What Immersion Research Has Taught Us
The ACIE Newsletter, December 1999, Vol. 3, No. 1
By Kimerly Miller
"As an immersion teacher in an immersion program you have to be absolutely convinced that what you're doing is not harmful for [your] students from an academic and native language point of view because if you have any qualms ... it's going to impact on your delivery of the program and that hesitation will ... be more worrisome than the program per se." - Fred Genesee, October 2, 1999
Teachers in immersion programs often face uphill battles convincing administrators, parents, non-immersion colleagues, and the general public that immersion education is not only a sound pedagogical philosophy, but that it won't hurt children's academic achievement.
However, teachers are only human; their convictions may waver when faced with budget-trimming district officials, anxious parents, and an ethnocentric public. Give them two hours with Dr. Fred Genesee, and he'll surely boost their morale and possibly even instill in them a little missionary zeal.
Dr. Genesee came to the University of Minnesota in early October at the request of Prof. Andrew Cohen. During the Saturday morning presentation sponsored by CARLA he "preached" to an audience of fify-six teachers, teacher educators, researchers, parents, and administrators who have already been "converted" to immersion education. His credentials as Professor of Psychology at McGill University in Montreal, his prominence as an immersion education researcher of long standing, and his soft spoken demeanor hardly make him a candidate for the bully-pulpit. Yet, Dr. Genesee's message is electrifying, in some ways defying logic (how can instruction in a foreign language actually improve one's ability in one's native language?). His research over the past twenty-five years, conducted primarily in French immersion settings in Canada, has never intended to prove that miraculous things happen in immersion classrooms. If anything, Dr. Genesee admits to approaching research in immersion settings with very conservative expectations. However, his research findings and those of colleagues working in the field since the first immersion schools were started in Quebec more than thirty years ago point to some rather remarkable outcomes.
First and foremost, immersion education does not handicap our children linguistically or academically. To the contrary, when parents commit their children to a full elementary immersion program (K-6 in most cases) immersion students will not only do as well as children in English-only classrooms (with the additional advantage of being functionally bilingual at the end of seven years) but are likely to outperform monolingual students on standardized measurements of English language competency. More recent research indicates that immersion students are also successfully transferring content area knowledge from the target language to their native language. For example, test scores in mathematics show the same superior ability of upper level (grade 6 and above) immersion students in comparison to English-only peers.
Additional research has shown that the most intensive immersion experiences, where nearly all contact with school personnel, including support staff, is in the target language and English language instruction is no more than a couple of hours a week, provide the the best foundation for strong performance on standardized measurements of English language competency. In other words, formal instruction in English can start late in the elementary sequence (for example, 4th grade/age 9-10 in the U.S.) and can be limited to very little instructional time per week without any harm to a child's ability to communicate well in spoken or written English. Indeed, the more grounded a child's instruction is in the target language, the better chance she has of performing at a superior level in both English language arts and other content areas.
Given the astonishingly positive research data on the benefits of an immersion education, one wonders why there aren't more parents demanding this option in their own school districts. And, given the clamor from community leaders to focus school district efforts on improving academic achievement and preparing students for a more competitive world economy, it is surprising that so few school districts have made a commitment to immersion education. Convincing others of what we know to be the enormous benefits of immersion education may be the ultimate challenge for those of us who are already "immersed" in the field.