Calibrating Content and Language in the Immersion Classroom
Immersion is based upon the premise that learning content through a new language builds proficiency in both the content and language. Yet, whatever the model (ranging from 80 to 50% of instruction in the target language), the reality is that teachers must carefully calibrate what they teach in order to realize these two goals.
“Why? Because we have to teach not just the language, we also have to teach the content,” asserts Pat Wen-Tsui Lo, a Resource Specialist of the New York State Statewide Language Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network (Language RBERN) at New York University. “That is our balancing act. Math, social studies, and science on one hand, and Chinese language arts on the other.”
Lo notes that “language arts” goes beyond vocabulary, characters, and grammar. It encompasses structuring main ideas, supporting details and sequencing, as well as manipulating rhythm and rhyme. When designing immersion lesson plans, Lo advises teachers to follow backward design, but suggests they weigh content and language separately throughout the process.
To begin, teachers should refer to the standards relevant to their class and school (which may be their state’s standards, the Common Core State Standards, or those set by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) as they draft content and language (including reading, writing, and speaking) objectives. Next, they can determine what assessments will measure student achievement, and then design daily lesson plans and identify vocabulary.
At this stage, Lo recommends that teachers group vocabulary into three tiers. The base is comprised of frequently used and encountered words and patterns, and significant effort should be marshaled to help students master these. General academic words form the second tier, and students should recognize and be able to use these. Domain-specific and rarely used words occupy the highest tier, and it is sufficient that students become somewhat acquainted with these.
Using content as an anchor for literacy development is another strategy. “We need students to use language to demonstrate they have learned what they are supposed to learn,” explains Ziqian Yu, a first-grade Chinese immersion teacher at Hilton Head Elementary School in South Carolina.
Yu meticulously organizes her content and language objectives, as seen in her science unit on the life cycle of plants. According to the South Carolina standards, students will demonstrate an understanding of the special characteristics and needs of plants that allow them to survive in distinct environments. As she develops assessments, Yu connects these to speaking, listening, reading, and writing objectives. Students orally name the parts of the plant, narrate the life cycle from memory, and describe colors and shapes. They listen to and understand the teacher’s explanation of content, and also follow directions for activities. In reading, they identify characters and interpret a short story; and, in writing, they label various parts of plants and inscribe captions on a series of illustrations.
Yu’s former colleague at Hilton Head, Eva Jing Li, (who is now teaching at the Inner Mongolia University for Nationalities) followed a similar approach in her third-grade science unit on force and motion. Like Lo, Li tiered vocabulary. Within tier one and tier two groups, she allocated time to teach radicals, for instance exploring content-related characters that share 手 (shǒu / hand) radicals: 推 (tuī / push), 拉 (lā / pull), 扔 (rēng / throw). She devised chants with antonyms: fast and slow, left and right, push and pull. Using dictation, she gradually increased the complexity of sentences, helping students internalize patterns, so that eventually they were able to integrate these into written projects and oral language.
Another expectation of immersion is that students become familiar with Chinese culture. How can teachers weave this in as well? Lo says the key is to “embed culture whenever we teach.”
Li exploits this at every opportunity. She selects illustrations and examples that feature historical and contemporary aspects of Chinese culture, explaining force through 拔河 (báhé / Chinese tug of war) and tai chi, or by rolling out dumpling skins and pinching them shut. When learning about mass, students read a story about an elephant received as a gift by the third century ruler, Cao Cao, whose ministers puzzled over how to weigh the enormous animal. Finally, Cao’s own precocious son, Cao Chong, contrived an ingenious approach: Lead the elephant onto a boat and mark the water line. Remove the pachyderm and use rocks to sink the boat to the marked level. Weigh the rocks in succession and calculate the mass.
Throughout the story, Li points out literary elements—the use of similes, setting, main idea and details, and the sequencing of the procedure. Students retell and rewrite parts of the story, and formulate their own ideas for solving the problem. (Substituting pandas for rocks is a popular suggestion.)
“Culture, content, and language,” intones Lo. “Put them together whenever possible.” The trick is to maintain a fine balance. Perhaps Cao Chong’s scheme for weighing the elephant is applicable for immersion teachers: When facing a colossal task, carefully and methodically break it down into manageable segments.