Equity & Diversity Opinion

Ten Lessons for Language-Immersion Programs

By Heather Singmaster — June 23, 2016 8 min read
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Language immersion programs are on the rise and are proving to be impactful—especially as a strategy for addressing issues of equity. Considered to be the most innovative way to teach students a language, teachers only use the target (second) language in the classroom to teach most, or all, curricular content. Among world language program offerings, immersion is producing the best results, especially among younger students.

Recently, Nancy Rhodes, Language Education Consultant, Center for Applied Linguistics, presented to the Chinese Early Language Immersion Network (CELIN) Leadership Forum on the lessons she learned through interviews with sixteen top immersion language specialists. Here I share these lessons as well as examples from immersion programs across the country.

1. Focus on good teachers and high-quality education.

If you don’t have highly qualified teachers, you won’t have a successful high-quality program. While this may be obvious, finding well-trained immersion teachers is a struggle—especially for Chinese language programs, which are relative new and rapidly expanding. Yu Ying Public Charter School in Washington, DC, built a partnership with the New York University School of Education, which began as a way to improve their literacy program. An added benefit of the partnership is that now they are able to tap into the pipeline of Mandarin teachers being produced through NYU. Even with that advantage, the school has a 1,000-student waiting list and cannot expand mainly due to the lack of teachers.

Jeffrey Bissell, Head of School, Chinese American International School in San Francisco, California, underscored that given this situation, schools need to be sure to allocate resources to “grow their own” first-class teachers through ongoing professional development. Many master teachers who were at the forefront of immersion many years ago are now beginning to retire. The field at large needs to harness those teachers to serve as role models and mentors to younger teachers.

One incentive for students to study a second language is the promise of increased job opportunities given the demand for bilingual workers. Bob Davis, Director of Chinese Learning Initiatives and Culture at the College Board, points out that teaching in immersion programs is a solid job option that should not be overlooked by immersion students. In this way, we can grow our own pipeline of teachers here in the United States.

2. Identify and clearly state intended outcomes from the beginning; and 3. Monitor language development through continual assessment. Schools and districts should identify what outcomes they want for their teachers as they create their programs. Helena Curtain, Associate Professor (Emerita), University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, points out that districts that fine-tune their end-of-year outcomes are able to increase student proficiency levels by at least one sub-level on the ACTFL proficiency scale. Schools should also identify the content and the cultural knowledge to be obtained at each level of instruction.

Intended outcomes also have implications for your mission and vision statement. Yinghua Academy in Minnesota is a public charter school, meaning they have the luxury of setting their own mission statement, which then drives everything that they do at the school.

Once goals and mission statements have been set, assessments throughout the year can help keep teachers on pace to achieve them. It is critical that assessment not be done in a vacuum, but rather, the results should be studied and used to target the areas where interventions are needed.

4. Harness the power of immersion.Many studies, like the one recently completed by RAND of immersion programs in Portland, Oregon, show how successful these programs can be. As a result, they are steadily growing across the country. Every district should provide students with this option. One rationale that has proven to be persuasive is the economic argument—parents, administrators, and community members see the importance of learning a language for career opportunities and economic growth.

In Minnetonka, Minnesota, Spanish and Chinese immersion offerings have stopped declining enrollment in the district. In fact, these programs are now attracting many students from outside of the district. The district was not able to invest anything additional in immersion, which has been a challenge. However, teachers are stepping up to be leaders and ensuring the success of the program.

5. Plan for K-16 articulation from the start.Mimi Met, former director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland, warns of the “bikini model” of immersion programs: many offerings in elementary and high school, but nothing in the middle years. Marty Abbott, Executive Director, ACTFL agrees that many programs are, “reaching a dead halt or (providing) a very uneven program in the middle school.”

Solutions are in the works, however. In Utah, the Flagship program at Brigham Young University, in collaboration with 22 other states, is creating a pathway that will allow students to continue to study in their target language through their undergrad years. They are using the AP world langauge exams as their starting point and back mapping for middle school students from there. For instance, following the AP model of using themes, 7th and 8th grade students can take courses in their target language as well as in culture and media. In high school, students will then take the AP exam in 9th or 10th grade. Upon passing, they can begin taking 3000 (300)-level college courses. A student passing the AP exam in 9th grade has the opportunity to earn enough credits to graduate from high school only two or three courses short of a minor in their second language.

In other districts, like Portland, Oregon, experiential travel opportunities are provided in middle and high school to help students maintain their interest and fluency level in the language. Portland Public Schools is now working with the University of Oregon and a committee of immersion high school students on the Bridging Project: a second blended course option that will take a game format.

6. Develop and maintain ongoing communication among stakeholders; and 7. Conduct ongoing advocacy efforts to garner and maintain public support. It is important to have broad support within the school and across the district in order to be viewed as an integral part of the overall curriculum. At Tarwater Elementary in Arizona, Principal Jeff Hensley, spoke to their efforts to get support. They choose a few students of varying levels (not just the best students) and film them each year to show how they are progressing. As they are still a new program, the district is working on an articulation plan and reaching out to the middle and high schools, which will eventually house the immersion students, to ensure that they are properly prepared.

But this outreach is also important for established programs. Culver City Unified School District in California, home of the first public immersion program in the country, is constantly educating parents, administrators, and other teachers on the immersion program and its results. It has now grown into a district level initiative. Seattle Public Schools, also undergoes continuous education of new school board members about the benefits of their program.

At the national level, CELIN is publishing profiles of high-quality programs to help spread best practices across the country as well as to gain support for early immersion programs.

8. Dispel common misperceptions about language learning. Within the immersion world, there are many myths and rumors floating around. I tried to dispel these for parents in a previous blog. Fred Genesee, Professor of Psychology, McGill University, spends much of his time dispelling myths including the myth that seat time determines proficiency. Much goes into determining proficiency and programs must analyze the inputs and the outputs. For instance, is the teacher only speaking the target language? According to ACTFL it is optimal for teachers to spend at least 90 percent of class time speaking in the target language.

9. Advocate for district and state language supervisors. To support the overall immersion system, it is critical to have someone advocating for, and serving as a cheerleader of immersion programs at the district and state levels. They help to develop and maintain programs—including through financial support. States with the most successful immersion programs, such as Delaware, North Carolina, and Utah, all have a world language or global education supervisor at the state level.

In Kentucky, schools with language immersion programs are being rated based on how many students reach a designated proficiency level. This push from the state can entice schools to focus more on language proficiency and less on seat time.

10. Remember that money matters. No one really needs to be told that money matters—budgeting issues have always placed constraints on programs. Immersion teachers are budgeted as regular classroom teachers, making them less likely to be cut—in contrast to part-time (FLES) programs, which are budgeted as a line item, often placing them first on the chopping block during times of austerity.

Funding is also a responsibility of the politicians—many of whom love to tout the success of immersion programs publicly, but then cut funding for these programs when budgets need to be cut.

I firmly believe that immersion programs are a way to achieve equity in schools across the country—especially in places with high English Language Learner populations. The study done in Portland, Oregon found that ELL students in immersion programs learn English faster and have “a statistically significant greater chance...(to) be exited out of ELL services, than those who are not,” says Michael Bacon, assistant director of dual-language programs.

And not only do immersion programs lead to higher literacy gains for all populations of students, but they also lead to global competence and an increased understanding of other cultures. This has never been more important than it is now as our country continues to grow more diverse.

Connect with Heather and Asia Society on Twitter.

Image: 2nd grade math lesson at Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School. Courtesy: Ann-Marie VanTassell Photography.

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