Towards Enhancing Academic Language Proficiency in a Fifth-Grade Spanish Immersion Classroom

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2002, Vol. 6, No. 1

By Andrew Cohen, Professor of ESL and Applied Linguistics, MA Program in ESL, University of Minnesota, and Tania Gómez, Doctoral Student, Hispanic Linguistics, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Minnesota

Research Design

This research report focuses on a study conducted in a Spanish immersion school in St. Paul, MN. The study set out to examine the effect of a multi-faceted pedagogical intervention on students’ oral and written academic Spanish. Twenty-one fifth-grade Spanish immersion students participated in an instructional intervention of thirty lessons which included three classroom innovations: (a) collecting learning style preference and language strategy use data from the learners, discussing the results for the class as a whole and with students individually, adapting classroom instruction according to the learning style preferences of the students, and promoting the students’ use of a variety of language learning strategies; (b) having the classroom teacher and the research assistant model the use of Spanish oral and written academic language in their own efforts to solve science and history problems, and (c) having the teaching staff model use of the inner voice and then support students in developing their own inner voice in Spanish academic language.

The students completed before-measures of oral and written academic language ability in science and history based on the local curriculum. They also filled out a Learning Style Survey for Young Learners and a Young Learners’ Language Strategies Survey. Additionally, the students filled out a Young People’s Motivational Temperature Measure which assessed their motivation regarding the use of Spanish in general and for the specific classroom task at hand. The data analysis looked at the students’ ability to effectively use Spanish academic language in oral and written skills as a result of the pedagogical intervention. In the absence of an appropriate control group, the students were divided into proficiency levels (high, intermediate, and low) on the basis of a standardized achievement test (Metropolitan Achievement Test), a science essay written in Spanish, and teacher judgment. Then the groups were compared according to gain in Spanish academic language, in general and with respect to four sub-scales: facility in describing the problem in comprehensible Spanish, quantity and quality of academic vocabulary, quantity and quality of complex grammatical forms, and ability to define academic terms in Spanish.


With regard to the effects of modeling in solving science and history problems, the intervention seemed to motivate students to use more sophisticated language to explain their ideas. It was observed that even though complex grammatical forms were used sparingly, the students did tend to make use of them when the grammatical input was explicitly provided. The following is an example of students’ actual use of academic language, such as depende del peso and depende del tamaño, which was explicitly taught during the sessions. The teacher and research assistant were discussing various ways pulleys are used in our daily lives to make the topic more real to the students:

Researcher: ¿Cuántos libros podría empujar sin que rompa el hilo? (How many books could you push before the cord breaks?)
Susana: Depende del tamaño. (It depends on the size.)
Paul: Depende del peso. (It depends on the weight.)
Julia: Pero depende de la fuerza del cuerpo, sí porque depende de la fuerza que tiras la caja. (But it depends on the force of the object, yes because it depends on how hard you pull the box.)

Likewise, the students’ use of their inner voice appeared to assist them in explaining the processes involved in problem-solving to others. Students practiced using their inner voice with various techniques: asking and answering questions while speaking to themselves on cardboard cell phones, looking at a picture of themselves, or looking at themselves in a mirror.

With regard to the effects of the instructors’ modeling of task performance, the intermediate-proficiency and low-proficiency groups were both found to have significant gain scores on the oral and written science measures, and the low-proficiency group also had significant gain scores on the written history measures. In the analysis of written performance by subscales (facility in describing the problem in comprehensible Spanish, quantity and quality of academic vocabulary, quantity and quality of complex grammatical forms, and ability to define academic terms in Spanish), the low- and intermediate-proficiency groups benefited most from the intervention. For instance, both groups performed better in describing the problems in history and in science on the after-measure. Likewise, these two groups did better in quality and quantity of academic vocabulary and in defining academic terms in Spanish.

With regard to the motivational temperature of the students, before starting the task, 38% of the class indicated that they were highly motivated and the other 62% fairly motivated. Upon starting the task a few more students joined the "fairly-motivated" group. During the task, several slipped down into the "not motivated" category. At the end, the number of highly motivated actually increased beyond its original level, while the not-motivated group picked up yet another student. What does all this say? That motivation is far from being static, but rather is constantly in flux, depending not only upon the task but upon the moment in time with regard to that task.

Some of the individual items on the instrument also served to provide feedback as to the motivational level of the students regarding the immersion program altogether. The intermediate-proficiency students’ motivation to perform the problem-solving task in Spanish increased in three ways as they proceeded through the stages of task accomplishment as a result of: (1) a realization that they would learn new grammatical structures by doing it, (2) a perceived opportunity to learn Spanish from their more proficient peers, and (3) a heightened interest in the topic of the task. The motivation of the low-proficiency students to do problem-solving through Spanish increased as they moved through the four stages of task accomplishment as a function of: (1) a heightened interest in learning more academic vocabulary and (2) an urge to demonstrate that they knew more academic vocabulary than their peers.

Implications for Immersion Teachers

If by grade four or five, immersion students are tending to demonstrate increasingly reduced proficiency in the academic language associated with the curriculum, then it may be appropriate for the instructional staff to intervene, as in this study, with an emphasis on explicitly taught academic language.

When students are accustomed to having the instructor teach both content and content- specific language to use, students’ attention to the topic increases. Furthermore, having students working on academic language helps them in learning how to define terms, make associations, and use the new academic language appropriately. It would also appear that there is a need to encourage students to read extended prose, as in history lessons, and to emphasize vocabulary and grammar processing strategies that might make the effort easier. The challenge is to have students persevere in such extended reading tasks rather than rely on detailed explanations from the teacher to comprehend a text and respond to it.

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