ERIC Identifier: ED390284
Publication Date: 1995-12-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Linguistics Washington DC.
Integrating Language and Content: Lessons from Immersion. ERIC
One of the most interesting innovations to emerge in second language
education during the last three decades is the language immersion program. In
this method of language instruction, the regular school curriculum is taught
through the medium of a second language. The first immersion programs were
developed in Canada to provide English-speaking students with the opportunity to
learn French, Canada's other official language. Since that time, immersion
programs have been adopted in many parts of North America, and alternative forms
of immersion have been devised. In the United States, immersion programs can be
found in a number of languages, including French, German, Spanish, Japanese, and
With the purpose of highlighting the lessons to be learned from immersion,
this Digest presents selected findings from research carried out to evaluate the
effectiveness of immersion programs in Canada and the United States. These
lessons are related to the importance of (1) integrating language with content
instruction, (2) creating classroom environments that are discourse-rich, and
(3) systematically planning language instruction along with content instruction.
LANGUAGE INTEGRATION OVER ISOLATION
The first lesson to be
learned from immersion is that when second language instruction is integrated
with instruction in academic content, it is more effective than teaching the
language in isolation. Proficiency in the target language is not a prerequisite
to academic development; rather, language learning results from using language
to perform authentic communicative functions.
During the last 10 years, there has been a shift away from teaching language
in isolation to integrating language and content instruction. There are at least
four reasons for this shift. First, language is acquired most effectively when
it is learned for communication in meaningful and significant social situations.
The academic content of the school curriculum can provide a meaningful basis for
second language learning, given that the content is of interest or value to the
Second, the integration of language and content instruction provides a
substantive basis for language learning. Important and interesting content,
academic or otherwise, gives students a meaningful basis for understanding and
acquiring new language structures and patterns. In addition, authentic classroom
communication provides a purposeful and motivating context for learning the
communicative functions of the new language. In the absence of content and
authentic communication, language can be learned only as an abstraction devoid
of conceptual or communicative substance.
A third reason for the shift toward language and content integration is the
relationship between language and other aspects of human development. Language,
cognition, and social awareness develop concurrently in young children.
Integrated second language instruction seeks to keep these components of
development together so that second language learning is an integral part of
social and cognitive development in school settings.
Finally, knowing how to use language in one social context or academic domain
does not necessarily mean knowing how to use it in others. The integration of
second language instruction with subject content respects the specificity of
language use. For example, evidence indicates that the way language is used in
particular academic domains, such as mathematics (Spanos, Rhodes, Dale, &
Crandall, 1988), is not the same in other academic domains, such as social
studies (Short, 1994).
A variety of integrated approaches to second language teaching have been
developed. Immersion is a specific type of integrated instruction. The primary
focus of immersion is not language learning but academic instruction. Immersion
programs have proved to be successful; the academic achievement of immersion
students is comparable to that of students educated through their native
language. This indicates that the students in immersion programs acquire the
second language skills they need to master the academic skills and information
appropriate for their grade level.
OPPORTUNITIES TO USE THE TARGET LANGUAGE
The second lesson
to emerge from research on immersion is that approaches that provide
opportunities for extended student discourse, especially discourse associated
with activities selected by individual students, can be particularly beneficial
for second language learning.
Research on French immersion programs in Canada has shown that immersion
students often perform as well as native French-speaking students on tests of
French reading and listening comprehension. However, they seldom achieve the
same high levels of competence in speaking and writing. Although functionally
effective, the oral and written skills of immersion students indicate a number
of shortcomings. Immersion students' grammar is less complex and less redundant
than that of native speakers and is influenced by English grammar. The available
studies suggest that this results, in part, from learning environments in which
there is a lack of opportunity to engage in extended discourse.
The solution to the shortcomings in immersion students' productive skills
seems to lie in the use of methodologies that apply techniques to practice
language forms with a communicative approach. "Such tasks and activities will
meet the same criteria as is demanded of the communicative teaching of grammar:
purposefulness, interactivity, creativity, and unpredictability" (Clipperton,
1994, p. 746).
Activity-centered immersion programs, particularly those that focus on
individual choice of learning activity, achieve high levels of second language
proficiency even in the productive skills. Stevens (1976) compared students who
worked on self-selected activities in collaboration or consultation with other
students and who were expected to make oral and written reports in the target
language on their work with students who all worked on the same teacher-directed
activities at the same time and in the same way. Although students in the
activity-centered program used the target language for only 40% of the school
day, they attained the same levels of target language speaking and reading
proficiency and almost the same levels of reading and writing proficiency as the
students in the teacher-centered program, which provided all instruction in the
target language. The success of the activity-centered classes can be attributed
to two main factors: 1) students had regular opportunities for extended
discourse; and 2) students were highly motivated because they used the target
language in situations of personal choice.
In sum, the use of instructional strategies and academic tasks that encourage
increased interaction among learners and between learners and teachers is likely
to be beneficial for second language learning.
EFFECTIVE CURRICULUM DESIGN
The third lesson to be learned
from immersion is that the integration of language and academic objectives
should be carefully planned, providing for the presentation, practice, and
application of specific language forms that are necessary for discussing
different academic content. If integrated instruction is not planned
systematically, teachers may use strategies that are not optimal for promoting
full second language development. Swain (1988) examined how immersion teachers
used French to teach a variety of academic subjects. The study found that
teachers used a functionally restricted set of language patterns, corrected
content more often than linguistic form, and were inconsistent in their
corrections of linguistic form. These results suggest that in an effort to make
academic material as comprehensible as possible, immersion teachers might be
adopting communication strategies that rely on linguistic skills their students
already have, and students may not be challenged to learn new language skills.
In order to develop the students' language skills fully, immersion teachers must
progressively model more complex language and use instructional activities that
demand more complex language skills from students.
Instructional strategies and tasks must be carefully selected so that
students use and learn targeted aspects of the language. Without such systematic
plans, teachers may provide inconsistent or even random information about
language forms. A systematic focus on the structural aspects of the language
greatly enhances learning of targeted grammatical features.
Increased attention to language forms does not mean less focus on
communication and meaning. Salomone (1992) reports on an immersion program in
the United States that "exemplifies the current trend of all second language
instruction: using the second language rather than knowing about the language,
with bilingualism as the ultimate instructional goal" (p. 9). However, having
verified a lack of accuracy and a continued "fossilization" in the students'
speech, teachers in the program studied by Salomone incorporated systematic
planning and explicit teaching of the grammar and vocabulary component of the
syllabus. This strategy greatly improved the results. Other studies describe the
specifics of direct language instruction in an immersion context (e.g.,
Clipperton, 1994; Laplante, 1993) or show the benefits of identifying the
semantic and syntactic features and language functions and tasks that are part
of the academic language for a content area and incorporating them in the design
of lesson plans (Short, 1994).
Experiences in immersion classes illuminate the
practice of second language teaching and indicate effective ways of attaining
high levels of academic content mastery and target language proficiency.
Evaluations of a variety of immersion programs suggest at least three elements
of general relevance for second language instruction: 1) instructional
approaches that integrate content and language are likely to be more effective
than approaches in which language is taught in isolation; 2) an
activity-centered approach that creates opportunities for extended student
discourse is likely to be beneficial for second language learning; and 3)
language objectives should be systematically targeted along with academic
objectives in order to maximize language learning.
Clipperton, R. (1994). Explicit vocabulary
instruction in French immersion. "Canadian Modern Language Review," 50, 736-49.
Laplante, B. (1993). Strategies pedagogiques et enseignement des sciences en
immersion francaise: Le cas d'une enseignante."Canadian Modern Language Review,"
Salomone, A. M. (1992). Student-teacher interactions in selected French
immersion classrooms. In E. B. Bernhardt, (Ed.), "Life in language immersion
classrooms" (pp. 97-109). Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.
Short, D. (1994). "Integrating language and culture in middle school American
history classes" (Educational Practice Rep. No. 8). Santa Cruz, CA and
Washington, DC: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second
Spanos, G., Rhodes, N., Dale, T., & Crandall, J. (1988). Linguistic
features of mathematical problem-solving: Insights and applications. In J.P.
Mestre and R.R. Cocking (Eds.) "Linguistic and cultural influences on learning
mathematics" (pp. 221-40). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Stevens, F. (1976). "Second language learning in an activity-centered
program." Unpublished master's thesis, Concordia University.
Swain, M. (1988). Manipulating and complementing content teaching to maximize
second language learning. "TESL Canada Journal," 6, 68-83.