Immersion Bilingual Education for Your Students and School: How to Get Started

In a way, immersion bilingual education should be the goal of every language teacher.

After all, immersion most closely mimics the way we learn our first language.

And in teaching students a second language, we are already creating a bilingual setting to some degree.

But the nuts and bolts of bringing a bilingual immersion model to life in a classroom or a school can be elusive.

Is it possible to bring the glorious chaos of real life into the practical daily structures of a classroom setting?

Yes, we emphatically believe that it is.

And we are going to give you some ideas for how to make this happen for your students.

Whether you are already working with your fellow teachers to establish an immersion bilingual program or you are wondering how to implement elements of bilingual immersion in your school, classroom and curriculum, this post is for you.

But first, let’s put things in perspective with a brief overview of what immersion bilingual education is, why it is challenging and, most importantly, why it is valuable for your students.

Bringing Immersion Bilingual Education to Life: A Teacher’s Guide

A Brief History of Immersion Bilingual Education

Immersion bilingual education has its roots back in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, especially the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Public education, in the U.S., at least, became “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” That set the scene for the Bilingual Education Acts of 1968 and 1974 and the precedent that students must be able to access education equally regardless of language barriers.

Unfortunately, bilingual education has not always met its full potential when it has been implemented. Without a clear vision, educators have struggled with the reality and practicalities of it.

If you are in the trenches of language teaching, you already know that the benefits of immersion bilingual education are too great to pass up. The success of this method of language learning is well-documented.

We know that bilingual education can improve students’ attention span and reading ability, and make them more empathetic. Besides, it meets all the criteria for effective teaching and learning: it is student-centered, task-oriented and equitable.

But problems arise because teachers often lack the training to make immersion bilingual education effective.

In fact, many of us still aren’t sure exactly what immersion bilingual education even is!

What Is Immersion Bilingual Education, and What Does It Mean for You and Your Students?

Confusion arises because “immersion” and “bilingual education” are actually two different things.

Immersion is a particular type of language teaching in which the target language is the content and also the medium of instruction. In other words, it is both the vehicle for learning and the package that is delivered. You learn the language by receiving instruction in the language.

There are three widely accepted immersion models.

  1. Total immersion. In this model, 100% of the school day is in the target language.
  1. Partial immersion. Half of the instruction is in the target language, while the other half is in the students’ native language.
  1. Two-way immersion. In this model, students receive instruction in both their native and the target language. It is different from partial immersion, because students of different language backgrounds are typically combined in one classroom, accessing the same content together.

“Bilingualism” is completely different from immersion, but the two practices can be combined. Effectively, bilingual education just means that students receive instruction in two languages. For example, classes might be taught in Spanish for part of the day and then in English for another part of the day.

There are four different models of bilingual education, based on your program’s goals.

  1. Enrichment. In this model, the goal is to integrate the minority target language (and its culture) into the community. For example, if you teach in an English school with a large population of native French speakers, the focus of your program will be to make French language and culture a part of school and classroom life.
  1. Heritage. The goal of this model is to revive a languishing indigenous language. For example, some schools in Mexico are trying to revive the ancient Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs.
  1. Maintenance. In this model, students’ receive instruction in both languages solely so that they can become more proficient in the target language. No effort is made to deepen or extend knowledge of the native language. With this model, native Spanish speakers in an American classroom learn Spanish for no other purpose than enhancing their ability to learn English.
  1. Transitional. This model aims to leave the students’ native language completely behind and fully embrace the target language.

Understanding these different models of immersion and bilingual learning is important as you try to decide what your goals are and how best to meet them.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you reflect on the model best suited to your goals.

Questions to Ponder While Creating an Immersion Bilingual Curriculum and Education Model

Ask yourself these questions as you try to choose an immersion bilingual education model that works for you.

How many years will students be engaged in this program?

Early immersion programs (those starting at age 5 or 6) can have very different goals from those of middle or late immersion programs. It is also reasonable to assume that a “maintenance” or “transition” model will reach completion sooner than a “heritage” or “enrichment” model, which have more long-term goals.

Can we make sure that students in a bilingual program will be taught the same core subjects as their peers?

One of the criticisms of bilingual education is that students often do not perform as well on standardized tests. An effective program will include reading, math, science, social studies and the arts.

Can we communicate with students in the target language at least 90% of the time?

If your goal is total immersion, all staff will need to communicate with students in the target language at all times. If this seems unrealistic, a total immersion model may not be ideal.

How will we train staff?

In any good program, all staff needs to be on board. Schedule meetings and training opportunities on a regular basis to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

What will we use for materials?

Any textbooks, worksheets or resource materials need to reflect your goals. If your goal is a two-way immersion program, then any materials should be written in the language of instruction.

For example, if Art is taught in French, then all textbooks and examples for that class should be in French. If Social Studies is taught in Spanish, then all materials should be in Spanish. In a 100% immersion program, all materials would be written solely in the target language. Whatever model you have chosen, find materials with language that is simple enough to be accessible for all students.

Are parents and local authorities on board with this endeavor? 

Communicate with parents regularly via meetings, email and phone calls to make sure that they understand your goals. Give them information on the value of immersion bilingual education programs.

A good source to refer them to is CARLA (the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition). They have compiled a list for parents of the proven benefits of immersion education.

Check out this blog post on Education Week for even more data about the the value of bilingual learning to young children and the growth of their brains.

What basic skills (writing, reading comprehension, etc.) will students need to master in order to succeed?

Before starting on a journey, you need a basic road map. Look at academic expectations for each grade level and structure your curriculum to reflect them. Make sure you are clear about the ways students will demonstrate learning.

What are our goals for the program?

Do you want students to become completely fluent in the target language? Or do you just want them to gain appreciation for the language and the culture? Your goals will determine the model you choose.

How will we monitor progress? 

Look at your program and curriculum and ask yourself: “How will I know that I’ve succeeded after a year?” Check in with colleagues often. Survey parents and students. Do whatever it takes to verify that you are advancing towards your goals as the year progresses.

Learn more about CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) for other considerations to guide you as you construct your immersion program.

Signs of a Successful Immersion Bilingual Education Program

How to tell if your program truly is succeeding? Here are the signs of an effective program.

  • The administration and staff are supportive and knowledgeable. Ask anyone that works in your school about your initiative for immersion bilingual education, and they will be able to tell you what it is and why it is of value to the students.
  • Teachers are highly qualified. All the teachers on staff are qualified in their subject matter.
  • The vision has been clearly communicated. Everyone understands the curriculum and model, and all your fellow travelers know the final destination.
  • There are many opportunities for parent involvement. Parents are invited to volunteer and they are frequently informed of student progress, so they feel like a part of the process.
  • The classroom is structured. Discipline and orderly routines help students feel less chaotic as they try to navigate the unpredictable world of language acquisition.

Tips for Getting Started

If you are trying to get an immersion bilingual education program off the ground, don’t feel overwhelmed! Here are some guidelines to help.

  • Seek out the knowledge of colleagues and experts. Collaborate with subject area teachers when a lesson doesn’t go well. Your colleagues are a wealth of information. Another great resource lies in other schools that have successful immersion bilingual education programs. Observe classes and chat with instructors.

  • Come up with creative themes and subjects. What about putting Mandarin Chinese vocabulary to music as part of a Music class? Or learning Spanish through word problems in Math? You can even combine teaching art with language. If you are feeling inspired, so will your students.

  • Keep it task-oriented. The magic of immersion and bilingual teaching is that they get you away from traditional memorization and drills, and immerse the students in a more realistic learning setting. Keep tasks in the classroom relevant and focused on the problems and tasks of real life. Consider activities like role play, presentations and cooking classes.

  • Use visuals. Infographics, posters, drawings, signs, slideshow presentations…these will all help you hold your students’ interest and make the lesson more memorable.

  • Celebrate success. Immersion bilingual education is hard, so reward yourselves for progress. Incorporate celebrations of individual and group success into the routine life of the classroom, and watch your students’ motivation soar.


The benefits to bilingual and immersion education are endless!

Don’t be intimidated by a lack of knowledge from reaping these benefits.

All you need is some intentionality and a little enthusiastic collaboration to give your students an added edge not just in language learning, but in other disciplines, too.

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