What is Spanish Immersion?

Immersion programs have existed throughout the world for several decades, most notably in Canada and Europe. Immersion programs start children learning a second language at a very young age. The underlying basis for immersion is based upon the ways in which most people learn their first language. Infants build their receptive (listening) vocabularies as they are surrounded by the sounds and words spoken to them in their native tongue. They do not begin speaking until they have been immersed in this language. When they do begin to speak, they model their speech upon that of their parents.  A Spanish immersion program develops an environment in which Spanish is taught naturally, through daily classroom activities. Students are immersed in Spanish in a setting that is supportive and individualized. Students are not pressured, but rather encouraged, to speak Spanish by using repetition, songs, and other motivational strategies.

Interestingly, we know that nearly all humans are born with the ability to pronounce all known phonemes in our world’s languages. However, as children become older, they lose their ability to pronounce many phonemes, depending on the language spoken at home. Thus, over the years, pronouncing sounds not found in their native language becomes increasingly more difficult.  Similarly, more and more evidence suggests that young children, particularly those seven and under, acquire a second language’s grammar much more easily. Recent brain research has confirmed these findings inform us that young children learn a second language in a different manner than older children and adults.  In fact, young children store the second language information in the same area of the brain as the first language information, whereas older children and adults store the information in a different part of the brain (for additional information on this see the addendum). For these reasons, it is very important that children learn a second language at a young age.

Types of Immersion Programs

There are three main models for language immersion schools: full immersion, dual immersion, and partial immersion. Full immersion programs instruct the students entirely in the target language. Typically, these programs teach only Spanish in kindergarten and first grade, and then gradually include more English instruction in second grade.  Dual immersion is a program in which native speakers of two different languages study in the same classroom.  In this country, these programs often combine native English and native Spanish speakers.  In partial immersion models, students study roughly half of the day learning in Spanish and half of the day learning in English.

Many schools have adapted these basic immersion models to suit their needs. Some programs are K-3, others K-6, and others K-12. Some have implemented strict guidelines about which language must be spoken in specific grades and how much instructional time is assigned to each language. Other programs are more flexible in nature and focus more on content area and second language oral proficiency.

Immersion at Fuente Nueva

Full Immersion

At Fuente Nueva we offer a full Spanish immersion program in all grades. Students are given the opportunity to learn a second language by studying all core content areas in Spanish. English is formally introduced in second grade.  Students receive an increased amount of formal instruction in English as they progress in grade levels.  Students will gain a strong foundation in their second language by learning to read and write in Spanish first. Studies show that this is the most effective way for immersion students to gain the most proficiency in both a first and second language.

Spanish Language Standards

Fuente Nueva teach the same Common Core State Standards that are taught in all California public schools. In addition, our program’s immersion goals are also based on the essential language instruction tool, Standards for Language Learning (SLL) in the 21st Century (The U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities; National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 2006). The overriding philosophy of the SLL is that our “nation must educate students who are equipped linguistically and culturally to communicate successfully in a pluralistic American society and abroad.” The SLL document envisions a future in which all students develop and maintain proficiency in both English and at least one other language. The most outstanding aspect of the aforementioned philosophy—summed-up by “Knowing how, when, and why to say what to whom”—is that it goes beyond how (grammar) to say what (vocabulary), and also includes multicultural awareness of world diversity.

Following are the standards that help facilitate this vision and philosophy.

  1. Communication: Communicate in Spanish
  2. Cultures: Gain Knowledge and Understanding of Other Cultures of the World
  3. Connections: Connect with Other Disciplines and Acquire Information
  4. Comparisons: Develop Insight into the Nature of Language and Culture
  5. Communities: Participate in Multilingual Communities at Home and Around the World

With the aid of these standards and the Common Core State Standards, we have begun to establish grade level expectations/benchmarks that will guide our learners. These expectations will focus on measurable goals and objectives for receptive and expressive communication in Spanish for reading, writing and speaking at the beginning and end of each school year for all grade levels.

Benefits of Language Immersion

There a many benefits for the language immersion student with the most obvious being that the child will emerge from the program with proficiency in two languages. Having the capacity to speak in two languages gives most individuals an advantage in the workplace. The language immersion classroom prepares the 21st century learner by creating a strong foundation in global citizenship, which is essential in today’s society. Learning a second language at any age is a gift but students who study a second language at an early age have a distinct advantage over students who begin later.   Students develop a deeper understanding of the language and at the same time are often able to produce native like speech.

Learning a second language can improve a child’s understanding of their own language and culture. As the students acquire language structure in their second language, they are continually making comparisons between their native language and the target language. This strengthens students’ critical thinking skills and helps them learn linguistic strategies, such as paying close attention to cognates, context clues, and patterns. Learning to make connections while scaffolding their understanding to what they already know builds essential and valuable learning skills. Immersion students are also known to develop a greater flexibility in thinking and problem-solving skills. Finally, when teaching in the immersion classroom, the use of a variety of learning strategies that meet the needs of the diverse learning styles present in any classroom is that much more essential, and therefore our classrooms are rich with child-centered learning.

While for years scientists, doctors and educators believed that our I.Q. was a static trait that we were born with, recent research has shown that exercising ones brain can increase ones I.Q. Additionally, there is a lot of emerging research that demonstrates the importance of teaching young children traits such as persistence, focus and curiosity.  An immersion program naturally lends itself to this goal as our students must learn core content standards and a second language at the same time. Our students exit the program with a tenacity and grit that serves them in their future educational endeavors.

English Language Development

Parents are often fearful that immersion education will negatively impact their child’s English language development. Research consistently shows that immersion education actually enhances English language development.  Initially while instruction is occurring primarily in Spanish, the English development for full-immersion students may lag temporarily in reading, word knowledge, and spelling. However, after a year or two of instruction in English language arts, this discrepancy disappears. At Fuente Nueva we anticipate the gaps to close throughout the 2nd and 3rd grade, so that by 4th grade students are performing at grade level in English language development.

Many cognitive processes that are necessary for initial literacy in the immersion language naturally transfer to the learning of English. The transfer of these common foundational skills along with the consistent exposure to English outside of school will provide the support needed for students to develop their English literacy. Research shows that the stronger the development of the native language, the greater the proficiency in the immersion language, so children who enter an immersion program with a strong base in English will succeed more easily than those whose English skills are not as strong. For this reason it is essential for parents to support their child’s English language development by reading and/or engaging their child in language development games for 20 to 30 minutes at a minimum per day.

Organizations that Provide Language Learning Resources for Parents and Educators

  • ACIE, the American Council on Immersion Education, has left an archive of its newsletter for reference.  It has articles on the basics of immersion education, best practices, points for parents, research, and putting research into practice
  • CARLA, the Center for Advanced Research in Language Acquisition, is one of the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI
 National Language Resource Centers, whose role is to improve the nation’s capacity to teach and learn 
foreign languages
  • NABE, the National Association for Bilingual Education, is an advocate for Bilingual and English Language Learners and families as well as Bilingual Education professionals.
  • Nanduti is a comprehensive resource on foreign language teaching and learning in grades preK-8.  There is also a listserv available for sharing ideas and asking questions
  • ACTFL, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, is dedicated to the improvement and expansion of the teaching and learning of all languages at all levels of instruction
  • CAL, the Center for Applied Linguistics is a private, nonprofit organization working to improve communication through better understanding of language and culture and a resource into research into bilingual research