Inspired Ideas
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Inspired Ideas

Tips for Teaching in an Elementary Dual Language Immersion Program

By Laura Head, Educator

My first four years teaching stateside were spent piloting a new bilingual classroom. Recently returned from two years in France, I jumped into a 3rd-grade classroom in New York City, where I was to teach French to Anglophones and English to Francophones.

Easier said than done! But a number of strategies came together along the way, making my language learners more avid, confident, and resourceful in their apprenticeship. Here are a few of my favorites:

Visuals to the Rescue

I had a clothesline in the classroom that traversed the ceiling, to it pinned the verb conjugations du jour. Many of my students had taped to their desks a little glossary of commonly used terms and phrases in their second language. A thematic word wall graced the corner of the Language Arts bulletin boards. Social expressions and frequently asked questions (e.g. Can I go to the bathroom? Or, Do you have a pencil I can borrow?) framed the doorway. Hours, days, and months were named next to our daily calendar. A stack of laminated notecards with a term and picture accompanied my verbal directions, for a visual cue on the book, folder, journal, or binder that students asked to take out.

Why so many visuals?

To start, it’s a secondary point of entry for learners. While some are auditory learners, others will benefit from the reference by sight. And for all, the visible cues bolster phonetic language acquisition; students can match the sounds they hear to the spellings provided for them.

At least as important, these visual resources give students the opportunity to grow in their own autonomy and resilience. Students use these glossaries to seek their own references and answers without disrupting their independent work.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Consider the visual resources described above. If these are remaining isolated to their own units of study, authentic and enriching learning opportunities are passing you by.

Consider that the literature-based word wall in the back of the classroom can also be co-opted to recount a story about your weekend, or one, as a “popcorn word” during morning news and discussion. The same laminated notecards that accompany directions can draw new attention during afternoon clean-up when you want papers filed away and desks straightened. The hours of the day and days of the week can be recycled during a transition, reminding students not just that it’s time to move to math, but that it’s 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, and we’re taking out our math supplies.

This sort of overlay challenges students to climb higher up on Bloom’s Taxonomy, moving up from remembering and understanding the quotidien terms, to being able to apply them in a multiverse of scenarios.

Call and Answer

Among the most rewarding moments in a student’s language learning is when they pluck up the courage to try out their second language in conversation, warts and all. It’s also a perfect opportunity to commend and correct.

A language learner’s first attempt at asking for a bathroom break may sound like, May can I to go bathroom?

Your response should celebrate the attempt (we’re all about growth mindset, after all!), and repeat the question back, modeling the right vocabulary and phrasing. You are really good at chatting in English! “May I go to the bathroom?” Yes, totally, you may go.

As adults, we innately do a lot of this in our first language; engaging kids in conversations of new ideas, we often echo back to them our own answers, supplying them with more fitting vocabulary that they’ll use in the future to elevate their own explanations. Fortunately, the practice transcends language barriers and can be a powerful tool for sneaking in high-level terms. With enough repetition, these will scaffold a student’s second language schema towards greater fluency.

Invite participation

Relentless modeling offered by the teacher is an invaluable part of the learning process. But so is the invitation to students to parrot the modeling you’re doing.

The amount of time spent in the silent period will vary from one emergent language learner to another; for some, it may be weeks, and for others, years. To invite participation is not to disrupt the unique pathway each student is on. Rather, it’s to acknowledge them where they are in their learning journey and to give them actionable nods of encouragement along the way.

For some students, inviting participation may be offering a frequently asked question, and gesturing for them to echo it back to you (see above). For others, it may be pulling out just one word from the same question (bonus points if it’s a word that also appears on the daily schedule, the word wall, or in their personal glossary!), and asking for a repeat. For others yet, inviting participation may mean engaging in a little conversation, based on the objective of practicing specific terms, exercising particular verb conjugations, or checking for masculine/feminine adjectives.

This practice puts the onus of learning on students, aligning of course with the student-centered learning that we regularly strive to implement. Differentiating to the needs of each individual validates their own place in the process and holds them accountable to continue growing.

The Power of the Written Word

Finally, returning to the physical resources that are available for language learning: Don’t quit on any one reading resource too soon.

Studies show that more than reading a breadth of texts, the bilingual learner benefits from a deep and sustained reading of fewer books.

For emergent language learners, then, revisit the same text a few times over, with a fresh perspective each time. If the first reading focused on characters and their motivations, the second reading can explore settings of time and place, and the third, cause and effect. Holding onto the same book garners competence and confidence, and swapping objectives keeps it all from getting boring.

One day, you may also realize that words from around the classroom make their own appearance in a book’s deep read. This perfect storm of language coinciding is its own reward; You go home confident that in your classroom, students are maximizing their potential to learn a second language!

Teaching students to be bilingual, on top of your everyday classroom demands, can be taxing. A few mindful shifts in daily rhythms, though, can have a seismic effect on the language acquisition that students are able to build. Good luck!

Laura Head is the founding director of Heads Up Learning, a tutoring company specializing in school support and enrichment for bilingual learners. She previously piloted a bilingual program in grades 3 and 4 in a NYC public school. Laura earned her Masters in Education Policy and Social Analysis from Columbia University, and practices research in education cost analysis alongside her tutoring initiative.

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