Bilingual is Better

This week’s Ask an Expert is a very special one since we are welcoming a new expert to our wonderful panel.  Her name is Melanie McGrath and her expertise is on bilingual education.  Read more about her below and click  here to send her your questions.

Today´s question was sent by Chris Cannon:

“What are the advantages/disadvantages of full immersion school versus half-immersion school? Background: We have boy/girl twins who have attended (full) Spanish immersion preschool for the last two years (totalling 4-7 hours/week of exposure). Neither my husband nor I are bilingual, though I do know some Spanish and have been improving on it and using it more with the kids the last couple of years. For kindergarten next year I have to make a choice between 5 mornings a week of full-immersion or half-immersion and am wondering which would be more beneficial for language and all-around learning?”

Dear Chris:

If your long-term goal is that you would like your children to be highly proficient in both languages, then a full immersion program would be more beneficial in kindergarten. Research has demonstrated that students in both types of programs will score comparably in English by the end of elementary school, but students who receive more instruction in the target language (i.e., Spanish, French, German, etc) over the course of the program will attain higher levels of second language proficiency than students who are only immersed in the target language for half of the day.

You mentioned that your children have been in a full immersion preschool for two years and have spent approximately four to seven hours a week learning Spanish. In many states children attend kindergarten classes for only half the day, which consist of no more than three hours of total classroom instruction per day. If your children will only attend a half-day program, this would mean that your children would only receive about five to seven hours of instruction in Spanish per week, which might not be sufficient exposure to develop high levels of proficiency in Spanish if they only receive exposure during the school day.

On the other hand, you also mentioned that your children have attended an immersion preschool for two years and that you are also beginning to incorporate Spanish literacy into the home. Have your children already developed a basic understanding of Spanish? If your children have a basic understanding of Spanish, have opportunities to practice Spanish outside of the school day, or will be enrolling in a full-day kindergarten program, then a half immersion program will be sufficient to develop high levels of literacy in both languages.

What is more important than the “time spent in Spanish or English” dilemma is the quality of the instructional approach you choose. We know from research which instructional components are necessary in order to have high-quality bilingual programs. When enrolling your children in either a total or partial immersion program, you will want to compare the programs in terms of the critical components that make bilingual programs successful. You can consult my “A Parent’s Guide to the Critical Components of Effective Bilingual Programs” as a starting point.

I wish you luck in choosing the instructional program that best suits your particular situation. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section and I will do my best to assist you.

Melanie McGrath is a coordinator of Dual Immersion and transitional bilingual education programs in Southern California. She provides professional development training and assistance to parents, bilingual teachers and administrators in the areas of biliteracy development, bilingual program design and English language development. Melanie can also be found blogging on Multilingual Mania.

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