Immersion schools enable students to excel in more than one language and may contribute to cognitive development. But immersion schools also pose a number of challenges for both parents and students that families should be aware of before embarking on an immersion education.
Benefits of immersion schools
For parents, the foremost concern is that education in another language not jeopardize their child’s academic achievement or their ability to communicate effectively in English. They fear that learning another language may result in a poorer academic performance too.
Here the research shows us that students who are proficient in English perform as well and, in most cases, better than students who attend English-only schools in reading and math. These findings apply to students of different abilities, from different socio-economic backgrounds and linguistic and cognitive abilities.
For schools in which English is introduced in grades 2-5, students may experience a lag in proficiency, but this disappears after a year or two and they perform on a par with students who are attending English-only schools.
Bilingualism helps to encourage cognitive development. “Fully proficient bilinguals outperform monolinguals in the areas of divergent thinking, pattern recognition, and problem solving,” says Tara Williams Fortune from the Center for advanced Research on Language Acquisition.
Bilingual students go on to greater sociocultural and economic prosperity as they enjoy more employment prospects.
Challenges facing language immersion
Schools who provide language immersion often struggle with staffing and curriculum development and teaching materials.
Teachers require special skills to navigate content, language and literacy development in a second language. However, specialists who are able to provide training for teachers to successfully implement an immersion classroom are far and few between.
Those differences in ability and level, learning styles and special needs that usually occur in the classroom are exacerbated when leaning occurs in more than one language. Small class sizes can help teachers to give students the attention they need.
Teachers are also faced with the challenge of getting students to use their second language at all times in the classroom and in social settings. The more effectively a teacher is able to address this issue, the sooner students are able to master their second language.
The most successful immersion programs are those in which English-speaking students are taught in a second language. They must also adopt the second language for classroom communication. Studies show that this leads to high levels of proficiency for the second language that are almost on par with native speakers.
The challenge for parents is really to find a school that will adequately support your child during their immersion education. Small class sizes, properly trained teachers and a good academic record will all indicate that the school you have chosen will help your child to greater academic achievement.
You may also need to get an in-home tutor to fill in the gaps as your child starts their immersion education and until they are proficient in both languages.