Why Immersion May Be the Key to Foreign Language Learning

9 Ways to Bring Immersion Learning to Your School By Samantha Cleaver The research is clear: Immersion programs, in which[…]Continue Reading

9 Ways to Bring Immersion Learning to Your School

By Samantha Cleaver

The research is clear: Immersion programs, in which students spend at least 50 percent of their time learning in a second language, work amazingly well in developing students’ fluency and skills. And even if your school does not have a full immersion program, you can make a difference for your students by doing some immersion work in your class.

For example, when students come to the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academies—held at sites across the United States and the world—many are barely able to introduce themselves in French, Spanish, or Chinese—much like any student new to a foreign language.

By the end of four short weeks, however, these middle and high school students have often made more progress than those in a traditional classroom year. They’re able to converse, watch television shows and read books in the new language, and are on their way to becoming proficient in a second language.

The key to the students’ success is the full immersion approach to language learning. Middlebury Language Academy instructors operate with the understanding that, in order to learn a language, students have to use it in a meaningful, real-world way. That means learning the language through culture, art and music with less emphasis on more common teaching methods like rote vocabulary memorization.

More and more schools are considering immersion as a way to develop students’ second language skills. Some K-12 programs are using their own curriculum, while others are implementing online and blended learning solutions such as those offered by Middlebury Interactive Languages, the world language education-technology company that hosts the Language Academy every summer.


Martha Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), sees a growth trend in language immersion programs. Currently, Delaware and Utah are leading the way with state-wide initiatives. The idea, says Tara Fortune, Ph.D., Immersion Project Coordinator at the University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, is that bilingual students will be better able to compete in the global marketplace.

What Is Immersion Language Learning?

Immersion programs, which include developmental bilingual and other dual language programs, are characterized by an instructional day that includes at least 50 percent spent in the non-English language. “We have been most successful in developing academic language and literacy in English and non-English when we provide a minimum of 50 percent support over a longer period of time,” says Fortune. Younger students spend the majority (80-90 percent) of their time in the non-English language, while older students may spend more time working in English.

Teachers use modeling, manipulatives, and explanations to teach students academic content in the target language. As students learn content, they also receive instruction on how to use the language in each subject. The ultimate goal is biliteracy: the idea that students can completely understand, speak, read, and write in both languages.

The Benefits of Immersion

In addition to the benefit of bilingualism, learning a second language activates different parts of the brain, says Abbott, and students who participate in language immersion programs get a cognitive boost. The advantages to providing kids with quality language immersion programs are labor intensive, says Fortune, but they also produce results. As students learn two languages, they develop advantages in their ability to break apart words, identify sounds, and listen. Bilinguals, says Fortune, also outperform monolinguals on tasks that require them to pause and make a decision between two options.

While there is a lag in initial student proficiency in school-based language programs, students do catch up. “The longer you have the immersion in the classroom,” says Abbott, “the greater the yield in proficiency should be in the performance of the kids.” Students generally meet academic targets by 3rd or 5th grades and many ultimately surpass the achievement of their peers.

girl working on a laptop

Getting Started: 9 Tricks From the Immersion Classroom

Even if your school has not fully committed to an immersion approach, say experts, there are techniques you can borrow to make your foreign language instruction more effective:

  1. Start with Stories
    Teachers at Weybridge Elementary in Middlebury, Vt., blend Middlebury Interactive Language’s online Spanish courses with direct instruction from a trained Spanish teacher. The curriculum incorporates fairy tales and culturally relevant stories that help kids connect with the language. All the activities are developed around one story, says Aline Germain-Rutherford, Ph.D., Chief Learning Officer for Middlebury Interactive Languages and Language Professor at Middlebury College, “so the student is exposed to the authenticity and vocabulary and patterns of language.” Culturally relevant myths, legends, and fables add richness and authenticity to instruction, and help kids create context for language.
  2. Keep it Task-Oriented
    Rather than having students work out of a text book, create and assign them tasks that will require them to figure out how to conjugate verbs, make singular nouns plural, and find the right vocabulary. When students are able to associate the meaning of words with context, says Germain-Rutherford, they’re able to retain those words faster. That’s why the focus on working with language in context, such as solving a problem or staging a presentation, is so important.
  3. Incorporate the Core
    The Common Core has a focus on cultural awareness and students’ ability to understand different perspectives. That’s where the cultural aspect of language comes into play. “There are aspects of language instruction that have to do with introducing students to other cultures and other ways of thinking,” says Christina Johnston, principal at Weybridge Elementary. The result of this aspect of the Middlebury Interactive’s program, for Weybridge students, is that they build an understanding that communication involves give-and-take. This reciprocity carries over into listening during class and playground disputes.
  4. Use the Language Standards
    In addition to academic standards, language standards (such as the WIDA or ACTFL standards) should be woven into language programs. Drawing from a variety of standards will help your program address all aspects of language use.
  5. Use Authentic Assessment
    With a language immersion program, you may not see immediate gains in test scores, so it’s important to provide an authentic assessment of students’ skills. In elementary school in particular, use a combination of tests and classwork to provide students and parents with an idea of what they know and are able to do.
  6. Allow Students to Grapple
    When students start learning their language, says Germain-Rutherford, there is an “aha!” moment when they realize that they can understand by using context, gestures, visual cues, and their own background knowledge to make meaning. That “aha!” moment doesn’t come without lots of struggle, however, so give your students time to slow down, grapple, and figure out how to use the language on their own.
  7. Incorporate Online Resources
    Online programs can help expand existing language programs through the incorporation of more immersive, authentic materials. Teachers in the South Burlington School District in Vermont use Middlebury Interactive’s digital language curriculum to supplement its high school language curriculum. Students strengthen listening and speaking abilities by participating in activities from pronouncing vocabulary to creating or rearranging sentences. “The content is excellent,” says Theresa Mazza-Anthony, curriculum area supervisor, “it’s timely and they have a lot of authentic material.” The benefit of online learning for students ranges from their working at their own pace to feeling comfortable taking risks when talking to the computer.
  8. Connect with Culture
    Through online videos and scenarios, Middlebury Interactive students “realize very quickly that language and culture go hand-in-hand,” says Germain-Rutherford. “This is very motivating for students.” For Weybridge students, who live in a community that does not have a large population of Spanish speakers, being able to learn Spanish in the cultural context provides them with an understanding they wouldn’t get anywhere else.
  9. Build Both Languages
    At Weybridge, content teachers work with the Spanish teacher to reinforce vocabulary across subjects. In Kindergarten, for example, students may practice counting in Spanish and English. The immediate goal is to have students build vocabulary and context in both languages; in the long term, the goal is for students to use their vocabulary to develop higher order thinking in Spanish. “We’re putting the building blocks in,” says Johnston, so that “students aren’t just naming things, but they can think through and converse in more complex ways.”