Once upon a time, there was a Spanish teacher who wanted the very best for her students.
In fact, each and every one of her Spanish students had the chance to become near proficient in the language.
It was about sharing some common codes with the native speakers—something that could only be achieved by becoming one of them.
So how can we make this fairy tale come true, and provide that chance to all of our students?
Now I can hear what some of you are thinking, “But there’s no way I could ever turn my school into an immersion school, so what’s the point in reading on?” Not so fast!
Trust me, you’ll want to keep on reading, because I’ve loaded this post with great ideas that you can incorporate into your classroom—even if taking Spanish outside of the Foreign Languages Department is a utopia.
As an immersion student myself, I remember my time in school as challenging, but incredibly rewarding. At times I loved it, at times I hated it, but now, there’s nothing I would change about it!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Spanish Immersion Programs
An immersion program is a curriculum designed to incorporate a second language and develop its acquisition in a natural style. Therefore, the focus is not on learning how the language works, but rather on exploring the language and using it as a vehicle to learn other things.
For some of us, the thought of going to our principal or head teacher and suggesting the school become a Spanish immersion school would cause both laughs and fear. Some of you, though, may be lucky enough to already be there.
No matter your situation, what we all wonder is: How will my students benefit from Spanish immersion? Are all our blood, sweat and tears going to be worth it? Yes, they will!
- The aim of a language immersion is to master a language to a native level, something that cannot be achieved in any other way. Spanish will become a vehicle to access information on any given topic rather than as a subject students have to study.
- Being spoken to in two different languages starting at a young age develops your mental flexibility, which teaches students to differentiate information and focus on what’s relevant.
- As an immersion student, you also gain an in-depth understanding of how the two languages work, enhancing your ability to pick up other languages in the future and transforming language students into linguists.
- It encourages students to think outside their area—outside their cities and counties. It develops their cultural knowledge and sense of citizenship by allowing them to explore different ways of seeing the world.
“OK, it all sounds amazing. Why don’t we just go ahead? Let’s just do it!”
Hold on there for a second. If language immersion were easy, every school would have already done it.
Considerations for Starting a Spanish Immersion Program
Here are a few aspects that need to be considered:
- The age of your students: Immersion works better with younger students. The sooner they access the language, the easier it will be. This ensures that the student is fully competent in the language by the time they have to start studying more complex subjects.
- The ratio of language speakers: The wonderful thing about learning a language is actually being able to use it, so some schools try to get a 2:1 or even 1:1 ratios of speakers of the native language versus Spanish speakers. However, this can be a deal breaker for some families that worry about the social impact this can have on their kids outside of lessons.
- The subjects that are taught in Spanish: As students grow older, they will have to face national or state exams, which must be taken in their native language. This means students must learn the key vocabulary, which limits the choices of subjects that can be taught in Spanish.
- The lack of support from parents at home: Most parents won’t speak Spanish at home, so it will be difficult for them to help their children in their learning or provide opportunities to practice outside of school.
- The impact on behavior: In certain cases, some students find language immersion challenging and become frustrated, which can lead to poor behavior. It may also disengage these students from the Spanish language itself.
How to Incorporate Spanish Immersion in Full Immersion Schools
Best case scenario: Your school is already an immersion school or is planning to become one.
Worst case scenario: After two years of begging, proposals and planning, the governors have only accepted to incorporate Spanish into the school if this does not affect any of the school subjects.
Don’t worry, no matter what side of the coin you are on, here are some ideas for you! Whether you’re putting together a full immersion program or setting up a partial immersion program, the following section is here to help!
Which Subjects Are the Best to Teach in Spanish?
When students are younger, anything and everything can be taught in Spanish, because the aim is not to teach them specific content, but to provide them with the skills they will need when they become older.
However, as they grow up, students start to acquire vocabulary and concepts that are specific to various subjects, which they’ll need to know in order to pass the different external examinations (ACT/SAT, GCSEs, pre-college exams, etc.) in their native language.
So, having this in mind, what are the best subjects to choose when implementing an immersion curriculum or adding classes to your existing program?
- Art, Drama or Music: The focus of artistic classes is usually not on learning a lot of key vocabulary, and in the majority of cases there is no official exam. Even if there is, it mostly requires students to perform different skills. The arts are another way of communicating—just like languages—and they allow students to explore the Spanish and Latin American cultures within the lessons.
- Physical Education: As with the previous group of subjects, PE isn’t usually the subject of external exams, and it’s a fantastic subject in which to promote the use of the second language. It’s easy to understand when combined with actions, and sport-related vocabulary is easily learned outside of school—through TV or the internet!
- Social Studies/Citizenship: Teaching Social Studies (Citizenship) in Spanish is a fantastic way to push students’ thinking outside of their local town. Students can understand that being a citizen is not only about belonging to a country, but also about being part of a global world.
- History of Spain and Latin America: In Spanish immersion programs, it’s necessary to have an understanding of the language’s history and cultural development. This subject is a real asset to the language learning, and can always be taught in the target language.
- Foreign Language: I’m sure half of you here think I’m crazy. But I tried it myself, and it works! You can teach students another foreign language—in Spanish. If your immersion program started in elementary school, by the time the students start this new language, they’ll be near proficient in Spanish. Plus, if this foreign language has Latin origins, like French or Italian, it will be much easier to explain the grammar to them!
“Oh, this all sounds terrific, but I’m afraid I’m part of the ‘worst case scenario’ group. What can I do?”
When students are younger, putting together an immersion program is easier, but as they grow up, the tendency is to move towards a partial-immersion. Some teachers see this as a challenge, as they fear the language will lose its presence in school.
Don’t panic! There are many amazing ways for you to introduce Spanish into your school life without affecting the curriculum!
How to Incorporate Spanish into Your School Without Affecting Curriculum
Take a look at these:
Use Spanish in the lunchroom
Make Spanish the language of the lunchroom at all times. Have staff speak to students in Spanish, write the food choices and menus in Spanish and even get Spanish food once a week!
Put up displays and flags to make your students feel like they’ve popped into a small town in Spain for lunch.
Watch or perform Spanish plays and musicals
Why not bring in a Spanish theater company to perform for the students? These are becoming very popular in big cities, just Google “[City name] Spanish theater company” to see what’s available. You could also try contacting your nearest Spanish Consulate—they might be able to help!
My school brought in a production this year and it was a huge success. It cost under $600, and around 300 students enjoyed it. The theater company also sent us vocabulary and activities to prepare our kids for the performance.
Another idea is for students to organize the plays themselves! You could do this during your lessons or by setting up a Spanish Drama Club. There are great books that can be purchased through Amazon, with adapted plays for different levels and ages.
Have Spanish assemblies
There are always special occasions and dates to commemorate in Spanish and Latin American culture (Día de los Muertos, Los Reyes Magos, Christopher Columbus, etc.). Students can run assemblies in Spanish on different topics, just as you would with their native languages.
In my school, every class organizes an assembly each term for parents and other students. They come up with a way to present the topic and create displays. Depending on their age and language level, students will require more or less help, but the key is to let them make it their own.
Add after school clubs
Run sports clubs, crafts, cooking clubs—all of it in Spanish! Introducing the language through these kinds of activities has the benefits of immersion, without the challenges it can have on the curriculum.
You’ll need to check your school’s procedures to start an after school program, but it’s totally worth it!
Create a Spanish newspaper
Putting together a newspaper is an amazing way for students to develop their written skills in Spanish through many different topics. With younger students, you can start with comics or posters—they’ll love it! This could be as part of your lesson or as an after school club, but as with after school clubs, check school policies to get it up and running.
The key is to get students engaged by allowing them to choose and write about topics they enjoy, with regular meetings to help them with the editing process. This website has links to Spanish schools’ newspapers that can be a fantastic inspiration.
Cover your school in Spanish
Make sure Spanish is present everywhere around the school with displays, names of rooms and directions in the language. If you can, use Spanish when giving your students instructions outside lessons or when making announcements on the PA system!
How to Incorporate Spanish Immersion When a Full School Immersion Is Not Possible
So you’ve read this far and realized that no matter how cool it sounds, there is no way you can get a full or partial immersion program implemented in your school. Don’t worry! As promised, here are some ideas on how to incorporate Spanish immersion into your regular Spanish lessons.
Go to a tapas restaurant
You can either organize a trip to a tapas restaurant in your area, or get food in and prepare a small tasca in your classroom. Students can choose from a menu in Spanish and make their orders in the language while enjoying Spanish food and music! You could even combine it with some cooking workshops!
Use FluentU in and outside of class
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. FluentU is designed to get your students comfortable with everyday Spanish, by combining all the benefits of complete immersion and native-level conversations with easy-to-read subtitles.
We’ve got a tremendous collection of authentic Spanish videos that people in the Spanish-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices here when you’re looking for material for in-class activities or homework. Plus, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students.
Each video has interactive subtitles. If a student comes across a word they’re unfamiliar with, they can hover their cursor over the subtitled word. That word’s definition, pronunciation and in-context usage examples will all pop up on-screen instantly. This is what your students will get after they click “watch” on a video. Clicking “learn” opens up a whole new learning experience for them.
Perhaps the most interesting part of FluentU is its learn mode. Learn mode takes videos and turns them into fully personalized Spanish learning lessons, such that the student’s learning history is taken into account when presenting questions. FluentU’s algorithm sets students up for success by teaching them based on what they know.
All the vocabulary and grammar from the video is taught and reinforced through varied repetition (practicing the same concepts in different forms and contexts). They’ll play with flashcards, games, word matches and exercises like “fill in the blank.”
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that they’re learning, and it recommends examples and videos based on what they’ve already learned. Every student has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re learning the same video.
Using FluentU, students will be more engaged and learn better.
Use FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU App for iPad and iPhone from the iTunes store.
While you can definitely build lessons around FluentU, the online immersion platform provides students with fantastic at-home practice, with fresh new videos being added every week.
Experience Spanish cinema
If you can’t take your classes to watch a Spanish film, set up a cinema in school. Choose a movie, prepare the tickets and popcorn, and get your students to buy them in Spanish! You can then do activities about the film you just watched (check out the resources at Todo Ele).
Watch a soccer tournament
Get your students together to watch some of the best games in the Spanish or Latin American soccer leagues, which can be watched on ESPN or online through RojaDirecta.
You could even organize a sweepstakes (with prizes!) in which students try to guess the final score of different matches. Just put a box outside your room with small slips of paper, and start collecting students’ guesses. Be sure to get the students excited! I did this last year during the World Cup and it was a huge success!
Have a Spanish market
Students can create their own stalls and sell hand-made articles like bracelets or cards in a Spanish market. You could also get some food or Spanish goodies and give your students some fake money to buy the snacks using their fantastic shopping vocabulary they just learned the week before. If your budget is low, just borrow classroom items from around the school to “sell” at your market.
Plan a fashion week
Doing a unit on clothes? Pretend you’re at the Cibeles Fashion Week and get your students to present their most original designs using the language! This could be done in class, or recorded at home and watched in class if students have recording materials available.
Visit a Spanish school or the Instituto Cervantes
If you have any Spanish schools in your area, why not ask them if you could visit one day? Your students could experience what it’s like to pop into a Spanish-speaking country without leaving their own town.
Another possibility is to check out the Instituto Cervantes in your city, where they normally organize great activities for Spanish learners. As with after school clubs, it’s important to check the school procedures beforehand, and depending on the nature of the trip, you may want to put together some activities to prepare students for the adventure before you go!
Set up a language exchange
Getting pen pals has never been easier with the internet. There are many websites that connect teachers from different countries and allow you to communicate via email or Skype, or even organize collaborative projects that students from both countries have to complete together! My favorites are Pen Pals Schools, Epals and The Teacher’s Corner.
Organize a trip abroad
If you ever get a chance to organize a trip to a Spanish-speaking country, you’ll realize it’s one of the most rewarding experiences of all. It may be that you go to meet your pen pals, or go for a couple of days to visit a new city. Or it could even be a summer camp abroad!
The cool thing about language immersion is that it’s challenging and demanding, but allows you to explore a huge range of possibilities, experiment and be creative.
No matter which ways you’re able to implement Spanish immersion, it will be an unforgettable experience for your students, have a huge impact on their learning and become the most fulfilling part of your job!
So stop dreaming and make your fairy tale a reality by implementing some of these ideas today! Because with Spanish immersion, you and your students can live happily ever after.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach Spanish with real-world videos.