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How to Build a Better Language Immersion Program

Editor's Note: Across the country, demand for immersion programs is growing and states and districts are trying to keep up. Plutus Yang, Assistant Director at Hudson Way Immersion School, shares some best practices to keep in mind. 

By guest blogger Plutus Yang 

The popularity of language immersion programs is growing rapidly, but many schools are still struggling to establish strong, rigorous, and effective immersion programs. As both a Chinese immersion teacher and an administrator of a Chinese and Spanish immersion school, I have seen firsthand what holds many immersion programs back, and what allows others to flourish and take full advantage of this unique approach to language education.

Dreaming in the Target Language 

Elizabeth Willaum, a language immersion expert, says true immersion is not simply about teaching children to speak in the target language, it is about getting them to "think and dream" in the target language as well. The goal of an immersion program should be to produce well-balanced students who are bi-literate, bi-cognitive, and bi-cultural within five years. That goal may sound ambitious, but it is achievable with a well-designed and well-implemented program.

At our school, we believe the progressive weighting of the target language is key. Students with no ability in the target language should start out in full immersion, with only the target language being spoken in the classroom. This allows children to begin learning the target language in the same way as they learn their native language, which is at the very heart of the immersion philosophy. Immersion programs differ in how they weight the target language from this point forward, but we have found the most effective model to be a modified "90/10" model, where an increasing amount of instruction is given in English in successive years. This may sound counterintuitive, but we believe it is critical for ensuring that students learn the target language without sacrificing their native language skills or their abilities in other content areas. It produces "balanced bilinguals," students who have reached an equilibrium between their native language and the target language, and who are highly proficient academically in both languages.

Setting Clear Expectations

Many immersion programs have language proficiency expectations that are not properly aligned from one grade to the next. There should be clear goals for each academic year, and those goals must be reflected in curriculum.

Sciencev1.pngWhen building programs, one size does not fit all. For example, the appropriate annual proficiency expectations for a Chinese immersion program are markedly different from those for a Spanish immersion program. Because Romance languages such as Spanish have much more in common with English, native English-speaking students should be expected to begin speaking in full sentences in the target language within the first few months of a Spanish immersion program. With a Chinese immersion program, students should not be expected to speak in full sentences in the target language until toward the end of their first year. And there will be a "silent period," when students don't yet speak the target language at all, at the beginning of any immersion program. The curriculum should reflect these expectations. In the first year of Chinese immersion, the emphasis should be on listening and eventually speaking in the target language, with only limited exposure to reading and writing. Over the next two years, the emphasis should shift more heavily to reading and writing. After being in the program for several years, students should be able to type short papers or presentations in the target language. With a Spanish immersion program, that timeline should be accelerated.

It Starts at the Top 

Even the most capable and well-intentioned administrators will find it extremely challenging to effectively support an immersion program and its teachers unless they have immersion teaching experience themselves. An administrative team that is knowledgeable about and experienced in immersion is imperative to establishing a clear vision, organizational goals, and an appropriate model structure for an immersion program. In addition, an immersion school should ideally have at least one administrator who speaks each of the target languages. The more administrators know about immersion and the target languages, the better equipped they will be to support their school's immersion program.

Immersion is a unique, non-traditional approach to teaching a language so it must be modeled, even for more experienced teachers, if they have not taught in an immersion setting before. It is essential to the success of the program that immersion teachers "buy in" to the immersion philosophy in general and to their school's model specifically. It is also important to note that immersion teachers must have a native proficiency in the target language, which means that many, but not all, were born and raised in another country.

For teachers from outside the United States, training and professional development should address any cultural and language differences. The basic notion of maintaining a "nurturing environment" in the classroom, widely embraced in the United States, is a foreign concept in many other countries around the world. It is imperative that administrators build the school culture, model best practices, and coach new teachers.

Making partnerships is critical to maintaining pipelines of new teachers. Schools with immersion programs would do well to establish a relationship with one or more area colleges. The colleges can send their bilingual education students to be interns at the immersion school, establishing a mutually beneficial pipeline of qualified student teachers who will then become candidates for full-time teaching positions after they graduate. 

No "Magic Pill"

The success of an immersion program also depends on supportive and understanding parents. While immersion is a highly effective approach, it is not a "magic pill" and its results will not come overnight. Parents should be prepared to commit to keeping their child in an immersion program for up to five years. For its part, the school must communicate clearly with parents, and provide them with realistic expectations of the program and their child.

The result of an effective immersion program will be a child who is not only proficient in a second language, but who is also well-rounded, culturally aware, and a creative, flexible, and critical thinker. Those attributes will help them succeed wherever life may take them in the future. Immersion education is a journey that requires the commitment of administrators, teachers, students, and parents alike, but it is one that is well worth taking.

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.  

Image courtesy of and used with permission of Hudson Way Immersion School.

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