Do struggling learners belong in language immersion programs?

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Language education

Yes.  But what about the students who have weak L1 skills?  Them too.  Our students in poverty don’t have the home supports to be successful in language immersion.  Isn’t this a hardship for them? Nope.  These students need longer time to get academic concepts, won’t language immersion delay them in comparison to their peers?  Uh, still no.

Academic conferences are typically places to validate our perspectives, and, when we least expect it, really challenge our beliefs as well.  Genesee’s opening keynote for the Brazilian Immersion Conference (BIC) was about the striving (struggling) learner in immersion settings.  In North America, this work urges us to being more inclusive of ethnic minorities, children in lower socio-economic environments, students with special education services.  I appreciate Genesee’s keynote even more in the Brazilian context, where virtually all language immersion programs are in independent schools that serve affluent majority culture kids.  All educators needs reminders and inspiration that increase their expectations for all students.

Genesee’s research addresses the dissonance between popular thought and research implications for language immersion.  Common sense argues that language immersion is not successful for students with perceived hardship: academic delays, low socio-economic status, new or poor speakers of the majority language.  Why add to their struggle?  Genesee compares language immersion students with similar demographics of non-immersion students and native speakers of the immersion language.  His results consistently demonstrate that L1 performance, when compared with peers in the control group, are not diminished for “struggling” students (Genesee, 1992; 2007a; Genesee, Paradis, & Crago, 2004).

“It’s important to believe that what we’re doing is right.  If deep down teachers worry about [whether these kids should be in language immersion], it compromises their students’ performance.”

The primary message of Genesee’s talk was that building strong literacy skills in L2 not only supports literacy development in L1, but, more importantly, it increases student access to and success in the academic curriculum.  Students in language immersion are expected to study complex academic topics in the immersion language by the end of elementary schools.  The primary academic reason that students leave language immersion programs in public schools in Canada, is due to reading difficulty and related frustration in the academic curriculum. Committing to and developing literacy skills in L2 unlocks deeper learning for students over time.

Genesee addressed the four most common questions raised by language immersion educators:

  1. What levels of proficiency in L1 and L2 can we expect?
  2. Is it preferable to teach reading in L2 first or L1 first, or both from the beginning?
  3. Should we keep the L1 and L2 separate when teaching?
  4. What is the importance of oral language for L2 reading competence?

Based on the research demonstrating that language immersion education (L2 literacy) doesn’t diminish the learner’s literacy skills in L1, Genesee advocates for greater, concentrated exposure to the L2 as early in the program as possible. Literacy skills transfer from one language to the next, particularly in languages with similar alphabet characters.  Once a reader learns reading fluency skills in one language that they speak, they apply that literacy understanding to another related language. If your English teacher teaches you to that you can blend letter sounds, your Portugese teacher doesn’t need to reteach that same skill.  That said, he would encourage teaching reading in L2 first, and keeping L1 and L2 separate when teaching.  Genesee cautions that elevating the status of teaching reading in L1 risks reducing L2 reading competency and related academic access in higher grades.

Proficienphotocy levels in L1 and L2 vary depending on the structure of the immersion program.  Language immersion educators often fall prey to the myth of the “perfect bilingual.”  Even with high functionality, immersion students still make grammar mistakes in both languages, and have less idiomatic language than same-age native speaker peers. Within environments where L1 and L2 language instruction are highly distinctive (two different teachers in two different spaces), constructivist instruction and cross-linguistic connections support learners in scaffolding specific concepts and vocabulary development.

According to Genesee’s work, language immersion students struggle more with reading comprehension than with decoding skills.  It is much more complex to diagnose reading comprehension difficulties if students have inadequate vocabulary and incomplete complex grammar.  These two deficits become the biggest barriers for students to access academic language by grade 5.  Genesee advises that teachers explicitly teach academic language starting in kindergarten and across all disciplines.  This includes complex grammar as well as discipline-specific vocabulary.  Language immersion teachers need to know, understand, and teach academic language from the early grades to give students the tools to thrive in reading comprehension, not just reading fluency.  Early grade teachers in particular should constantly teach phonological awareness, word knowledge, content, and complex grammar to give students the specific tools they will need for reading comprehension.

Fred Genesee is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at McGill University.  Prof. Genesee’s primary research interests focus on bilingualism and bilingual first language acquisition in normal and impaired populations. In particular, his research examines the early stages of the acquisition of two languages with the view to (a) better understanding this form of language acquisition and (b) ascertaining the neuro-cognitive limits of the child’s innate ability to acquire language. He is also interested in second language acquisition in school and the modalities for effective acquisition in school contexts.

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The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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