Immersion Bilingual Education: What It Is and How to Implement It

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.

How does the teacher create an immersive environment for a new language while utilizing students’ native language?

Read on for an overview of immersion bilingual education models, how to determine which is right for your situation, tips for implementing your program and how to measure its success.


What Is Immersion Bilingual Education?

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 set 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.

Confusion often arises because “immersion” and “bilingual education” are two different things!

Immersion is a particular type of language teaching in which the target language is the content and 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:

  • Total immersion: 100% of the school day is in the target language.
  • Partial immersion: Half of the instruction is in the target language and half is in the students’ native language.
  • Two-way immersion: Students receive instruction in both their native and target languages.

Typically, partial immersion involves students who speak the same native language. The two-way model, on the other hand, means that students of different language backgrounds are combined in one classroom, accessing the same content together.

You can probably already see how immersion and bilingual education can be related now.

Bilingual education effectively 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 classic models of bilingual education:

  • Enrichment: The goal is to integrate a 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.

  • 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 by implementing instruction in this language.

  • Maintenance: 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.

    For instance, native Spanish speakers in an American classroom learn Spanish for no other purpose than enhancing their ability to learn English.

  • 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.

The benefits of immersion bilingual education are many. The success of this language learning method is well-documented: It can improve students’ attention span and reading ability, and make them more empathetic.

Besides, immersion bilingual education meets all the criteria for effective teaching and learning: It is student-centered, task-oriented and equitable.

How to Determine Which Immersion Bilingual Model to Use

Problems with immersion bilingual education arise because teachers often lack the training and/or resources to make the method effective.

To choose an immersion bilingual education model that works for your situation, you can start by considering these questions about staff requirements and support of the program:

  • 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 different immersion model will have to make do.

  • How will we train staff?

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

  • Are parents and local authorities on board with this endeavor?

    Communicate with parents regularly via meetings, emails and phone calls to make sure that they understand your goals. Give them information on the value of immersion bilingual education programs, especially if this will be a totally new endeavor.

    A good source to refer them to is CARLA (the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition), who also compiled a list for parents of the proven benefits of immersion education. This article from Education Week is also a useful source of data.

Next, carefully consider students’ curriculum targets and how their immersion learning might affect their overall academics:

  • How many years will students be engaged in this program?

    Early immersion programs, which start at age five or six, can have very different goals from those that start later in students’ development. It’s 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 in order to cover all of the appropriate subjects.

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

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

Lastly, you’ll want to be clear on the logistics of the program and how you’ll measure and achieve goals:

  • 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 choose, find materials with language that is simple enough to be accessible for all students.

  • 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 also determine the model you choose and how you set it up.

  • 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’re advancing towards your goals as the year progresses.

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

Tips for Implementing Immersion Bilingual Education

If you’re 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. Your colleagues are a wealth of information. Another great resource is other schools that have successful immersion bilingual education programs. Observe their classes and chat with instructors.
  • Come up with creative themes and subjects. What about putting Mandarin Chinese vocabulary to a tune as part of a music class? Or learning Spanish through word problems in math? You can also combine teaching art with language. And if you’re feeling inspired, your students will too.
  • Keep it task oriented. The magic of immersion and bilingual teaching is that they get you away from traditional memorization drills and instead immerse the students in a more realistic learning setting. Keep classroom tasks relevant and focused on those of real life—consider activities like role plays, presentations and cooking classes.
  • Use visuals. Infographics, posters, drawings, signs, slideshow presentations…these will all help you hold your students’ interest and make lessons more memorable. You can even use a virtual immersion program such as FluentU to show level-appropriate target language videos to your students alongside tools like multimedia flashcards and personalized quizzes.
  • 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!

Signs of a Successful Immersion Bilingual Program

You picked an immersion bilingual education model and got it up and running. So how can you tell if your program is truly 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’ll be able to tell you what it is and why it is of value to the students.
  • The teachers are highly qualified. All of the teachers involved in the program 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 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.


The benefits of 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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