Successful Approaches to Immersion Teaching

Instructional Strategies

A woman stands at the chalkboard. (pengpeng/istockphoto)

by Chris Livaccari

Language immersion programs present a range of opportunities and challenges for practitioners. Many language teachers welcome the opportunity to create an immersive language environment in which their students are able to achieve high levels of proficiency and fluency in the target language, and to learn academic as well as everyday language. However, because immersion teachers are not just teaching language but also teaching other academic subjects, they have several extra issues to consider. In any immersion program, language and its partner subjects are equally important, and the most successful approaches balance them evenly.

In this way, successful immersion teaching is the pinnacle of good instruction. Its form of interdisciplinary learning exemplifies the possibilities of education in general. Immersion teachers start from the assumption that barriers between various subject areas are at some level artificial, and that engaging, dynamic, and effective instruction in all subject areas contains many of the same core elements. By their very nature, immersion programs demonstrate the interconnectedness of all knowledge and experience.

Immersion teachers must first clearly understand what content must be taught at each grade level. They need to be familiar with “comprehensible input,” which emphasizes that students should be exposed to new words and patterns in contexts that facilitate comprehension and assimilation. Teachers should consistently weave together familiar language with new words and information, so that students continually develop their language proficiency. In this way, language acquisition in an immersion program closely mimics the natural learning curve for a first language, in which a child is constantly prompted to assimilate new language and meaning from unfamiliar words and expressions. Immersion also includes more elements of discovery- and inquiry-based learning than do other kinds of instructional practices. Students must constantly and consistently decipher inferences and context clues.

Immersion programs come with a high standard that teachers must reliably meet. Language-immersion instruction consists of language and content lessons, including functional usage of the language, academic language, authentic language, and socioculturally correct language. Unlike a standard foreign-language classroom, the im¬mersion setting provides more opportunities to teach students colloquial versus academic language. Immersion techniques also introduce a language’s cultural and social contexts in a meaningful and memorable way. It is particularly important that immersion teachers connect classwork with real-life experiences. For example, students should learn when to say, “what’s up” and when to say, “it’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.” They should grasp when to say, “it’s freezing out here” and when to note, “today’s temperature is fifteen degrees below the average mean temperature for this time of year.” By applying a broad range of communication styles, instructors instill the expectation that students will use the language in real-life situations as well as in their studies.

The Top Five Immersion Teaching Skills

  1. The ability to use visuals, gestures, body language, expressions, modeling, and movement to complement verbal cues. For students to learn a new language in meaningful contexts, teachers must use every instructional strategy available to them, including the use of actual objects (realia), pictures, videos, and gestures to express meaning. This will allow students to develop comprehension without direct explanation.
  2. The ability to motivate students to stay in the target language. Students who are still new to Chinese should be encouraged to respond to teacher prompts and questions in English if they are not yet able to express themselves in Chinese. As students get older, however, they should be increasingly encouraged to use Chinese exclusively in all of the classes conducted in Chinese. As students progress toward higher levels of proficiency, they should also be discouraged from mixing the two languages, and urged to stay in one or the other language, as appropriate.
  3. The ability to ask open-ended questions. Effective teachers, no matter the subject or setting, steer clear of questions that elicit only “yes or no” answers. Instead, they challenge students’ thinking, nudging their higher-order cognitive skills and giving ample time to articulate each response. In immersion classrooms, it is especially important that teachers encourage students to give longer and more varied replies. For instance, they can ask students to expand upon or support their answers with examples or evidence. Following up in this way helps students practice a wide range of expressions and to keep incorporating fresh words and patterns into their productive repertoire.
  4. The ability to regularly assess students’ compre¬hension and skills development. Teachers need to monitor students’ understanding through questioning techniques and formative assessments. They should also be consistently pushing students to use new words and expressions, more complex language structures, and more culturally appropriate language in their interactions and responses. Teachers should encourage students to use more specific vocabulary, as opposed to generic expressions, as they continue to develop their skills.
  5. The ability to think strategically about the various types of student interactions and to vary them, promoting a dynamic learning environment. Teachers can mix the following types of interactions: teacher-students, student-student, whole group, and small groups. In small-group and project-based settings, teachers need to carefully evaluate the makeup of the various groups. Each student should work with various people in the class, but there should also be opportunities for long-term and ongoing student interactions.

Voices from the Field: Successful Immersion Teachers Identify Key Qualities and Competencies

Marty Chen, Chinese Dual Immersion Coordinator, Utah State Office of Education

Chen believes that the most important thing for immersion teachers to remember is that “they are not just language teachers, but also elementary teachers. . . . They need to be language teachers, classroom teachers, and also caregivers.” She finds that teachers’ overall challenge is that “kids do not have a target-language-rich environment after school” and so teachers need to incorporate “social language . . . not just content language.” She urges teachers to incorporate social language into their classes, exposing their students to as many varieties of language as possible, or else students will only learn academic language. For example, when performing an action in class, teachers should describe it every step of the way. Teachers can also think out loud, another way of including more casual language. This can be difficult, particularly since a teacher “cannot use language that students cannot understand . . . comprehensible, meaningful input is extremely important.”

Still, says Chen, “I don’t see a lot of challenges, I see a lot of accomplishment. . . . Kids who go through a Chinese immersion program learn to think, their survival skills are stronger, and they are forced to learn to figure things out on their own. . . . In this environment, kids don’t just receive things conveniently . . . and it’s very exciting when kids make their own meaning—it totally makes my day when students succeed and kids brainstorm new ideas.”

Enthusiasm is also essential: “Teachers also need to be excited about what the students are going to learn. Kids easily perceive your feelings, and they can tell if you love your job or not. If you are creating very surprising environments for students and keep kids guessing all the time, then you won’t have many classroom management issues. Also, back to the caregiver issue, if the students know that you care, they will want to perform for you. . . . You need to build up enthusiasm. If I am going to teach something on Thursday or Friday, I need to start building up anticipation on Monday or Tuesday. I want the kids to think on their own and be excited about what they are going to learn and what’s coming up.”

Yin Shen, Curriculum Specialist, Woodstock Elementary School, Portland Public Schools

Shen explains that she sees classroom management as far more than keeping students well behaved. It’s “not just a set of rules and regulations, but really the test of whether or not a teacher can plan engaging, practical activities that keep students engaged,” she says.

In order for Chinese language immersion teachers in American schools to understand American practices, careful observation is crucial. “The expectations in a Chinese educational setting are so different,” stresses Shen. “It’s important to get into an American classroom to watch the interactions between teacher and student. Chinese teachers have their strong points and US teachers have theirs.” She recommends that teachers carefully and critically “observe both systems and be aware of both sides’ strengths and weaknesses. Classroom management should never be separated from teaching and instruction—they are interwoven.”

“Immersion teachers need to talk a lot, and talk about everything. Every little action needs to be carefully thought through and very intentional. You need to keep the language going, and must keep talking about everything—even little things—so that the students will be able to learn naturally,” Shen emphasizes. “If you do this, students will learn so much. Their general skill level will improve a lot, compared with other students. Immersion students become more capable and work harder, and the work they produce is of a higher quality. . . . This is why parents in immersion setting are happy, because their students can learn so much. . . . It feels so rewarding as a teacher when kids come knowing nothing of the language and after a year know so much.”

Shen sees the benefit in a give-and-take teaching experience. “The teacher-student relationship is like that of a director and actors,” she says. “As the director, it’s my job to make them shine and a good director can produce a high-quality show. But the shining stars are the students, not the director. . . . If you get close to the students, they won’t feel any gap. In immersion classrooms, you need to use songs, stories, dances, all these things. It’s sunshine all day long in my class. . . . Immersion teaching keeps you young, energetic, and happy, and the time goes very fast.”

Pearl You, Chinese Program Coordinator, Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School

“The biggest difference between immersion teachers and language teachers is that immersion teachers need to focus on content teaching. Immersion teachers spend a lot of time with students and they need to do everything possible to make meaning comprehensible for students,” reports You. “Immersion teachers just spend a lot more time with their students. . . . They need to use manipulatives, body language, and visuals all the time.” Staying flexible will help keep students’ confidence up, while for teachers, You says, “every day is a new day.”

Hsiuwen Hsieh, Director of Education, and Aiping Dong, Chinese Language Immersion Teacher, Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School

Hsieh and Dong recognize that immersion teachers need to fully grasp the fundamentals of both first- and second-language acquisition. They also underscore the need for empathy, for teachers to put themselves “into their students’ shoes and consider how you would feel if you were in their position,” to understand “what kind of stress students go through and the best ways to help them cope.”

For young students, the Chinese language immersion itself is not as overwhelming as other school experiences. “They are more overwhelmed being separated from their parents than learning a new language,” Hsieh and Dong believe. Their students “are not just learning two languages—they are learning a tolerance and respect for other cultures and other points of view.” Since learning in two languages adds complexity, “success in an immersion program requires a lot of struc¬ture, a lot of discipline, and a lot of hard work.”

Hsieh and Dong have found that most effective general teaching strategies can be applied to the immersion setting, so different kinds of teachers can learn from each other: “All the tricks that English teachers use can be used in the Chinese immersion classroom.” Effective teachers who use “thematic units and teach in learning centers” won’t have as much trouble making the transition to an immersion program. It’s about being flexible, creative, and getting the students excited about making meaning in the classroom.

Norman Cao and Yiling Han, Chinese Language Immersion Teachers, Global Village Academy

Cao and Han believe that “the key thing in immersion teaching is to be more open-minded, and to keep learning constantly. It’s up to the teachers to constantly make connections to themselves and to what they’ve learned before, and connections between English and Chinese.” Cao notes in particular that students who go through this type of program have “a tonal awareness and ability to speak with native-like intonation,” as well as “the ability to comprehend meaning even without knowing specific words in a sentence.” He tells the story of one little girl who came into the program with no Chinese background at all, while her classmates had already studied for one year. She spent the first three weeks of school crying all the time. However, she came up to speed within a couple of months—now she is a top student in the class and “the complex sentences she can make are just amazing!”

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