Stuck behind a screen for distance learning, California teachers in dual-language classrooms are trying to come up with new ways to immerse their students in two languages.
Hundreds of schools in California have dual-language immersion programs, which teach children both in English and another language, such as Spanish, Korean, Mandarin or Vietnamese. The programs help students fluent in English learn another language, while helping other students retain their native language while learning English. The classes are designed so both groups can become bilingual.
With most instruction now remote and with less class time, students don’t spend as much time exposed to their new language. In addition, students are no longer learning from playing and talking with each other in the classroom and on the playground. An important part of dual-immersion is that both groups model their own languages for each other.
“Normally, in our schools we would have students constantly turning to each other and chatting with each other, and they would be practicing specific language that they’re learning and talking about the text that they’re reading and writing,” said Thea Fabian, vice principal of Fresno Unified’s Wawona K-8 School, which teaches elementary-age children in Spanish and English. “What makes it especially difficult in this context is you can’t do that very effectively. You can do that sort of, but it’s not the same.”
California is actively trying to expand the number of dual-immersion programs as part of a state initiative to get half of all K-12 students participating in programs by 2030 that teach them two or more languages. Some proponents of bilingual education are concerned that schools that are just beginning to develop their programs will decide to put those plans on hold amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Jan Gustafson-Corea, CEO of the California Association for Bilingual Education, said expanding immersion programs is essential, especially for English learners.
“We’ve seen through research that those students who are in those programs do so much better in all areas, both in the target language and in English,” Gustafson-Corea said. “It might feel more challenging, it might take a tad bit longer, but if you’re in that process and move forward with that, even during the pandemic and distance learning you can still do it.”
Some teachers have sent home materials like plastic tokens to do hands-on math, seeds to grow plants, or watercolors to do art, which help the children learn the language by following directions. To get young children talking, some teachers designate a student of the week, who shares something they like with the rest of the class. The other children ask questions and then write down sentences about what that child likes.
Teachers are also sharing video or audio of themselves or others reading books aloud or singing songs or chants, so that even when children are not participating in live instruction, they can listen to the language and learn complex vocabulary, which is important both for students who are learning the language for the first time and for those who speak the language at home.
“If we’re studying plants and animals, or habitats, and we’re going to study the rainforest, we do chants related to that unit of study. We use advanced vocabulary, even in first grade,” said Linda Montes, assistant superintendent of educational equity for Redwood City School District, south of San Francisco. “Students can more easily access that language if they’re singing about it and chanting about it.”
In one video shared by the district, Vanessa Sanchez, a second grade teacher at Adelante Selby Spanish Immersion School, sings a song in Spanish about the importance of making your voice heard when you see injustice. Another second grade teacher, Albert López, wrote the song, and the entire second grade team used it as part of their unit on government and leaders.