Types of Immersion: A Quick Explanation for Potential Immersion Parents

Memories of the first time I saw a Spanish immersion classroom in action remain fresh years later. Stepping into the brightly colored kindergarten classroom, 25 energetic kids darn near bouncing off the wall with excitement while I, a late 20 something teacher with a master’s degree, couldn’t understand a word they were saying. It was both humbling and fascinating to say the least. It had me in awe and I knew I had to know more. Fast forward 10 years and lots of research, and I was sending my baby off to full immersion kindergarten. But just how did we come to this decision? When I was a kid, everyone went to the local elementary school. There wasn’t any question really where you would go to school. Today, it’s a completely different story. You’ve no doubt thought long and hard to come to the decision that you want your kid to learn Spanish. But how? There are generally 4 different types of immersion programs. Knowing the differences between models will help you make an educated discussion and fully understand the amazing experience that awaits your child.

I will never forget my son’s first day of kindergarten. Like many new kinder parents, I greeted him at the school, making sure he survived the big scary bus ride and made it there safely. From the very moment he stepped off that bus, every word he heard from the adults around him was in Spanish. Somehow, almost magically, these teachers were able to greet, corral and lead those wide eyed kiddos in a language which none of them understood. This is exactly what it looks like in a full immersion program. In the early years, 100% of their day is in the target language. Students learn to read and write in Spanish first and then after they are proficient, usually late in 2nd grade, they begin literacy instruction in English. As the student ages, English is reintroduced to whereas approximately 50% of their day, usually the content areas, is still in Spanish by middle school. Students in full immersion programs are most often more proficient that students in other immersion models.

The next model is partial immersion where, just as the title suggests, part of their day is in Spanish and the rest is in English. I feel fortunate to live in a community that is home to both full immersion and partial immersion schools. My son attends a full immersion charter school and it works for our family. A close friend decided to take a different route and send her daughter to a partial immersion program within a local public elementary school. When asked why, she responded, “Partial immersion allowed [her daughter] to keep momentum going with her literacy skills. She was well ahead of her grade level upon Kindergarten entry, and she’s been able to really run with language arts since she’s not doing literacy in another language. I don’t know how full immersion would’ve affected her, obviously, but I know that her teacher has been able to let her do her thing - I am guessing if it had been in all in Spanish, she would’ve gone down quite a few reading levels.” With partial immersion, many parents feel with approximately 50% of the day in each English and Spanish, students are able to get the best of both worlds.

The 3rd form of immersion programming is dual immersion. Dual immersion is when students who are native speakers of two different languages are in the same class together. An example of dual immersion would be a classroom with 50% native Spanish speakers and 50% native English speakers. Both groups of students are taught in their native language and their 2nd language. The benefit of this model is students are able to assist each other, helping those not fluent in their native language. For a program to be true dual immersion, there needs to be close to 50% native speakers for each language. The goal of this model is for all students to be fluent in both languages by the end of the program.

The last program is double immersion, in which students are taught two new languages at once in a full immersion model. Like full immersion, students are reintroduced to English as they move up through the grades. To be completely honest, I have not seen this model in person and struggle to visualize this in practice. For example, double immersion may be a Spanish immersion program with a large Jewish population that is then also taught Hebrew. The idea of kids being able to easily learn not one but two languages at once is fascinating and a true testament to the power of immersion education.

Regardless of what type of immersion programming you have enrolled your child in, the most important thing is you did it! You have chosen to give your child the gift of language. Their little brains are sponges and no matter the way they are exposed to the language, they are soaking it up. So kudos to you, parents, and know that you are making a positive decision that lasts a lifetime.

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