My Catawba County

Learning in Two Languages

Learning in Two Languages

Over the past several years, schools in all three public school systems in Catawba County have begun offering dual language immersion programs. What exactly is dual language immersion, and how does it benefit students? We asked Dr. Dana Greene, director of English as a Second Language and Dual Language Immersion at Catawba County Schools, to fill us in.

What is the dual language immersion program?
Language immersion programs are an exciting option for parents who want their children to have the advantages of a rigorous academic program while also learning two languages – English and a target language. In a Spanish immersion program, Spanish is not taught as a subject; Spanish is the language in which instruction is delivered. We are proud to offer Spanish Immersion at three of our elementary schools. 

In the Catawba County Schools system, which schools and grades are participating in the dual immersion program?
Sherrills Ford Elementary - Grades K-4
Startown Elementary - Grades K-1
St. Stephens Elementary - Grades K-3

A grade will be added each year through 6th grade and there will be continued dual immersion opportunities in middle school and high school.

[Editor’s Note: Dual language immersion programs are also offered at Southwest Primary and Viewmont Elementary (both with Hickory Public Schools) and North Newton Elementary (Newton-Conover City Schools).]

What does a typical dual immersion lesson or day look like?
We have two different types of immersion programs in our district - a “full immersion” program (also known as a 90:10 model) and a “dual immersion” program (50:50 model). In both programs, students learn the same North Carolina standards-based curriculum as their English-only counterparts, just in Spanish.

In our two “full immersion” programs at Sherrills Ford Elementary and Startown Elementary, students receive approximately 90% of instruction in Spanish and 10% in English to facilitate early Spanish language acquisition and literacy development. As students transition to higher grades, more of the instruction shifts to English. Typically, the 90:10 model is recommended for populations of primarily English-speaking students because those students have significant exposure to English outside of school.

In our 50-50 model “dual immersion” program at St. Stephens Elementary, students spend 50% of their time learning in English and 50% of their time learning in Spanish, taught by a native English speaking teacher and a native Spanish speaking teacher in an A-B day format.  The 50:50 model is typically recommended for student populations with higher numbers of students who speak Spanish at home. This allows all students in the classroom to spend half of their time further developing their first language while spending the other half acquiring a second language.

What are the benefits of dual immersion for students?
More than forty years of research consistently documents the power of language immersion programs to help students attain high levels of second language proficiency. No other type of instruction, short of living in a second language environment, is as successful. Some of the proven benefits include the following:

  • Second Language Skills: Students achieve high proficiency in the immersion language.
  • Improved Performance on Standardized Tests: Immersion students perform as well as or better than non-immersion students on standardized tests of English and math administered in English
  • Enhanced Cognitive Skills:  Language Immersion students typically develop greater cognitive flexibility, demonstrating increased attention control, better memory, and superior problem-solving skills, as well as enhanced understanding of their primary language.
  • Increased Cultural Sensitivity:  Language Immersion students are more aware of and show more positive attitudes towards other cultures and an appreciation of other people
  • Long Term Benefits:  Language Immersion students are better prepared for the global community and job markets where a second language is an asset.

Why is dual immersion started at such an early age?
There are many advantages to learning a language when you are young. Children’s brains are still developing, and the localization of functions in the brain is not complete until a later age. For this reason, young children do not have to struggle with some of the same issues that adults do when learning a new language, such as rules and language formulas. Children are much more flexible and are less concerned about making mistakes or getting something wrong than adults are. As a result, they are not as self-conscious and anxious and are more willing to experiment with language and learn new things.

Some researchers point to the fact that the earlier students engage in learning a second language, the better the chances are that they will attain higher proficiency levels. Another benefit of learning young is that they lose some of their native accent when speaking the second language. Overall, children have a better chance of becoming higher functioning bilinguals the earlier they start learning a second language.

Is there anything else you would like to add about dual immersion programs?
Catawba County Schools partners with Participate Learning to facilitate both our dual immersion programs and also to accomplish our district-wide goal to graduate globally engaged and productive citizens. Through this partnership, we are able to host licensed international teachers, not just for our Dual Language Immersion programs, but for other classrooms as well. This cultural exchange is a great way for our students to make connections with the wider world around them!

By having our dual language immersion programs as a separate program within our schools, rather than being its own school, we are able to further immerse all of our students in a global education experience. Every teacher in the three schools that house our Dual Language Immersion programs participates in courses around global leadership. These courses are designed to ensure that all students in the school experience and understand the world. Teachers accomplish this by infusing global learning opportunities across grade levels, subjects, and school-wide activities. These global lessons help students gain skills that will enable them to lead, live, and thrive as global leaders.