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Language Teaching & Learning

What is full language immersion?

“Full immersion” is a way of teaching language by completely immersing the learner in that language for most of each day. The learner will hear only the target language for both regular conversation (e.g. talk about getting dressed and eating meals), as well as subject matter learning (e.g. math and science). A significant body of research shows that with language immersion, young children learn their second language the same way they learned their first – by listening, absorbing, imitating, and then trying it out. The more time a child spends hearing and using the second language, the more fluent she will become. Full immersion, which is how ISP teaches, is in contrast to “partial immersion” programs where half the day is taught in English and students achieve a lower level of language proficiency.

What will the first days at ISP be like for my child if s/he doesn’t speak the language?

Our teachers have many years of classroom experience, and they love children. Knowing that the children will not understand the spoken language at first, the teachers use their warmth, familiar activities, and visual cues to help the children understand and feel at home. For example, the teacher will pick up a scissors while saying “use your scissors” in the target language. The children quickly learn the Chinese, Japanese, or Spanish word for scissors. By the end of the first week, your child will know that the teacher is another grown-up who loves them and who happens to use different words.

How do teachers handle children who enter ISP with no prior language exposure?

While students with no prior language exposure will speak to their peers and teachers in English, their teachers make a concerted effort to repeat back to them their question or response in the target language and then proceed to pose or answer their question in the target language. Our experience has shown us that after a few months in a full immersion, setting most children will begin to address their teachers in the target language.

Is any English used in ISP classrooms?

In general, it is extremely important that the teacher uses only the second language in the immersion classroom. Speaking English may help comprehension at a particular moment, but in the long run it becomes a hindrance to learning the second language. If English is used regularly, the child will not focus on the Spanish, Chinese or Japanese instructions – he will simply wait for the English translation.

From preschool into the beginning of first grade, teachers speak to the children in the target language and expect that the children will answer in English. The children naturally use their second language as they become more comfortable with it – first with words, then sentences, then paragraphs. By second grade, the children are generally expected to use only their Spanish, Chinese or Japanese in the classroom.

Starting in first grade, all students study English language arts with English specialists for one hour every day. This allows them to grow their English skills to or beyond grade-appropriate levels by fifth grade. English is also used for art, music, PE and library.

Given all of the above, the teacher will use English as necessary – if a child needs to be comforted, and for issues of discipline and safety when complete understanding is necessary at that moment.

What if no one at home speaks Spanish, Chinese or Japanese?

Most of our families do not speak the language their child is learning, so our teachers expect that. Teachers send home weekly emails explaining the class work, enabling parents to engage with their child about the topic of study. Parent notices and report cards are issued in English.

From a recent parent survey:

“The email information I receive from ISP (ITK, specialist news, teacher emails, English teachers, etc.) is instrumental. My 2nd grader is always impressed when I know what she is talking about in library or what project is coming up in English! It makes it easy to use the vocabulary he is learning through student/learner traits, too. “Wow, that Olympian is really a risk-taker!” “I am trying my best to be open-minded.” “I can tell you have been talking about what it means to be caring.”

New families sometimes worry about how they will help their child with homework if they don’t speak the language. ISP parents will tell you that because they don’t speak the language, their children become resourceful and independent learners. The parents’ responsibility is to provide time, place and encouragement – and the rest is the student’s reponsibility. Click here for a short video clip of a 5th grade parent explaining what she does when her daughter has homework trouble!

How will my child adjust to having class in a different language?

Many children are nervous about starting a new school, whether the program is in English or not. Your child may need some time to adjust to this new challenge. He may need more sleep than usual – an earlier bedtime often helps in the first month. By the beginning of October, every child should be over the initial adjustment and look forward to school.

How can I help my child with the transition to language immersion?

Encourage your child by telling her how proud you are that she is learning Chinese, Spanish, or Japanese. Take advantage of opportunities to expose your child to the immersion language and culture outside of school. This helps her see that the language is not just something for school, but something for life.

Try not to put your child on the spot to “say something in Spanish” until she shows the initiative herself. Recognize that your child may not speak the language at home for a long time – at pick-up or drop-off you may be surprised to hear your child use her new language when talking to the teacher!

When will my child start speaking his/her second language?

All children will start to use their target language on their own and at their own individual pace. It is not uncommon for children to spend the first year just soaking up the second language. Just like young babies learning their first language, your child’s comprehension will increase daily, and but she may not be ready to speak it for some time. When the children are ready to speak, it’s amazing to see how much they know.

Since children at International School of Portland learn language in the context of every day life, their first words are often phrases like, “more juice please”, or “blue paper.” Because of this, it is awkward for children to be asked to “perform” for others. A request to “say something in Chinese” will seem most unnatural.

Similarly, your preschooler may not understand the concept of translation. He is learning the meaning of his new language, and will start to think in his second language rather than translating his thoughts from English. Once your child shows a readiness to use his second language at home, encourage him to do so. Give him the benefit of the doubt if you are uncertain about his pronunciation or word usage.

Will my child’s English suffer?

Research on this question is both voluminous and unequivocal: studies consistently show that by the end of the elementary grades, immersion students perform as well as or better than non-immersion peers in English and math skills. Nevertheless, in the first few years of any immersion program, there may be certain lags in English language arts. However, there is significant transference of literacy skills between languages, and once formal English instruction is introduced (in first grade at ISP), children catch up quickly.

All our first through fifth grade students study English language arts daily. By third grade the lags are generally gone, and by fifth grade the immersion students’ English skills often surpass those of their non-immersion peers. The ISP English department has a list of recommendations for parents who wish to support their child’s literacy skills at home. Please see the English Literacy page for more details.

How will my child learn to read and write in English?

ISP students start formal English classes in 1st grade. In first through fifth grade they study English with English literacy specialists for one hour per day in classes that are designed to complement their language learning. Students quickly catch up to and generally surpass their English-only peers in the course of elementary school.

How will my child’s learning compare to her peers at other schools?

International School of Portland’s curriculum content is shaped by the Oregon Standards for Science (which are aligned to the National Science Standards), the National Social Studies Standards, and the Common Core State Standards for Math, which have been adopted by 38 states including Oregon. ISP chose these sets of standards because they represent strong, clear thinking on the concepts children should be learning. These standards provide a minimum benchmark for students and teachers at ISP, with actual student achievements frequently exceeding these academic targets.

ISP applies these standards through the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme, with its focus on student-led inquiry and hands-on engagement. This ensures that our students are gaining essential knowledge, while at the same time developing critical skills for independent, lifelong learning.

Is immersion the right choice for my child?

Although every child is different, an immersion program will be an exciting and stimulating experience for most children and their families. The ISP program will enable your child to fully appreciate a diverse world, and to communicate freely with people in another language. Being bilingual will enhance job opportunities, and will make it easier to learn a third language. As you contemplate this decision, it is important to remember that your child will realize the full benefits of an immersion program by following the program all the way through fifth grade.

What language do the children speak amongst themselves?

In the early childhood classrooms (preschool and kindergarten), most children speak English to one another even as they quickly start using target language words and phrases with the teachers. By the end of kindergarten and 1st grade, students are able to and strongly encouraged to use the target language when talking with their peers.

What if we speak another language at home (not English & not the immersion language)?

We have many ISP students who speak English in the neighborhood, Chinese, Spanish or Japanese at school, and a third language at home. If your family speaks another language at home, we encourage you to continue doing so.

What is ‘language acquisition’ and ‘production’?

‘Language acquisition’ describes the perfectly natural way we learn our own first language. Typically, parents do not teach their small children grammar; they do not teach their children lists of vocabulary; they rarely correct their small child’s language, unless the child is saying something that is factually wrong. In spite of this lack of specific teaching, all small children master their own mother tongue at remarkable speed. Small children make rather predictable errors as they start to use their mother tongue, but automatically self-correct as they continue to recognize patterns in the language and build proficiency naturally.

Immersion programs make use of the brain’s natural capacity to learn languages in much the same way as we learn our mother tongue. Many factors are involved, but the key one is: we acquire language when the focus is on meaning.

We refer to ‘production’ when children starts to speak a language. Just like babies understand a lot of language before saying their first understandable words, second language learners understand a lot before they start to ‘produce’ – or speak – their second language.

Won’t my child be behind other local children if she is educated in a foreign language like this?

A lot of schools offering immersion programs like ISP observe that the youngest students in these programs may score below other monolingual English-speaking students who take the same standardized test in second grade. However, in our over 20 years of experience and in a significant body of research, we see that most of our students score on par with or better than their monolingual peers by fourth grade.

Should I try to speak the target language at home with my child?

If the target language at school is not your natural home language, it is not necessary to use it at home. To give your child more exposure to the target language, it is good to find suitable children’s books, DVD’s, recordings and so on. Do not be upset if the child is reluctant to use the target language with you. Languages have strong emotional ties, and it may just not feel right for the child to speak to you in Japanese or Spanish or Mandarin, if this is not the language you normally use.

Will my child experience a form of ‘culture shock’?

Yes, he/she might. People are familiar with the term ‘culture shock’ when we go to live in a new country. The symptoms of culture shock can be very subtle, and are easily confused with other issues. In many ways, entering a language immersion program will involve some level of culture shock, but also ‘language shock’.

Add to this all the challenges of entering a new school, and fitting in with a new group of children. All these factors bundled into the first few weeks can have quite a drastic effect on the child’s psyche. The child can appear sad, angry, unsettled or moody. The good news is that these symptoms are normal and temporary, our teachers and counselors are skilled in dealing with them, and our children emerge from the experience greatly strengthened in many ways.

What can I expect to see in my child at the beginning of the immersion process?

Children who are especially confident and extroverted might try using the new language immediately, and be very proud of showing off new words and phrases. Most children, however, may appear unable or reluctant to use the new language. The brain naturally goes through a ‘silent period’ at the beginning of the acquisition process. The child may appear to be inactive, and not participating, but there is in fact a lot of activity going on within the brain. Think of it as an essential period of incubation.

It is important to recognize and respect this silent period, which can last many months in some cases. There will be no particular advantage in trying to force the child to speak, and in fact we may do more harm than good. In the early stages of language acquisition a child will understand far more than he or she can say or write just as a baby understands a lot before speaking intelligibly. In other words, perception or understanding is always far in advance of production, or active use of the language.

Shouldn’t children master their mother tongue before they learn a new one?

No. A large body of research shows that it is not necessary to postpone starting additional languages. The children will still develop their mother tongue as long as they receive regular input, for example from their parents and family.

Is it really necessary to keep a child in the ISP immersion program all the way through fifth grade?

Children receive and retain the most benefit from an immersion program from being in it as long as possible. ISP students are developing their target language skills at the same time as they are learning a full International Baccalaureate curriculum including math, science and social studies. The benefits of all aspects of this education grows with each year in the program.

What percentage of the instructional program is offered in the target language?

At ISP all subjects are taught in the target language except for English, art, music and physical education (PE) which are all taught by English language specialists in those fields. In grades one through five, students study English one hour per day and art, music and PE for a total of nearly 200 minutes per week. Early Childhood students (preschool, low k and kindergarten) study art, music and physical education with English language specialists once per week.

What are the stages of language acquisition? How long will it take for my child to start speaking a second language?

  • Children learning a second language are likely to go through a “silent period” where they are building their receptive vocabulary but are not yet producing language.
  •  The silent period is followed by early production of language where students will start to speak in one or two word utterances.
  • Gradually, students will progress through a series of stages, building vocabulary and more complex sentence structures until they have reached a level of advanced fluency.

Although all new language learners progress through the same stages, the length of time each student spends at each stage may vary greatly.

  • Children master the concrete, everyday, ‘here and now’ type of language relatively quickly and easily.
  • By the end of the first year in an immersion classroom children will show good comprehension and may sound very fluent to the casual listener. On closer scrutiny the child will still have a rather limited command of the language.
  • Doing academic work in a foreign language is immensely more challenging than merely speaking, and calls for a much deeper and more sophisticated range of both language and logical skills.
  • This Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP – a term coined by Canadian researcher Jim Cummins) can take several years to build. It is compounded by the fact that school children, irrespective of the language they are working in, are maturing and developing both their academic skills and their ability to use language to apply these skills at the same time.

Will my child be bilingual when he/she leaves ISP in fifth grade?

Many of us imagine bilingual to mean ‘perfect’ proficiency in two or more languages, but this is very rare. Even outstandingly bilingual individuals tend to have one language that is stronger than the other. In general, by the end of fifth grade, ISP students are sufficiently proficient in their ISP target language to conduct a significant aspect of their lives in that language.

For example, the student will be able to study at college in a country where that language is used, or use the language at work, or collaborate professionally with speakers of that language etc. The student will be able to appreciate and derive enjoyment from the cultural heritage of the language, including enjoying films, novels, plays etc. in that language, and develop an understanding of the economic, political and social life of countries where that language is spoken. This is far above the type of language we need for tourism or occasional social contacts.

By the end of elementary school, a child who has been in the immersion program from the beginning will certainly be bilingual in many important respects. They will speak mostly without accent; they will use gestures and expressions typical of a native speaker; they will respond spontaneously in the target language; they will have mathematical and scientific competency in the target language.