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4 myths about struggling students and immersion programs

Instructional support for add.a.lingua partner programs comes in a wide variety of forms but there’s one topic that comes up All. The. Time.

Teachers, administrators, point people and parents reach out to our team to ask the following question:

What about students who struggle in immersion education?

There’s certainly room in the field for more research on students who struggle in immersion programs, but existing research combined with our collective decades of experience as practitioners lead us to some clear answers to this question.

To unpack those answers, we’ll explore four far-too-common myths about struggling students in immersion programs.

Myth #1: Immersion programs should only be for students without struggles.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Research illustrates time and time again that children who acquire one language can acquire two! Any program that sends the message that “certain kids” shouldn’t be in immersion programs or “certain kids” who struggle should leave the program either a) hasn’t done its research, or b) hasn’t planned intentionally to meet the needs of ALL learners.

Bottom line: with the growing body of research in the field on students with language disorders, cognitive delays, and more, we know that ALL children can benefit from bilingual educational opportunities. Just take it from leading researcher in the field of dual language immersion education, Dr. Tara Fortune:

“Until there is strong research evidence indicating that learners with certain language and/or learning disabilities are better served when schooled through one language only, there is no reason to deny the cognitive and linguistic enrichments of a dual language education to any child. Indeed, by achieving some level of bilingualism, a competence that is perceived as beyond the norm by some, dual language learners who struggle in school can earn a much-needed boost to their self-esteem” (Tara Fortune of CARLA as cited in Cloud, Genesee & Hamayan, 2013).

 

Schools would do right by kids and their families by sending the message that immersion can be for ALL. Then, they need to follow-up on that messaging by ensuring that there are sufficient supports in place so that all can experience success.

Myth #2: The struggles are the fault of the immersion language.

We use a variety of factors in the U.S. to study correlations between students’ demographics and their level of success in the school setting. For the dual language immersion student, those same factors are at play — regardless of the language in which they’re learning.

Savvy dual language immersion program principals and teachers won’t use those factors as a rationale to exit a child from the program or prohibit him from even starting. Additionally, program leaders that know the research and are equipped with supports will ensure that families can make informed decisions based on the GOALS they have for their child instead of fears or what the “odds” say about any particular subgroup or demographic.

When parents are considering removing their child from an immersion classroom, well-informed administrators and teachers will share examples like these:

  • A child who struggles with early literacy in Spanish is more than likely going to experience the same or similar struggles in English.
  • A child who makes letter reversals in Spanish writing, typically does so in English, too.
  • A child who struggles with the sequencing of events in Spanish regularly exhibits the same pattern in English.
  • A child who experiences variations in self-control in the immersion classroom often does the same when they go to an English-only classroom.

Ultimately, it comes down to parent choice. Many families who remove their children from immersion programs do so because they often think that “going back to English” will cure all issues. Often times, this is done in the absence of (or with doubts about) examples like the ones we’ve listed.

Families who do pull their students from the immersion program often report they regret their decision years later. This is why we implore dual language immersion program leaders and teachers to, instead of asking, “Should this child leave the program?”, ask,

What are this child’s strengths?
How can we use those to better meet her needs within the immersion program?
What steps will we take to best serve this child?

Myth #3: When students struggle, we should “do more English”.

We get how this might seem counterintuitive, but if the language immersion program is of high quality…adding more English to the school day doesn’t make the difference. At all.

“Contrary to popular belief, beginning instruction in English earlier in elementary school and providing more instruction in English during the elementary school grades do not result in better outcomes in English for either native speakers of English or ELLs (English Language Learners)” (Genesee, 2004; Lindholm-Leary, 2010 as cited in Cloud, Genesee & Hamayan, 2013).

We know what you’re thinking. We really do. “What about those partial immersion programs or the models that have a lot more English much earlier? Isn’t that better for kids? Doesn’t their English turn out better thanks to that added time?”

Students who speak English at home who are enrolled in early-total immersion programs, as well as English Language Learners (ELLs) in 90/10 two way immersion programs have shown over and over that they “…achieve the same levels of proficiency in English as students in 50/50 programs even though the latter have more exposure to English in school” (Genesee, 2004; Lindholm-Leary, 2010 as cited in Cloud, Genesee & Hamayan, 2013).

That’s why we at add.a.lingua are so excited about our early-total and 90/10 models. They’re associated with the highest outcomes — in English AND Spanish. two dual language immersion models explainedThe kids get more of the immersion language (and at higher levels of quality because of the time & intensity), AND their English doesn’t suffer. That’s more bang for the buck!

Myth #4: Parents can’t help their children who struggle if they’re in an immersion program.

So. Not. True. Parents, you’re your child’s greatest model, advocate, and teacher. YOU and your positive attitude, excitement for your child’s education, and constant commitment to understanding your child’s needs make all the difference.

Here are four things that pack a big punch when parenting a child who struggles in the immersion program (Hint…They’re not different from what we’d suggest for ANY parent of a child in ANY type of setting!):

  1. Connect with your child’s teacher. He’ll be able to let you know what they’re working on in class, and what your child’s goals are.
  2. Don’t freak out…in front of your child. Children can be canaries in the coal mine: they KNOW when you’re wigging out inside and it only adds stress to the plate. Save your fears for conversations with your child’s teacher and/or the program coordinator. Generate your list of questions (and if you need to, check out our informed parent guide for ideas of what to ask), and bring it with you to a meeting. When you’re with your child, dialogue with her about her school experience. Stay engaged.
  3. Enjoy reading at home with, to, and by your child. MODEL reading — by yourself, silently (instill the lifelong value of it), with your child in English (build joy for it), listen to your child read in Spanish (show that even adults are “learners”!).
  4. Provide homework/project support for what does come home in English. Let your child know you’re there for him (but that you won’t do the work FOR him!) and that you’ll use your English skills as a support. For items that come home in Spanish, don’t respond with your hands in the air shouting, “Well, it’s in Spanish…how am I supposed to know what to do?!?!” Instead, encourage your student to focus on what she CAN do first. See what’s left. Connect with the teacher about any struggles,  consider setting up a study group with his peers after school, or advocate for supports beyond the school day.

Don’t let these myths hold you and your students back. Parents and educators, you CAN do this!


Parents,  want to learn more about how to advocate for your child and your immersion program? Don’t miss our informed parent guide.

Educators, learn more about high quality dual language immersion programs and how to build them in our informed educator guide.

Filed under: educators, 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),​ as well as an additional M.Ed. in Interdisciplinary Studies with Certification in Dual Language and Immersion Education from the University of Minnesota. 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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