Effective Teaching Strategies
for Immersion Teachers

The ACIE Newsletter, November 1997, Vol. 1, No. 1

A Synopsis of ideas presented at the first annual Summer Institute
for Immersion Teachers sponsored by CARLA in Minneapolis, MN
Adapted by Tara Fortune from a presentation by Helena Curtain



Immersion teachers need to provide their students with a structured learning environment that attends to language development and content-area knowledge development while consistently using the immersion language. Students benefit from frequent opportunities to use the immersion language in the context of teacher use of multisensory experiences supported by visual aids, gestures and manipulatives. Successful immersion teachers use predictable instructional routines and patterned language for transitions. By developing a variable repertoire of instructional strategies, teachers can help students understand both language and content.

Instructional strategies can be broken into four specific teacher tasks:

  1. make input comprehensible;
  2. provide opportunities for language output;
  3. enhance the comprehensibility of readings; and
  4. develop a system for providing constructive feedback.

Making Input Comprehensible

Making input comprehensible begins with simplification of language and using language known as "caretaker speech" or "foreigner talk" in which the following are evident: slower speech rate, clear enunciation, controlled vocabulary/idioms, high frequency words, controlled sentence length/complexity, and rephrasing to promote clarity and understanding. While this is important at the beginning stages of immersion, as immersion students progress in the language, they need more complex input so that they develop a full range of language competency.


Helena Curtain presenting during the
1997 Summer Institute.

Other important strategies to assist input comprehension include the use of context clues such as body language and realia. Explicit step-by-step modeling of tasks allows students to make use of context clues prior to an activity. Since students may not understand a concept the first time it is presented, teachers must also build redundancy into the lessons. Finding student text material that is developmentally appropriate and interesting to students is also necessary. Finally, teachers need to develop a variety of techniques to check student comprehension. Some suggestions include the use of confirmation checks (Is this what you're saying?), comprehension checks (Do you understand what I'm saying?), clarification requests (What do you mean by that?) and expansions (restatements, antonyms/synonyms, explanations).

Providing Opportunities for Language Output

Swain (1985) has taken the notion of input one step farther with her suggestion that students acquire language most meaningfully when they also have the opportunity for comprehensible "output." That is, they need to have a setting in which they are given many opportunities to produce new forms and to communicate, as well as settings in which their attempts at communication are valued and shaped to make them acceptable and understandable. Students need these opportunities to produce new forms, so that they can correct and adjust their hypotheses about the language. Providing opportunities for the students to produce appropriate language output is currently one of the major challenges of immersion teaching.

Some recommended teaching strategies for increasing opportunities for language output include guiding students from more simple to more complex responses. For example, one might begin with a question in which the acceptable student response might be to point, then to answer with a "yes" or a "no," then a single word answer to an either/or question, or a single word answer to a wh- question (who, what, when, where, why, which), and finally a full sentence answer to an open-ended question.

Other "output" strategies might include teaching students prefabricated chunks of language such as in songs, rhymes, poems and chants. Teachers are often inclined to do most of the talking in the classroom; therefore, it is important to focus on allowing students more opportunities to use the language and extending wait time to refrain from immediately supplying students with the answers. Interactive partner and cooperative learning tasks can also be effectively used to increase student output.

Enhancing the Comprehensibility of Readings

A third instructional strategy focuses on enhancing the comprehensibility of readings. Previewing new structures and vocabulary and helping students make connections between the new vocabulary/concepts and the old allows students to draw on their background knowledge to aid comprehension. Employing techniques such as advance organizers, story mapping, story grammars and semantic mapping are also recommended pre-reading strategies. Taking time to discuss the title and the broader context of a text including the year and place of publication, the author, the format, etc. can help students understand the bigger picture. Based on this wide lens view, students can begin to formulate questions about the text or make predictions about the story. Encouraging students to draw meaning from the pictures in the reading or additional or related visuals can also help text comprehension. Following a text in the immersion language with the text in English may also assist comprehension. Remember that students enjoy reading what they themselves or other students have written.

Developing a System for Providing Constructive Feedback

A common problem in the output of immersion students is that errors are abundant and constructive feedback, especially in response to errors, tends to be sporadic and inconsistent. Swain (1988) attributes this to the fact that the focus in immersion teaching tends to be entirely meaning-oriented and does not pay attention to the form of the message. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that in the early stages of immersion programs, immersion teachers are expressly told (McLaughlin, 1989) that excessive reliance on grammar instruction and error correction are to be avoided because these techniques short circuit the learning process. Some recent research on error correction in immersion contexts has been conducted by Roy Lyster and colleagues in Canada and will be highlighted in the next issue of the newsletter.



The suggestions outlined above are not comprehensive, many more could certainly be added. Nevertheless, they offer the immersion teacher a solid overview of important teacher tasks and instructional strategies for immersion programs.




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