Curriculum Opinion

Nine Features of High-Quality Language Immersion Programs

By Shuhan Wang & Joy Kreeft Peyton — May 31, 2017 10 min read
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Language immersion education is a relatively new field, so how can educators know if a program is effective? Shuhan Wang and Joy Kreeft Peyton, of Asia Society’s Chinese Early Language and Immersion Network (CELIN), consider this question and offer a checklist tool to allow program staff to engage in review of their programs and make plans for program improvement.

Program Quality is Critical to Learner Success

When language immersion was first introduced to the United States in 1971, there were only 3 programs. By 2011, that number had grown to 448 in 22 languages. And now in 2017, there are more than 230 Chinese dual language and immersion programs in the United States (up from 61 programs in 2011).

Such rapid growth has created an urgent need for guidelines to help program staff build effective programs and identify areas for continuous program improvement. Language immersion requires a multi-year, if not fully K-12, commitment coupled with complicated program design and staffing arrangements. The end goal is to prepare students who will possess high language skills and cross-cultural competency in order to advance in academic settings, the workplace, and the world. As many students are depending on these programs for their elementary education, it is critical that they succeed.

Two Useful Tools for Review of Language Immersion Programs

One important publication that guides much of the work in language immersion education is the Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education, which lists seven critical strands in dual language programs.

Because Chinese is vastly different from Indo-European languages, many Chinese-specific issues and considerations need to be addressed, including curriculum, instruction, assessment, and staffing. We have worked with experts and practitioners in the field of Chinese language education to develop the forthcoming CELIN Checklist of Key Features of Effective Chinese Language Programs. The checklist provides a matrix of nine key features for teachers, administrators, and community stakeholders to review their programs and develop an improvement plan to move their program to the next level. Although the checklist was developed for use in Chinese language immersion programs, it can be used for different world languages or other types of Chinese language programs in grades K-12. We examine these nine features below.

Nine Features of Program Quality

1. Program Design, Funding, Leadership, and Accountability

It is important that a language program have a clearly articulated vision, goals, and overall plan. The plan must be built on research and informed by best practices that are appropriate to the local and state contexts. However, it takes time and effort to craft a vision, goals, and plans that are realistic, achievable, and measureable, says Sharon Hwang, the founder and CEO of HudsonWay Immersion programs, which offer Mandarin and Spanish immersion for children in preschool to grade 5 in New York City and Summit, New Jersey. Sustainable funding support, a governing board, and a system of accountability that oversees program implementation, review, and improvement are critical. The biggest challenge comes from finding program administrators who are not just knowledgeable about immersion education and the language(s) and culture being taught, but who can also work collaboratively with teachers and staff.

2. Curriculum

Numerous dual language and immersion programs around the country have shared how their programs design curriculum that integrates the teaching of a second language, English, math, science, social studies, and other subject matters. These program leaders strongly agree that the curriculum must:

  1. Clearly articulate the goal of developing bilingual, biliterate, bicultural learners; be aligned with appropriate national, state, and local standards
  2. Establish language learning targets that are based on a nationally or internationally accepted language proficiency scale
  3. Be articulated and coherent across grades, language proficiency levels, and content areas
  4. Be organized by themes that are relevant to the language, content, and culture being taught
  5. Describe the role and allotment of language and literacy development in the languages being learned (e.g., Chinese and English)
  6. Be reviewed, revised, and updated regularly, with involvement of all instructional staff
  7. Be understood by school staff and parents of students in the program

3. Assessment

Kyle Ennis from Advant Assessment shares that programs need to establish clearly articulated learning objectives, expected outcomes of learning, and the paths that are available to students for achieving these outcomes. He differentiates formative and summative assessments, and he advises that programs should select the assessment tools that are appropriate for the content areas taught and students’ age and proficiency in the language. Finally, he encourages programs to use data from the assessments to place students appropriately and to guide instruction and program improvements. Assessment goals, instruments used, and expected outcomes must be clearly communicated to parents and other stakeholders.

4. Instruction

Effective immersion strategies must be employed when instructing students, who usually begin knowing nothing in the target language. Program designers must be intentional in making decisions regarding the languages of instruction (e.g., French and English), in which subject, for how much time, and for what expected outcomes.

Researchers and practitioners in the field agree that instructional approaches and activities should be student centered, engaging, meaningful, contextualized, and aimed at developing students’ language proficiency, literacy, media skills, cultural knowledge, content knowledge, and global competence. Age- and language-level-appropriate and authentic materials must be selected and used properly. Most important is the fact that an immersion classroom must be warm and safe and embrace the multilingual and multicultural diversity of students and the local community.

There are numerous effective research-based language immersion techniques and best practices available, including from Asia Society’s CELIN, the Center for Advanced Language Acquisition, and the Center for Applied Linguistics

5. Staff Quality and Professional Development

Excellent immersion teachers are hard to come by. If they are located and working in a program, they can be snatched away by other programs. First of all, teacher qualifications (including content knowledge, pedagogical skills, high language proficiency in English and in the target language, and certifications in elementary and language education) are stringent. At Yinghua Academy in Minneapolis, CEO and Headmaster Sue Berg says that support for improving teachers’ quality and gaining credentials are available throughout their professional lives. The school uses bilingual guidance counselors; library resource staff; and teachers of art, music, and PE to the extent possible. The school also has put in place regular meeting times for professional development and for discussing instructional approaches, student learning, and any issues that arise.

Jeff Bissell, Headmaster of Chinese American International School in San Francisco, also emphasizes the critical need for nurturing Chinese classroom teachers to become teacher leaders, coaches, and coordinators or administrators, who will take on more leadership responsibilities. As the number of Chinese and other foreign language immersion programs has grown, there is a tremendous need for administrators who are bilingual and well versed in immersion philosophy and pedagogy.

6. Materials, Resources, and Technology Tools

Materials that are rich in language, content, and culture and are appropriate and engaging for students at all of the age and proficiency levels taught are so hard to find that Washington Yuying Public Charter School in Washington, DC, decided to develop and publish their own, in addition to translating them from English to Chinese. In fact, almost all language immersion schools, other than Spanish, French, and German, have taken on the task of translating or making their own materials and resources in the target language. Although there are digital resources and technological tools to use, teachers need to have a one-stop clearinghouse to go to or to receive professional development on how to use them effectively in their classrooms.

7. Program Articulation

For parents who are enrolling their five-year-olds in a kindergarten class, it is important to learn ahead of time where their children will go for middle and high school in order to continue their learning of the target language. A carefully articulated program, with multiple entry and exit points and pathways, allows these students to develop high proficiency and literacy in both English and the target language and be prepared for career or advanced study in college. Although many immersion schools are young, it is important to take the backward design approach to develop a plan with strongly articulated programs. In addition, the program needs to consider opportunities for students to learn in digital spaces and with digital tools, in study abroad programs, or in summer camps or internship programs, especially for students in higher grades.

8. Family Support and Community Engagement

Families are the backbone of any language immersion program. It is extremely important to enlist and provide rigorous training for parents to become “home teachers,” according to Eddie Park, former principal of Barnard Asian Language Academy in San Diego, who is now establishing a Mandarin Immersion program at Adobe Bluffs Elementary School in Poway Unified School District in California.

It is important to emphasize to parents that their job is not to teach their children the target language, but they can support content learning in English, English Language Arts, and other content areas. Parents and community members need to understand the program’s vision, mission, and goals as well as expectations for language and literacy development and school achievement. Parents must receive specific training and ongoing support to know what they can do to support their children’s learning in the program and at home. In addition, it is important to create links to government organizations, the heritage language community, the broader community, businesses, and education entities and engage in collaborative projects to leverage resources.

9. External Networking and Partnerships

Program staff can save a lot of time searching for needed resources by forming collaborations with partners, both within and outside the local education community. There are opportunities to become part of district, state, and regional consortia. National organizations such as the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) and federal projects such as the Language Flagships and STARTALK are strong potential partners. It is also important and feasible to make global connections with Confucius Institutes and embassies of various countries; and with private sectors and foundations. Any good program will make use of a user-friendly and information-rich website, social media, and numerous outreach efforts.

It Takes a Village to Build an Excellent Language Immersion Program

As more language immersion programs are in place, stakeholders in this endeavor now have a tool to collaboratively conduct self-analysis and to design program improvement plans. The checklist is designed to help develop strategies and resources for world language programs, whatever their context. The process of going through the checklist and deeply reflecting on the evidence in relation to all nine key features is a rigorous process. However, it can enable communities to engage in well-focused and thought-provoking dialogues about their programs.

Follow Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image created with Pablo.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning 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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