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the ideal immersion class size

We’re sometimes asked what a max (or minimum) number of students in an immersion classroom should be. Because smaller class sizes are universally touted as a selling point, parents in particular want to know how many students is right.

It’s not hard to see the logic:

  • If a smaller class size (a) = more focused attention on my child (b), and
  • more focused attention on my child (b) = better outcomes (c), then
  • a = c, and who wouldn’t take smaller class sizes for better results every day of the week?

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class size is just one of many variables

Unfortunately, the logic breaks down when more than 150 other factors impacting educational outcomes are introduced. (Which also happens every day of the week.)

The short answer is that class size can impact a child’s learning. Some research might show a difference when comparing a class size of 25 (for example) to a number far greater than that. But in terms of overall impact, class size is relatively minor compared to many other factors such as collective teacher efficacy, classroom discussion, and parental involvement.

If you haven’t seen Hattie’s work ranking influences on student learning achievement, check it out here. (You’ll find class size well down the list at .21.) Clearly, more has to do with what’s going on in the classroom (lesson plan quality, purposeful talk time for students, and much, much more), than solely the sheer number of people in it.

there’s no ideal immersion class size, but…

We don’t recommend a specific number of students per class to our immersion partners (for the reasons noted above). Some of our partners have nearly 30 students in a class, while others begin with as few as 8 students. Many of our partners have multi-age classrooms.

What we see in each of these classes is that student outcomes are significantly impacted by the quality of teaching happening inside those classrooms. If you wonder why we get so excited about professional learning and helping immersion teachers grow in their craft–now you know!

time time and teaching strategies

So as you wrestle with the question of class size–whether you are an administrator, teacher, or parent–keep the following in mind:

structured support can help ensure program sustainability

Educational programs often “pad” their class sizes in the early years to account for attrition, while adding structured support when necessary. While this padding hasn’t been a focus for our partner schools, there have been cited references to this out there to support the practice to ensure program sustainability (and avoid teacher burnout). Big immersion classes can benefit greatly from a native immersion language speaking teacher aide, especially when the expectation is that the aide’s primary role is to work directly in contact with students instead of time-on-task work like cutting, stapling, making copies or changing the seasonal bulletin board. Don’t overlook the possibility that those teacher aides can also make great teachers as the need arises.

talk time is critical for immersion students, but it’s mainly about teaching strategies, not class size

The amount of talk time immersion students receive is critically important from language acquisition and academic standpoints. But this has nearly everything to do with the teaching strategies employed and not class size. If there’s a focus on dialogic teaching, adding or subtracting a few students won’t change the tone and tenor of the classroom or the expectation that students are regularly, and accurately, producing in the immersion language.

focus your energy on strong instructional practice in the immersion classroom, and on building healthy teacher and student identity

Student success will be strongly impacted by the instructional strategies and lesson design,  as well as the values and beliefs that educators and students carry with them into the classroom. If you were going to “spend a buck” for max impact, spend .95 on these areas, and .05 on classroom size. (That’s our .02).

What has been your experience with varying class sizes? Let us know in the comments section.


You can learn a little more about how we’re helping to equip immersion teachers at our partner schools for success through our five year add.a.lingua certification.

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Looking for training that’s more a.la.carte in nature? Check out the add.a.lingua a.la.carte menu, and let us know how we can help.

Filed under: educators, professional development, Research

About the Author

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Stephanie Irizarry holds undergraduate ​teacher certification in Spanish and Elementary Education, an M.Ed in Literacy Studies with emphasis in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL),​ and is near completion of an additional M.Ed. in Interdisciplinary Studies with Certification in Dual Language and Immersion Education. Her broad teaching experiences in dual language immersion programs and​ in​ English learner contexts provide her with deep insight into the needs of new and existing dual language immersion programs.​ Co-author of the publication Lending Student Voice to Latino ELL Migrant Children's Perspectives on Learning (2013), she knows that students increasingly take ownership of their education when their voices are honored and expectations are held high. Stephanie is the proud mom of two boys and is thrilled that they'll know the joy of learning in high quality dual language immersion environments as they grow. She enjoys spending time with her husband and children, travel, latin dancing, and reading in Spanish.

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