By Maria Campana, Head Spanish Teacher for Grades 4-5
Over the past few years at HWIS we have had several students join our Spanish immersion program in grades 2-4 with little to no prior Spanish background. I have seen positive social-emotional benefit not only to the student who joins the class, but also to the rest of the class.
A student with little or no background joining an immersion classroom may understandably feel anxious and scared. I have found that good communication and partnership between the teacher, parent, and administrator with the best interests of the student at heart are critical. I work to develop trust with my student, working one on one outside the classroom in addition to time during the class. The advice I usually give is that “the dictionary will be your best friend.” This gives the student the ownership for her learning and sets the expectation that it will take effort.
Two years ago, Cameron joined my class as a 4th grader. He did not speak Spanish at home. He joined because he wasn’t challenged in his public school and his parents wanted to see him excited about learning. I partnered him with another student, Leo in the class as a “buddy” and noticed that students began to support him, and none made fun of him. “I have your back” is what Leo would say. Occasionally they would whisper the meaning of the word I used in English to help him comprehend parts of the lesson. In speaking to a Mandarin teacher in NY who also had a 3rd grader new to Mandarin join her class, she found the same classroom dynamic occur – students had developed emotional empathy knowing what it feels like not to understand, and they found ways to express their support.
Typically, it takes at least 3 months for students to understand about 50% of what I am saying. I use total physical response, realia, and repair/reteach which is a technique of correcting what is said incorrectly and reteaching that aspect. After 6 months, students typically understand about 75% of what is being said, and by the end of the year – a surprising 90%. During this process I see a dramatic change occurring in my students. In fact, after 50% of the content is being understood, the student relaxes, gains more confidence, which in turn fuels their trust in themselves, and desire to learn more. I see a shift in their outlook that translates more broadly. They learn not to fear challenge. That’s a great lesson regardless of what language you speak.