Playgroups, I can’t praise them enough. Not only has ours been a great way to expose Vanessa to Spanish spoken by her peers, but it’s also become like a second family for me. I’ve become really good friends with some of the other mamás and we rely on each other for anything from babysitting to accountant recommendations. And, just the other day, it was through one of the mothers, actually through the founder of our group, that I found out a new full language immersion charter school is going to open its doors here in Denver in August.
Now, we’ve done our share of articles related to bilingual/dual language education, but even while doing the research for these, I’d never really heard of the full immersion option. The closest I have written about is the 90:10 model where Spanish (or any other target minority language) is used 90% of the time, while English is used 10% of the time. So, I was eager to find out what this new option was all about.
“The school is full immersion, that means from 8 o’clock to 3 o’clock for Kindergarten, first and second grade, it’s either all Mandarin or all Spanish,” said Danielle Carrigo, the head of Denver Language School during a recent information session.
In other words, students will learn history, music, science and language arts – among other courses – exclusively in Spanish until they reach third grade and they start receiving two hours of English instruction per day.
Even when I’m all for dual language immersion programs, I must admit that the idea of my children not receiving any kind of instruction in English until the third grade was a bit disconcerting, but research shows there’s nothing to worry about.
“I’ve worked with language programs for the last 20 years, I can tell you that English is the very, very least of my worries,” she explained. “”Please don’t worry about English, your children are going to do just fine, we’ll be testing to be sure, but they’re going to be just fine.”
In terms of literacy, for example, research shows that students in full immersion programs develop initial literacy in the minority language, but more importantly they learn to understand the relationship between the spoken language and the written word and other cognitive processes associated with the ability to read, which are transferable from one language to another.
“You only need to learn how to read once,” Carrigo said. “The language doesn’t matter.” (As long as the languages share the same alphabet, of course.)
Students are tested three times a year in English to gauge how they’re doing in both reading comprehension and math. In the case of Denver Language School, if the child is found not to be at grade-level, he would receive English intervention with a specialist. The twist? This would occur during the after-school program from 3 to 5 p.m.
Carrigo went on to explain that when you use English exams to test both children who’ve learned only in English and those who’ve learned only in another language, the children that have been in these immersion programs outperform their peers in math and English-reading. She did admit that there’s a dip in third grade because testing starts in that grade, but in fourth, fifth and sixth grade the full immersion students outperform their monolingual peers. So, full immersion programs teaches students a foreign language while strengthening their understanding of their native language.
“That’s really the reason that we’re doing this program because children will do better academically,” she added. “The second reason are the huge benefits that bilingual, bi-cultural, bi-literacy skills brings them.”
If you’re bilingual, you know exactly what she’s talking about. Still, I haven’t decided if I’m going to enter the lottery system to see if Vanessa gets a spot at Denver Language School next school year. It has nothing to do with the full immersion method–in the end, it’s not a lot different than the 90:10 model–but rather with the location. It’d probably be a good 45-minutes, considering rush hour traffic, to get there every morning. Am I really willing to make that kind of sacrifice to ensure Vanessa and eventually her baby brother are bilingual + bi-literate?