If you’re considering an immersion school, you’re one step closer to offering your child the opportunity to become a multilingual, global citizen. Because an immersion education is a growing trend there may be several programs to choose from. How do you know which one will be the best fit for your child? Here’s what to ask when considering an immersion school.
An immersion program makes sense for parents committed to the multi-year process needed to develop bilingualism, biliteracy and bi-cognition in children. Once students are on the immersion path, the environment must be maintained— “use it or lose it.” There’s a strong foundation developed after 7-9 years in an immersion school, making it easier to maintain or regain the language after leaving an immersion environment.
Immersion programs aimed at developing students with high language proficiency levels should begin teaching students as early as possible and continue through as many grades as possible. The early preschool years are the best time to begin second language acquisition and development since the brain is naturally predisposed to acquire new languages. It’s not too late to begin immersion in elementary grades as neurolinguists believe that the critical window for language learning is from birth through ages 12 or 13. Programs that enable the student to continue through elementary and even middle school ensure that the investment will achieve the desired result.
Research shows that the more intensive the exposure to the second (sometimes referred to as target) language, the higher the expected language proficiency outcome and the greater the cognitive benefit. Programs will refer to themselves as 90/10 models or 50/50 models which describe the percentage of the instructional day spent in the target language and in English.
One concern parents have is that with all the time spent in the target language their children won’t learn what they need to know to be on par with monolinguals, and that their English language skills will be at a disadvantage. But research shows the opposite to be true! A Rand study of more than 27,000 students in Portland, Oregon, one of the country’s largest immersion school districts, found the English level of middle school immersion students to be almost a full year ahead of their peers. Time spent in an immersion program actually improves the child's ability to learn other languages (like English) too!
A key quality of an immersion teacher should be that he or she is educable in immersion methodology. This is best demonstrated by holding Bachelor's or Master's degrees in Education from US colleges and universities.
The teachers are typically fluent, native speakers of the target language, and may have prior experience with the age group they are teaching and exhibit a passion and commitment to the teaching and learning process.
A quality immersion program is dependent on the strength of the teachers, which is dependent on the strength of the educational leadership. Immersion leaders should ideally:
• Have extensive prior experience in immersion, as a teacher and an administrator
• Be proficient in the target language
• Be committed to continual training and development.
• Observe, mentor, coach and support immersion teachers. Teaching content in a second language is challenging and developing those skills comes with feedback, coaching and patience.
The immersion school should be measuring its results. One way to measure academic outcomes is by using a standardized assessment, such as PARCC or ERB, which can compare individual student achievement to a national norm.
These assessments, administered in English typically in grade 3 and beyond, are assessments of English language arts and math skills. Nationwide, students in immersion schools outperform students in monolingual schools across all socioeconomics levels.
In a Spanish or Mandarin immersion program, there is usually additional testing done to assess listening comprehension and language arts literacy skills in the target language. Now with more immersion programs in existence, there are also norms to compare student proficiency in the language with other immersion programs nationwide. Factors that can impact the outcome include the quality of the design of the program relative to the characteristics of the students, the curriculum, student to teacher ratio, and whether teachers are continuously assessing and differentiating instruction to benefit each individual student.
Most families of students in immersion schools don’t speak the target language at home. Newsletters are helpful so that parents understand what’s being taught. Schools often promote cultural understanding through celebrations of important holidays, such as Chinese New Year, or Three Kings Day in the Latino culture.
Some schools develop summer immersion experiences abroad to enable students to use the language where it’s spoken as the mother tongue. Seeing your child interact with native speakers is a truly exciting moment — one that stays with you and makes all the effort worthwhile.