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Student Roles in Two-Way Immersion: Superordinate or Subordinate?

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2003, Vol. 7, No. 1

By Esther L. Larocco, Ph.D., Center for Bilingual/Multicultural Studies in Education,California State University at Chico

In the United States, education in a language other than English has historically been a controversial issue. In the face of controversy, two-way immersion programs enable the implementation of a highly desirable primary language maintenance program for language minority students and a second language enrichment program for language majority students. However, two-way immersion programs require negotiation of competing interests. Students come from two different sociocultural and linguistic backgrounds. How are their interests met in two-way immersion programs? How can equity in instructional and programmatic issues be insured for both groups?

Researchers have argued that sociopolitical factors mitigate the degree of success attained by language minority students in programs attempting to meet the needs of both language minority and language majority students (Gándara, 1995; Lareau, 1989; Valdés, 1996). For example, McKeon (1994) contends that teachers' use of language appears to be influenced by their perception of children's linguistic abilities. If teachers perceive students' language ability to be limited, then they may rely more on questions requiring one-word answers; they may interact more with these students to provide them with more opportunities to produce language and pay lessattention to students with more advanced abilities. The reverse may also be true, where teachers will interact less with lower language ability students for fear of embarrassing them. Since students in two-way programs have different levels of language ability in the language of instruction, the teachers' perceptions may affect the quantity and qquality of cognitively challenging language that a teacher provides and this in turn may affect students' access to learning. In sum, there is a need for research that (a) determines the extent to which sociopolitical factors and perceptions shaped outside of the classroom influence instruction and (b) examines how language is used and language development promoted to ensure effective practices for both groups of students.

This research looked at classroom processes, such as discourse, patterns of interaction, instructional strategies and students' communication strategies to examine how the needs and interests of minority and majority students were met. The patterns that emerged from a microanalysis of the data, revealed that classroom processes and practices were influenced by external factors. The sociopolitical reality had to be considered to have a full understanding of classroom discourse patterns (Cleghorn & Genesee, 1984; Erickson, 1977). When the findings based on the microanalysis were further analyzed in the contexts of (a) parents' backgrounds, (b) parents' roles in the program and the community at large, and (c) the literature on school achievement, influences from sociopolitical factors (i.e., issues of power and status) within the school and the community became evident. This report focuses on the conclusions drawn from this macroanalysis.


This research study took place during the 1995-1996 academic year in a northern California district's first two-way immersion kindergarten classroom. The district is in a predominantly English-only community, where Latinos are the largest minority group. There were 14 Spanish Native Speakers (SNSs) and 14 English Native Speakers (ENSs) participated in the study. All school personnel working in the classroom were bilingual in the class and 27 students English and Spanish. The Spanish-speaking classroom teacher and student teacher maintained exclusive use of Spanish throughout the day. The class paraprofessional used both languages throughout the day and the afternoon kindergarten teacher spoke primarily English with all the students. Although the district intended to follow a 90-10 two-way immersion model, in this first class, SNSs received no formal instruction in English, while the ENSs were provided with 10% of their instruction in English. The teacher had wanted to provide the SNSs with a ten-minute daily period, where she could use more challenging language and questioning strategies in their primary language. However, over the course of the year, whenever time was needed this primary language period for the SNSs was omitted and eventually lost from the regularly scheduled program.

This year-long project examined classroom processes by observing teacher and student discourse patterns, their patterns of interaction, and the instructional strategies implemented. Hicks (1995) contends that this type of analysis provides insights into how teachers and students individually and collectively construct disciplinary knowledge. There were 57 visitations each lasting for a minimum of one hour. Besides field observation notes, sign and category systems instruments, were used to determine language use, opportunities for primary language development, and the linguistic demand of instructional practices. Sign system instruments are used to track an event of behavior within a fixed time period (e.g., percentage of time each language was used by the students or teacher). Category system instruments consist of a list of behaviors, which the observer looks for and records throughout the observation period (e.g., coding speaker by primary language, interlocutor, and language choice of initiations and responses or the type of questions the teacher(s) use. In addition, 29 events were videotaped, and student work products and homework assignments were reviewed as additional evidence of language development.

To contextualize the data from the classroom-based observations, a variety of sources were used to gather demographic and attitudinal data from the community, the school and the parents. Documents from the Chamber of Commerce, the district office, and the school, as well as newspaper articles, questionnaires, attendance at Parent's Advisory Committee and District Immersion Task Force meetings, and formal and informal interviews provided information on students' demographics, and parents' expectations and involvement in the program and community support. The classroom discourse patterns were examined within this broader context.


The macroanalysis of the data identified a subordinate/superordinate relationship between the SNSs and the ENSs in this study. This relationship mirrors the power relationships between the two groups of parents and the societal structure of the community at large. For example, the majority of the SNS and ENS fathers worked in agriculture. However, ENS fathers held managerial level jobs, whereas SNS parents were laborers. While most of SNS families had incomes of $10,000 or less, ENS families' incomes were at $40,000 or higher. The lowest educational level of ENS parents was at the high school level; most ENS parents had college degrees. In contrast, SNS parents' education was typically at the 6th grade level in Mexico and only two parents had education or vocational training in the United States.

All of SNSs in this study were from the predominantly Latino neighborhood, while most of the ENSs were from outside the school attendance area. The ENS parents in this study were very well aware of the special nature of two-way immersion since they selected this program from a variety of options throughout the district. Although the SNS parents also wanted their children to learn in both languages, they seemed unaware that this was a unique opportunity for their children.


From the incipient stages of program development, the ENS parents were the driving force behind this two-way program, and they continued to be the dominant players. As Sra. Juárez, the two-way immersion Kindergarten teacher, frequently noted in interviews and informal conversations, the ENS parents held her accountable for their children's learning and acquisition of Spanish. The program's existence rested on the teachers' abilities to meet the expectations of the language majority or English-speaking parents. ENS parents brought to this program a middle class orientation and constituted the main source of community support for instruction through a language other than English. It is important to note that, for many ENS parents, the initial motivation for this two-way program was a desire to have Spanish-speaking peer models for the pre-existing one-way Spanish Language Immersion Program.

In this study, the students' roles mirrored the differences in the power relationship between the ENS parents and the SNS parents in the community. The ENSs' superordinate role was derived from their parents' (a) status in the community, (b) role in program development and implementation, and (c) instructional demands. The teacher's heightened awareness of her accountability to this more visible and vocal parent group made ENSs' progress the focus of instruction (consciously or unconsciously). The result was an enriched educational program for ENSs with biliteracy as an expected outcome.

ENSs' progress and their parents' satisfaction with the program ensured a primary language maintenance program for the SNSs (Figure 1 illustrates these relationships). In exchange for this opportunity to maintain and use their first language of Spanish, the SNSs served as language models for the ENSs. They also enabled ENSs to participate in classroom routines and lessons and gain conceptual understanding by modeling or providing English translations. While Spanish was used for the vast majority of teacher discourse as well as SNS-SNS peer interaction, English was favored by both ENSs and SNSs during informal ENS-SNS peer communications. Interestingly, it was the SNSs' acquisition and use of English, although not a planned instructional component, that facilitated interaction between the two groups of students. This asymmetrical relationship gives legitimacy to Spanish by allowing SNSs to support the ENSs' acquisition of Spanish with little, if any, instructional attention paid to the English language development or moredeveloped Spanish language skills of SNSs. Biliteracy for SNSs in this district seems to be embraced as long as it is a by-product of an enrichment program option focused on developing Spanish/English biliteracy for the ENSs.


The differences in educational and socioeconomic status between the ENS and the SNS parents bring about differences in the cultural capital each parent group has available to support the educational goals they have for their children. Cultural capital refers to the perceived value of one's cultural assets within public institutions – assets based on the knowledge and lived experiences of an individual and awardedby the majority cultural group (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977). Lareau (1989) asserts that middle class parents "earn" their cultural capital through their occupational status and their direct access to education experts. Conversely, the low socioeconomic SNS parents must rely more on the teachers and the school to meet all the educational needs of their children. Their own lack of economic resources and status in the community (cultural capital) does not enable them to support and complement their children’s education in the same manner as the ENS parents do.


Recommendations based on study findingswere shared with school and district personnel. They clustered around three themes: (a) patterns of interaction and language use, (b) instructional and communication strategies, and (c) parent participation. For the purposes of this report only the latter will be discussed.

As a start, the special nature and enrichment opportunities of the program need to be highlighted for SNS parents, just as is done for parents. SNS parents should be informed aboutways to support their children’s development of both languages and academic content at home.  Culturally appropriate strategies to increase SNS parent participation in the school and in program advisory committees are necessary. Multiple and varied opportunities for SNS and ENS parents to get to know each other are essential.

A pre-school program was also recommended to provide SNS parents earlier access to the school and also meet the SNSs’ diverse linguistic and academic needs. As evident in the data, only one of the SNS students had any school experiences prior to kindergarten, while all but one ENS attended pre-school for at least one year. Participation in pre-school could socialize students about schooling processes, provide academic benefits, and serve as an information center for parents.

Both sets of parents have at least one importantpoint in common: the students. Panfil (1995) asserts that this common point may serve as a catalyst to create "ways for families from the two language groups to come to know each other" (p.187). Given the appropriate opportunities, the point of intersection can be broadened to create interlocking circles, where the school, through the two-way program, can become a venue for parents to learn from each other and share their expertise. Valdés (1997) hopes that two-way immersion programs could engage in "an extensive emancipatory dialogue" involving what Cummins (1994) described as a critical examination of issues of identity and experience. Cummins asserts that this level of examination is required to achieve educational equity. To start working toward that goal, first the points in common must be broadened, so that trust can develop. Without trust, the necessary interactive contexts for this kind of dialogue may not be created Devoid of this dialogue, the sociopolitical factors that frame the intricate mosaic of classroom processes will continue to support the existing two-tier structure.


To date, the school continues to struggle with its SNS parent component. The school has a very strong SNS and ENS parent turn out for special events like Supper with Santa, Multicultural Night and Science Family Night. However, active SNS parent participation in the program’s decision-making process is still lacking.

At the district level some positive changes have occurred. A Healthy Start Grant serves low-income families in two of the three schools housing the Two-Way Immersion Program. Additionally, the school that served as this study site has secured a grant to provide computers to low-income SNS families. A recently hired SNS liaison provides parent training on how to facilitate their children’s development and readiness for school. It is not clear if parents are provided with more detailed information about the Two-Way Immersion Program as was recommended.

The most promising event has been the hiring of the district’s first bilingual principal at one of the Two-Way Immersion Program schools. Within the first month of school, there has been a noted increase in the number of SNS parents meeting with the new Latina principal. It is the two-way teachers’ hope that this change will have a positive, district-wide effect on SNS parent involvement in the future, as well as on the Two-Way Immersion Program decision-making process.


The conclusions drawn from this macroanalysis of the data are not intended to suggest that the superordinate and subordinate roles assumed by these students will surface in all two-way immersion programs. Rather, the intent is to caution educators that unless they carefully plan language instruction and thoughtfully address the parent participation component, these asymmetrical relationships between language minority and language majority students have the potential to guide instructional practices to favor the academic and linguistic development of the ENSs at the expense of SNS students.

Figure 1. Functions, roles, and program outcomes for two-way immersion students.

Students Functions Within
Two-Way Program
Role Served Program Outcomes
Serve needs of ENSs. Facilitate ENSs participation.
ENSs Æ Needed to ensure L1 maintenance program for SNSs. Æ SUPERORDINATE
Focus on instruction.
Benefit from L2 acquisition and biliteracy.

SNSs Æ Needed as peer language models for L2 acquisition for ENSs. Æ
L2 acquisition and biliteracy. Benefit from raised status of primary language.

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Last Modified: May 2, 2016 at 12:43