), pictures, videos, and gestures to express meaning. This will allow students to develop comprehension without direct explanation.
  2. The ability to motivate students to stay in the target language. Students who are still new to Chinese should be encouraged to respond to teacher prompts and questions in English if they are not yet able to express themselves in Chinese. As students get older, however, they should be increasingly encouraged to use Chinese exclusively in all of the classes conducted in Chinese. As students progress toward higher levels of proficiency, they should also be discouraged from mixing the two languages, and urged to stay in one or the other language, as appropriate.
  3. The ability to ask open-ended questions. Effective teachers, no matter the subject or setting, steer clear of questions that elicit only "yes or no" answers. Instead, they challenge students' thinking, nudging their higher-order cognitive skills and giving ample time to articulate each response. In immersion classrooms, it is especially important that teachers encourage students to give longer and more varied replies. For instance, they can ask students to expand upon or support their answers with examples or evidence. Following up in this way helps students practice a wide range of expressions and to keep incorporating fresh words and patterns into their productive repertoire.
  4. The ability to regularly assess students' comprehension and skills development. Teachers need to monitor students' understanding through questioning techniques and formative assessments. They should also be consistently pushing students to use new words and expressions, more complex language structures, and more culturally appropriate language in their interactions and responses. Teachers should encourage students to use more specific vocabulary, as opposed to generic expressions, as they continue to develop their skills.
  5. The ability to think strategically about the various types of student interactions and to vary them, promoting a dynamic learning environment. Teachers can mix the following types of interactions: teacher-students, student-student, whole group, and small groups. In small-group and project-based settings, teachers need to carefully evaluate the makeup of the various groups. Each student should work with various people in the class, but there should also be opportunities for long-term and ongoing student interactions.

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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