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Immersion Curriculum and Literacy

(powerofforever/istockphoto)

(powerofforever/istockphoto)

by Myriam Met

Immersion instruction differs from other types of language learning because students are learning multiple subjects in the target language. In a Chinese immersion setting, students will learn content through Chinese, and learn Chinese as they learn content. Balancing these two primary goals of immersion is an important consideration when planning, implementing, and growing an immersion program.

Two sets of curricula will drive what happens in classrooms each day: subject matter (content) curricula and the Chinese language and literacy curriculum. In both cases, decisions about what students should achieve derive from national and/or state standards.

For almost two decades, states and school districts have been guided by national standards in almost every discipline. While national standards have been a powerful point of reference in shaping curriculum content, adherence to national standards has been voluntary. In contrast, many states have developed mandatory standards that closely parallel some, if not all, of the national voluntary standards. State standards set expectations for what all students in that state must know and be able to do. These standards are the basis for state-level assessments that are administered at specified grade levels across the state. Schools and school districts, in turn, have used both the voluntary national standards and mandated state standards as the basis for curriculum documents that spell out what students should learn. Curriculum, therefore, helps teachers know what to teach.

In the past, districts and schools varied their approaches to a specific subject’s syllabus at a given grade level. For example, a science unit on plants might be found in third grade in one school district and at fourth grade in another. Mathematics topics such as number sense, multiplication, and division might be taught at the same grade level in two schools, but the level of expectation and the timing might differ. These variances made it difficult for immersion teachers to collaborate and share materials for content area instruction. In recent years, however, almost all states have chosen to participate in a national education initiative that will bring far greater consistency across states, districts, and schools. This new “common core” of content, in turn, will make it more likely that immersion programs will become more consistent, so that students in different locations will achieve similar proficiency levels. Hopefully, these consistencies will facilitate the sharing of Chinese immersion resource materials and instructional approaches.

Content Learning in Chinese Immersion Programs

District- and school-level curricula determine what students need to learn in content areas. The curriculum for content-area instruction is usually not developed by individual teachers, even when content is taught through the medium of a new language, such as Chinese. Immersion students are expected to study the same content-area curriculum and reach the same level of proficiency as do students who are not in an immersion program.

Program designers determine how much time will be spent learning content in English and how much time will be spent in Chinese. In most Chinese immersion programs in the United States, some subjects are taught in English and others in Chinese, although these subjects may vary by grade level. In some programs, program designers have structured the schedule so that all subjects are taught in both languages. Decisions on which subjects should be taught in which language might include consideration of the following questions.

  • Which subjects at a particular grade level are most likely to be accessible to students given their current level of Chinese proficiency?
  • Which subjects at a particular grade level present language-rich opportunities for student to develop their oral proficiency in Chinese?
  • How heavily does a content area depend on literacy? Which subjects are most suitable for students’ level of Chinese literacy, so that they learn content-area material at or above expectations? How well does a content area allow for students to improve their Chinese literacy?
  • How will the program ensure that students are prepared to deal with academic terminology in English as well as in Chinese so that they are able to demonstrate content-area performance? They will also need to segue to instruction in these subjects taught in English in later grades.
  • Are there available resources (teachers, print and non-print instructional materials) to ensure high-quality instruction in these subjects?

Chinese Language and Literacy Curricula

Like the curricula for other subjects, Chinese language and literacy curricula are guided by national and state standards. However, it is unlikely that a curriculum already exists in the school or district that specifically determines what teachers should teach and what students should learn. In fact, many veteran immersion programs in Chinese, as well as in French and Spanish, are just beginning to consider the development of a curriculum for Chinese language and literacy.

In past decades of immersion instruction in the United States, educators simply used the second language while teaching school content, believing that students would absorb the new language. This was, indeed, successful. However, over time immersion teachers discovered that while students could readily understand lessons and express themselves in their second language, they were not accurate speakers or writers. The ways in which they phrased ideas weren’t completely fluent; they didn’t communicate as smoothly as native speakers. Immersion educators began to search for ways to improve their model—which was already producing higher levels of proficiency than any other form of foreign language teaching in U.S. schools.

Added to the goals of enhancing current practices in immersion education are the challenges unique to languages that do not use the Roman alphabet as a writing system. With the rapid and recent growth of Chinese immersion programs have come questions about literacy.

  • How well should students read and write Chinese?
  • How do we set reasonable targets for student literacy within the amount of time in the school day allocated to Chinese?
  • What strategies will help English speakers become literate in Chinese?
  • How well do the strategies used for teaching English-language literacy in American schools adapt to teaching literacy in Chinese?
  • Which aspects of literacy development can we expect to transfer from Chinese to English and vice versa?

The Interaction of Language, Literacy, and Other Academic Subjects

In immersion, academic content is taught to students in their new language, using the same standards and expectations that are used in non-immersion classrooms. Students need to be as proficient as possible in their second language because as they progress through the grades, the content they learn becomes increasingly dependent on language. Students are expected to understand explanations, participate in discussions, explore ideas, and do all this both orally and in writing.

Chinese immersion educators must pay careful attention to developing their students’ skills to meet the same high levels as their non-immersion peers. Once students have learned to read, they will use that skill constantly in all subject areas. Reading is, of course, a key way to develop any language. Research shows that how much and how widely students read significantly impacts their vocabulary and grammar. Reading is critical for immersion students because it involves two of the program’s most important goals: content learning and language learning. The more language students know, the more easily they can acquire and retain content knowledge.

Literacy involves not just reading, but also writing. Students are expected to use writing in academic contexts. They write to demonstrate what they have learned and write to help themselves remember (taking notes, making outlines). Students write to clarify their thinking—in fact, some researchers suggest that the act of writing itself is thinking.

Developing a Chinese Language and Literacy Curriculum

Currently, most Chinese immersion programs begin in kindergarten or first grade. In their initial years, students learn the rudiments of language at these grade levels. Most of the language they will learn will be embedded in the daily life of the classroom and curriculum content. Students will learn to use Chinese during the routines and lessons in kindergarten or first grade. They will learn to identify themselves (name, age, grade, boy/girl), name their family members, use numbers and colors for math and other classroom tasks, use the calendar, and so on. In these early years, the language and other content that students learn are almost one and the same. Most new programs specify the characters young learners will master (both reading and writing).

New programs are fortunate that at this point, a written curriculum is not an urgent priority. (Although of course, educators will try to ensure that all aspects of the program are well grounded and operating effectively.) New teachers are busy getting to know their students, understanding their work as immersion teachers, learning the local district curriculum, and mastering the local school procedures.

As programs grow beyond their first or second year, the need for a language/literacy curriculum will likely manifest itself, as the curriculum should guide the work of teaching and learning Chinese. For example, each teacher will likely to want to know:

  • What oral language should I expect my students to know and be able to use when they come to me? When they advance from my grade, which oral language will they use?
  • What content terminology do my students need to learn for each content unit I teach? Should students be accountable for every technical term (e.g., larva, pupa, chrysalis) or just high-frequency vocabulary they may encounter in other contexts (e.g., change, caterpillar, butterfly)?
  • Should students be able to read and write all the vocabulary they know orally?
  • Which characters should students know? When should I teach pinyin and how well should my students know it? What is the role of pinyin in my classroom?
  • What kinds of texts should my students be able to read for comprehension? Are there texts/textbooks that I am expected to use? If there are none, what should I use for literacy instruction?
  • How do I set priorities among the literacy skills of making meaning from texts; recognizing and pronouncing characters; producing characters in writing; and selecting the correct character from a computer display when students have input pinyin? •

At this point, it is important to consider which options for Chinese curriculum/literacy are most appropriate. Options might include:

  • Develop a Chinese language/literacy curriculum that aligns with the local context and needs.
  • Coordinate with other schools and districts with similar needs to pool resources and to build a team of curriculum developers with multiple teachers at each grade level.
  • Borrow or download an existing Chinese curriculum from another program, then adapt it as needed.

Improving Language and Literacy Outcomes in Chinese Immersion

Recently, immersion educators have found that a combination of strategies results in higher levels of student performance in the immersion language. Their approach is a backward design: setting goals and expectations, determining what will be the evidence that students have met expectations, and then designing instruction to ensure that students can meet the stated learning outcomes.

Immersion programs focused on developing language and literacy curricula carry out some or all of the following steps:

  • Setting clearly defined performance targets that align with commonly used metrics at specified grade levels
  • For each grade level, describing students’ fluency levels in observable and measurable terms and aligning these “can do” statements with the proficiency targets
  • Developing a language and literacy curriculum that specifies the language/literacy tools students will learn in order to show that they “can do” what is expected at their grade level
  • Showing how these elements of language and literacy (vocabulary, grammar structures, language functions, characters, etc.) will be taught within each content unit taught in Chinese or in a separate language/ literacy lesson
  • Assessing students both formally and informally to make sure students are progressing toward the stated expectations