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Total Immersion in English Has Its Place

The debate over the most effective way to teach English to non-native speakers is not over ("The Spanish Lesson I Never Got at School," The New York Times, Nov. 15).  With more than 200 languages spoken in California, the passage of Proposition 58, which expands bilingual education in public schools, is a case in point.

In 1998, voters there approved a proposition that required English-only instruction in the belief it would speed up the time it took for students to learn English. Aside from research calling into question that approach, many said it was also a form of "cultural erasure." As a result, it was seen as cruel and demeaning.

It would be presumptuous for me to comment about the latter criticism because I'm not Hispanic.  But I can say that strictly in terms of sound pedagogy, total immersion is hardly the villain it is made out to be.  In fact, it is solidly in line with the principle of appropriate practice. If the objective is to have students speak English, then they should be given abundant practice in doing just that. 

I'm bilingual, thanks to the three years of Spanish that I had in high school.  From the first day, the teacher spoke only in Spanish.  She knew that we would understand little - if anything.  But the sound and accent of her voice were immediately embedded in our ears. The textbook, El Camino Real, contained simple lessons that reinforced her words. She assigned homework every night, and the next day we were required to go to the blackboard, where we answered her basic questions.  Only Spanish was permitted during the three years in her class.

My point is that this strategy worked extraordinarily well, not only for me but for other students as well. I realize that it may have to be altered to meet the different needs and interests of students today.  But I wouldn't be so fast to demonize total immersion.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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