Immersion Program Credo: It's Never Too Early

Article excerpt

At first glance, Lyse Stevens's class seems like an ordinary group of good-natured fourth-graders in a public school.

But if you ask, "May I please have a pencil?" you'll get a quizzical look.

Here, it's, "Avez-vous un crayon, s'il vous plait?" This is not just any French lesson for nine-year-olds. The Gallic language is the only means of communication at this elementary school. Total-immersion schools take the view that when it comes to learning language, you can't start too early. The approach holds that students will become naturally bilingual if they are taught the elementary-school curriculum in a target language - be it French, Spanish, Japanese, or German - and English is phased in as just one subject of the curriculum. Here at the Cunningham Elementary School in Milton, Mass., students in Grades 1 and 2 are taught only in French. In Grades 3 and 4, they are taught half the time in French and half in English. In Grades 5 and 6, it's 30 percent French, 70 percent English. "The real amazing part is in the third grade," says principal Mary Gormley. "That's when they transfer skills of learning French to English." At first, third-grade students have English grammar and spelling hurdles to overcome - they may apply French rules, for example - but they get "up to snuff" rapidly, teachers report. The first public-school immersion program in the US was founded in 1971 in Culver City, Calif., with a Spanish curriculum. Today, there are more than 180 programs across the country, and immersion is considered the best model for teaching language proficiency. "During the last 10 years, immersion schools have flourished," says Martha Abbott, foreign-language coordinator for the Fairfax County, Va., public schools, which have "partial immersion" in 13 of 140 elementary schools. "This is a program parents are really asking for." "It's a challenging program to implement, and the teachers work really hard," says Ms. Abbott, "but you have to ask 'Is our school meeting the needs of kids for the future?' Few people would argue the importance of language." Critics of immersion question its value, and, more often, the process. Some raise concerns over possible "confusion" between two languages and wonder how students could learn as much in a foreign language as in their own. …