Ever wondered what they mean when they say, “Make the language come alive for your students?”
One of the best ways to do exactly that is to present the language in authentic, meaningful ways, thereby immersing your students in the language.
We’ll talk about that and more in this post.
Our topic here is immersion teaching, and we’ll be looking at ten ways you can do it in class.
What’s Immersion Teaching?
Immersion teaching is based on a simple concept: If you can’t actually be in a country where the language is spoken, you should make your learning environment as authentic as possible by “immersing” your students in as much of the language and culture as possible.
An immersion teacher is no ordinary teacher of language. They’re a facilitator of experience. Even if the whole class is actually sitting in a public school classroom in Kansas, an immersion teacher can still transport the whole lot of them to the Land of Oz.
So the basic question in immersion teaching is: How do I let the students experience Japan, or Spain or Germany? Note here that the question is not: How do I teach Japanese, Spanish or German? There’s an important distinction there, which we’ll discuss later.
For immersion teaching to hit the right notes, remember these three pillars of the whole approach: The use of authentic materials, emphasis on communication over language and the interdisciplinary nature of language learning.
Before looking at the strategies, let’s quickly review those three pillars of immersion teaching.
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The 3 Pillars of Immersion Teaching
Pillar 1: Use of authentic materials
Authentic materials are your bread and butter as an immersion teacher. They’re your go-to materials. So what exactly are they? Well, simply put, authentic materials are what your students will find if they actually get on a plane and go to the country where the target language is spoken. That includes newspapers, TV shows, radio programs, books and other materials that native speakers use in their day-to-day lives.
There really is no limit to the kinds of authentic materials you can bring to the classroom. For example, something as simple as an unassuming identification card, like this Italian ID, can be a vehicle to teach concepts and vocabulary pertaining to gender, address, age and other personal information.
Note that these kinds of materials were never actually designed to teach language. In fact, it’s assumed that those who use and consume them already have a working knowledge of the language. Authentic material is where the rubber meets the road. It’s the result of native speakers communicating with each other, sending and receiving messages. Speaking of which, we proceed to the next pillar.
Pillar 2: Emphasis on communication over language
With immersion teaching, you’re preparing your students to be able to effectively communicate in the target language. You’re not preparing them for a big exam at the end of the course or dishing out some test-taking strategies and tips to ace an evaluation.
Immersion teaching is about providing your students with a myriad of situations that display the use of the target language. You’re not just talking about the language, describing its rules and forms—from a distance—as if it’s a precious museum exhibit enclosed in a showcase. You’re actually using it, taking it for a spin and encouraging everyone to do so.
That’s why in immersion teaching, only the target language is used as the medium of instruction. The challenge here is to make yourself understandable to your students in the target language. Later on, we’ll talk about some of the ways you can do exactly that.
To be truly immersive, you also must require your students to address you only in the target language. At the same time, though, you should be encouraging them, letting them understand that the world won’t end even if they let out a statement riddled with grammatical oddities.
You provide your students with every opportunity to wield the target language through task-oriented activities like role-playing which encourage them to speak the language.
Such things focus on the communicative aspects of the language, the only thing that truly matters. It drives home to your students that “Mandarin,” for example, isn’t just some subject one takes up in school. Instead, it’s a way of sending (and receiving) meaningful messages—and it’s one that over a billion people use every day.
Pillar 3: The interdisciplinary nature of language learning
You might ask, “If I’m not going to talk about the language during class, then what should I be talking about?”
Well, everything else!
If you’re a French teacher, then talk about photography in French, history in French, biology in French and, of course, French cooking in French! You integrate language and content.
We know from our experience as kids that learning a language is so much more than opening a textbook and memorizing a bunch of rules. We didn’t learn our native language that way. Truth of the matter is, we were already grammatically sound even before we sat down for our first grammar class.
We learned it in real life, in full color, when we did everyday activities like watching mom cook, trying to figure out what grandpa was saying about grandma or washing the car with dad.
You mimic this in class by talking about different topics and subjects, very much like how a native speaker comes to acquire language. But you don’t talk about different topics in the context of a language lesson or some grammar point that you wish to drive home. Instead, you talk about it for its own sake. It’ll make your classes infinitely more interesting—just remember to conduct the talks in the target language.
These different topics—pop culture, sports, word events, movies, etc.—are the actual bearers of the language that you wish to teach. They have their constituent vocabularies, terms and phrases that make the language come to life. So spend time working with them in your classroom and allow the topics to provide the necessary context that makes the language stick in your students’ memories.
Of course, talking about home gardening will not teach your wards everything they need to know about German. You actually need to include different topics or subjects in your class, so your students can benefit from the accumulation of linguistic experience. The more varied your subjects, the better.
Next, we turn to some of the strategies that boost your effectiveness as a teacher.
10 Awesome Immersion Teaching Strategies to Give Your Classes Life Again!
1. Use Stacking to Repeat Lessons Without Being Repetitive
Stacking is a teaching strategy that involves repeatedly hitting a language concept or word by using different examples and situations, and stimulating a wide variety of senses.
Let’s say you want to teach greetings to your students. You can incorporate them in different points of your lesson, from the moment you walk in to the time you dismiss your students. You can do greetings while telling a story, letting the animal characters greet each other in your story. In a role-playing situation, you can coach the students to greet each other first before they move on to their spiels. You can show a video clip of strangers meeting each other. You can even create a game out of it.
Each variety of example or activity will synergize with others so the concepts are embedded into long-term memory. You don’t really need to have a long and drawn-out session about greetings. You just have to incorporate them in everything else that you do.
For example, you may be just telling a story about a little girl named Sally and three cute bears named Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. But if in your story that little girl says “Good night!” to each of the bears, then it starts to look something like this:
“Good night, Monday!” “Good night, Sally!” And Monday went to bed.
“Good night, Tuesday!” “Good night, Sally!” And Tuesday crawled to bed.
“Good night, Wednesday!” “Good night, Sally!” And Wednesday turned off the lights.
You now already have six repetitions of the greeting in these lines alone, not to mention a similarly stacked lesson on days of the week.
Stack lessons over and over, and your students won’t even notice they’ve mastered the topic.
2. Use Visuals for Comprehensible Input
A very big issue in teaching is “comprehensible input.” This simply means that as a teacher, you should make sure that students understand the majority of what comes out of your mouth. Otherwise, you’ll run the risk of talking to yourself in front of a room of blankly staring students.
Comprehensible input is described as using material that’s one step higher than your students’ present language proficiency levels.
So for intermediate learners, for example, you should give them materials that are “high intermediate,” just something to stretch their proficiency a little bit. You don’t want to give them material that’s too easy, because then they’ll grow bored and clam up. And you don’t want to give them lessons that are so hard that they’ll lose confidence and clam up. You want to give them something just challenging enough, yet still within reach.
One of the most effective ways to ensure comprehensible input is by using visuals—things like pictures, videos, actual objects or manipulatives and realia. Since they’re not doing in-country immersion, actually roughing it up in the streets of Rome, you have to bring the content into the classroom.
Visuals are the way to go. Of course, you already know this. If students see something, then they already know something about it. So for example, instead of using a hundred Spanish words to explain what a garden is, describing how beautiful it is, you simply show them a picture of a beautiful garden, point to it and say, “Jardín!” Then they already know exactly what you mean. The material isn’t too easy (they’ve never heard of it before), but it’s also not so hard as to escape immediate grasp.
By employing things that they can see, touch or interact with, you’re working on the memory centers of their brains. You not only make lessons comprehensible, you’re making them stick.
3. Use Gestures and Tones Practically Every Time You Open Your Mouth
Visual aids, realia and manipulatives are employed by practically all the teaching approaches, and more so by immersion teaching. But they do come at the cost of heavy preparation on the part of the teacher.
And sometimes—and this is an experience shared by all teachers, no matter how hard you try—there’s just no perfect visual that encapsulates the thing or concept that you want to convey. So what’s an immersion teacher to do?
Using proper gestures, body language and exaggerated voice are effective ways of ensuring comprehensible input. The beautiful thing about nonverbal forms of communication is that they can be called upon at any given moment, and without the huge investment in prep time from the teacher. They’re free and can be a whole lot of fun.
Since only the target language is used in the class, and since you can’t always point to some picture all the time, an immersion teacher has to master how to convey meaning through voice and actions. Think of the whole session as a game of charades. And the game starts the moment you step inside the classroom.
And don’t think of just hand gestures and voices. Your face and body are a treasure chest of meaning. Your eye movements. Your body orientation. The way you tilt your head. Even the rise and fall of your chest can convey “running fast,” “impending doom” or “one mighty sneeze coming up.”
When doing role-playing or dialogues, you can change your voice and body language to highlight changing characters, for example.
A fun way of using gestures and nonverbal forms in class is letting the students engage in the gestures themselves. You’re not just demonstrating (and exaggerating) the Spanish saltar (jump), as in a story involving a baby kangaroo and a mommy kangaroo, you’re letting everyone immerse themselves in the experience. So instead of barreling through your story, feel free to get sidetracked a bit and let the class hop around for a few seconds. It’s not only fun, but you’re also creating beautiful memories that can easily be recalled.
4. Technology and Multimedia Can Take Center Stage (It’s Okay!)
Never before have teachers been given more of a leg up than today.
Technology has always been utilized for education, from yesterday’s chalkboards and slide projectors to today’s fully integrated classroom computer systems. Yet many think they’re crutches, masking the real lesson and obscuring the talent of the teachers. Not so. Technology and media, used properly, can be rocket boosters that will take you and your class anywhere you want to go. A teacher’s willingness to avail themselves of current technologies can only mean well for their students.
An example of modern classroom technology is Language Nut. It’s a teaching tool created by seasoned educators for language teachers like you. What if, instead of playing Angry Birds, your class used their tablets, smartphones or laptops to play interactive language games, sing songs, listen to stories or learn vocabulary? What if you had a tool to help you visually see how a student was doing vis-à-vis the others? And what if some technology allowed you to give instantaneous feedback, even outside the classroom? That’s what Language Nut is all about, and more.
FluentU, yours truly, is another platform that helps you teach language.
We have an incredible database of authentic videos tailored to help your students learn languages, and the library is growing by the day. With our interactive captioning technology, your students simply hover on any word and get all the information they ever needed about that word, including translation, pronunciation and even an example or two.
5. Use Culture as a Jumping-off Point
Culture is what your students will experience if they’re participating in an actual in-country immersion program.
They don’t learn grammar. They learn about people and begin to appreciate their way of looking at the world. And along the way, they learn about language naturally and organically.
As mentioned earlier, language learning is interdisciplinary and has a broad range of possible topics that can be explored. The fattest of them is culture. Embedded in culture are the vocabulary words, word usage, nuances and idioms that you want your class to pick up.
For example, when your English students learn about American cooking or its culinary traditions, they can’t help but learn the language—more effectively so, because you’ll have given them memory-friendly context. And I’m not just talking about terms like “grilling,” “egg yolk” or “overcooked,” which are hard to transfer to other language applications. I’m talking about expressions like “too much (salt),” “just right” and “wait for it (to boil)” that can easily be used in normal conversations.
It’s the same with studying history, pop culture or recent politics. Your lesson might be in the guise of a short French article on the recent right-wing nationalist movements in Europe, but contained within it are language lessons that can easily be remembered because of the anchor points you’ve provided in your students’ memories. It’s not just an empty, vacuous, rote memorization of words, phrases or terms. There’s a story, an issue that ties it all together, and often that’s the only thing needed to supercharge your students’ recall of language.
6. Use the Familiar to Incorporate New Concepts
When only the target language is used in class, no matter how hard you try, no matter how seasoned you are as a teacher, there will always be words, phrases or sentences that go over your students’ heads. This is normal.
In immersion teaching, you encourage students to work with the language and figure out meaning, the way a tourist shopping for trinkets tries to figure out exactly what the Italian vendor is saying. In a classroom setting, you help students cope with the ambiguity by providing them with some familiar concepts, things that they already know, that they can use to figure out what you mean.
Let’s say today’s lesson is about phrases and words that convey ownership or possession. You want to be using objects that your students already know and understand as examples. If your Italian students already know what casa (house) or cane (dog) means, then you can use these objects as jumping-off points, as examples for your cause—like la mia casa (my house) or il mio cane (my dog).
With plenty of gestures and an onomatopoeia or two, you can end up with solid, comprehensible inputs. In a way, you’ve already fought half the battle for them. They just need to connect the dots. That’s when true learning happens.
For immersion teachers, every lesson will always have a hint of the familiar and an introduction of new concepts. This is what really happens to young native speakers as they interact with adults. They continually figure out the language, using the familiar as anchor points.
7. Make Mountains Out of Molehills When It Comes to Authentic Materials
This is one of the pillars of immersion teaching that we talked about earlier.
Immersion teaching is about experiencing the language, and as mentioned above, authentic materials are what native speakers encounter every day—the newspapers that they read, the shows that they watch, even the gossip that they believe.
Although never intended to teach language, you can actually milk these materials for some incredible linguistic insights.
Imagine you’re in a Chinese market. Open your eyes to the authentic materials available in the scene. That torn newspaper they use to wrap dried fish can be worth a day’s lesson. The store signs that you see can be mined for all they’re worth.
As an immersion teacher, you should have an eye for authentic materials.
Most of them are unassuming and easy to miss.
A single postage stamp can provide a whole afternoon of lessons in history. A “Roommate Wanted” posting or an advertisement can teach multiple lessons in simple sentence construction. A menu can show more than just food. Writings on packages or wrappers can show not just the calorie count, but also give you a free advanced vocabulary lesson. And that’s just talking about written authentic materials.
Sure, dialogues in authentic video clips may be too fast for the beginning learner. Your students may find themselves staring at pieces of paper with no clue what the writing could mean.
That’s where you come in.
You take all the other strategies we’re talking about here to help students digest and deal with the material.
They may be topically random, unlike the well thought-out chapters in a textbook, but they do add up. And the more authentic material you send your students’ way, the better. It’s a pretty simple equation.
8. Focus on Communication, Not on the Language
Here, we learn more about how to actually apply another pillar of the immersion teaching approach.
Immersion teaching emphasizes the communicative nature of language.
The standard approaches teach the language itself, its rules and syntax, and only later think about examples that prove the lesson’s communicative use. Turn this method on its head. Look for a way to prove the communicative utility of the language.
When you do that, you stop thinking of language as different “parts of speech” divided into nouns, verbs and adjectives. You begin to zero in on tasks and situations that allow the use and display of a language. You could then ask your students to role-play them in class.
For example, you can have them share about a simple problem, or give recommendations to a friend—in the target language. A student pair might then talk about the recent problems they’ve had with their smartphones or their music recommendations on Spotify.
Lo and behold, they’ll be honing skills about the language that they can use to get through their day.
One thing to remember when choosing tasks or situations for your class is to make them relevant to their situation. Asking for directions will be super relevant to travelers, but talking to a friend about Instagram might be more relevant to your students—especially if your classroom is filled with high-octane teenagers.
Give your class activities that compel them to use the language, like role-playing sessions or mock variety shows that involves skits and songs in the target language. Ask them to tell a joke, share what happened last weekend or relay what the pastor in church preached about.
Remember, as an immersion teacher, you’re not just preparing them for a test. You’re also broadening their horizons, letting them know that language is meant to be used, not just studied.
9. Student Participation Grows in Importance as the Course Progresses
Immersion is participative in nature.
Even if you fly to another country, Korea for example, and live there for a good few years, it won’t do you any good if you only stay in English-speaking enclaves, talking with expats over a few pints of Guinness, never soaking in what Korea has to offer.
In a classroom setting, an immersion teacher should give every chance for their students to experience the language.
Educators often have the natural propensity to speak and be heard as students listen and take down notes. An immersion teacher must freely yield the floor and give the students plenty of talking time, letting them open their mouths and practice the language.
Don’t ask students questions that are answerable with a simple “Yes” or “No.” Or if you do, probe further and ask open-ended questions, guiding here and there with the answers.
Let’s say, after showing them a clip, you ask “Did you like the video?” (Yes/No). Then follow it up with a “Why?” or “What was your favorite part?” All the while, relay the answer to the whole class, such as “John’s favorite part was when the dog rescues the baby.” You can then pivot to another student and say, “Mary, do you agree?”
An immersion teacher then functions as a facilitator of the discussion, correcting glaring errors here and there, giving suggestions on how to phrase words better, teaching naturally along the way.
10. Provide Feedback and Encouragement Throughout the Session
Can you imagine the stress your students are under?
The teacher in front of them is using a language they barely understand, spewing words they’ve never heard before. At any moment, they could find themselves in the spotlight and called on to answer a question.
As an immersion teacher, you’re throwing things at your students that are inherently unnerving. You’re essentially putting them in front of the class for a performance, asking them to twist their tongues in unfamiliar ways, all with the distinct and real possibility of blowing grammar rules out of the water and embarrassing themselves.
In this kind of context, an immersion teacher has to lower the stakes. The teacher has to be less serious and should be the first one to laugh. Cut your students (and really, yourself) some slack. Don’t make a big deal out of mistakes. No, they’re not a reflection of your teaching chops. Mistakes are an essential part of the journey—you know that.
So, dare your students to make mistakes.
Correct them, but do it in a way that makes them feel that you got their back, instead of seeing you as that “American Idol” judge who only sees the flaws in everything. Maintaining motivation is the name of the game.
When you’re throwing a few questions a student’s way, there will often be times when you’ll be met with silence and tomato-red, blushing cheeks. The poor student has no idea what you just asked, and is instead wondering why they’re in your class.
When you know the student has no answer to your oral curveballs (and you should be very quick in noticing this) immediately let them have the answer so they can parrot it. So when you ask, “John, what was your favorite part of the story? Why?” And you get no signs of life after about three seconds, say, “You probably liked the part where the fox fell into the hole, right? Okay, good.” Then move along.
Feedback, like motivation, is very important for language learning. Feedback shouldn’t happen at the end of the course. It should start as soon as the class starts and should take place all throughout the session. All the time. And in different forms. A pat on the back is feedback, and so is a nod of recognition. Anything that tells a student how she or he is doing is feedback.
For example, if you’re letting the class do paired role-playing activities, walk around as they practice and prepare. Give them feedback at that stage, at the ground level, when they’re still mucking about. Tell them if their planned dialogues are sound, give them some suggestions and, most important of all, give them compliments if they’re doing well. You’ll make their day. Not to mention, it’s one of your fundamental duties as a teacher.
Feedback is a vital component of student performance. The amount and timing of it is important. Students who receive lots of feedback will perform better, and those who receive it instantaneously will reap the benefits instantly.
So saying something like, “Okay Sally, work on your R’s. More… Roll it… Rrrrrrr… Good… Good! That’s much better. Rrrrr… That’s it… Very good. You got it!” is excellent feedback. It’s given in the moment, it’s non-threatening and, ultimately, achieves the desired result.
Those are our ten teaching strategies to make the language really come alive for your students.
Use them to make your classes not only seem like a walk in the streets of Paris, Tokyo, Seoul or Rome.
Apply them to make memorable lessons that will train your wards to actually talk (and think!) in the target language.
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