Strategies for the Language Immersion Classroom

immersion language

by Susan Michalski

Every immersion language class has a life of its own. I have found one constant in mine over the last two decades: every student is nervous, and crossing the threshold into our “French-only’ zone requires a leap of faith for us all. Some of my most receptive students to immersion learning are international students, not surprisingly, for they are practiced in the art of navigating an immersion environment. They must treat every course conducted in English first as a language course, and then as a course in its discipline.

In an immersion foreign language classroom, however, native and non-native English speakers alike are on a common playing field, all limited to what I teach them and to what they can craft from of their ever-growing arsenal of French. With this in mind, I offer some of the most effective and student-loved immersion teaching practices and activities which are directly adaptable to the ELL classroom, 5 immersion M’s:

  1. Model Do not stop a student’s spontaneous speech to correct her. Instead, model the correction and further engage conversation. To the student phrase, “I go-ed to the movies yesterday”, reply, “You went to the movies? I went to the movies last week, too. What movie did you see when you went to the movies?” A savvy student who noticed the initial mistake will also notice the correction. The offending student — without being singled out or embarrassed — will hear and will hopefully repeat the correction. Most of all, she will be encouraged to continue to speak freely.
  2. Mingle Give each student a card with a question printed on it. Have students stand up, find partners, read their questions to one another, reply, swap cards, and change partners. This 2-3 minute daily activity provides routine and movement, ensures that all students read, speak, listen, and hear in the target language at least a handful of times daily. To personalize, use the vocabulary or structures you wish to review. To scaffold, begin with questions that offer options (Do you like dogs or do you like cats?) and move to open ended questions (What did you eat for dinner last night?) To further model, include yourself in the activity.
  3. Make Music Use current songs to demonstrate grammar points, to connect with your students, and to discuss culture and society. Invent a jingle (or have your students!) for verb endings, grammar rules, or other class information. Be musical. Be silly — your students will remember what you did– and a hum of the song or jingle will help them recall the needed information.
  4. Modernize Develop new takes on classics, like dictation. Provide students with cut out words of a stanza of a song you plan to study, in color-coded individual plastic bags.Have them create original poems from the words. Next, play the song as they, in pairs or groups, identify and tactilely manoeuver the words on their desks. Having already used the words, they will be encouraged by how much of the song they can recreate by ear alone. Later, use the materials to have kids attempt to recreate the song from memory, or use this activity before a more traditional written dictation.
  5. Move Replace traditional with more active work. Consider a four corners activity, designating up to four parts of the classroom as the “response” spots. To review verb tenses, create present tense, past tense, future, and conditional “spots, ask two students to go to the center of the room. Read and/or hold up a written sentence on cardstock (sentences pre-selected from homework, if desired). Ask students to listen/read the cue, determine the answer, and dash to the correct classroom “spot”. In a literature course, corners might be the characters in a novel; the sentences, citations that each character spoke in the book.

In my immersion classroom, I strive to keep language learning alive, active, and always fun. Above all, I encourage my students to make mistakes, to embrace them, and to learn from them (something that any one of them will tell you I model regularly!)

Though unique in many ways, the immersion classroom serves as a reminder that our students are fundamentally more alike than different, and, as such, it can also be a rich resource for ELL classrooms.