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Editorial NRInglês

★Interview with Dr. Tara Fortune

by Lyle French and Karen Fraser Colby de Mattos 

L&K: Tara you have been at the Centre for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) for many years. While there you have researched, visited and written about content-based language teaching all over the world. What is your ABC + 3 approach to planning to integrate academic content, language and culture in the immersion/bilingual classroom? 

TF: After working with bilingual and immersion teachers and program leaders for more than two decades, I was looking to clearly articulate what I had come to see as the two most critical features of effective curricular design and instructional practice in these contexts: 1. skillful integration practices, and 2. the ability to promote equitable, language-rich interaction among students. The ABC+3 approach provides an instructional design framework for such integrated, interactive learning environments.

It is grounded in the trifold goals of bilingual/immersion programs: “A” for academic achievement, “B” for bilingualism and biliteracy, and “C” for cultural competence, or what I have come to call “the ABCs” of bilingual/immersion education. The process starts with academic content by identifying the knowledge and skills students will acquire during the unit and the text-based materials and resources that will support their learning. From there, it continues with a multi-level approach towards integration. Integration is addressed in three distinct ways. First, the teacher makes explicit connections between academic content and language arts standards, including standards for reading, writing, speaking and listening. Next, consideration is given to integrating cross-linguistically by focusing on similarities and differences between languages, for example, in adjective-noun placement or word parts. Finally, unit design concludes with a cycle of integrated end-of-unit performance tasks. These sequenced assessment tasks intentionally pair a focus on using language for a specific purpose (e.g. to interpret written text, to exchange information with a partner, etc.) with demonstrating knowledge of and skill with one of the unit’s academic content standards.

The addition of “+3” speaks to the importance of considering which language functions, forms, and vocabulary students will need to successfully meet the academic, linguistic, and cultural standards for a given unit. For example, if the science standard requires students to describe plant characteristics at various stages of their life cycle, then students will need to learn describing words related to size, color, and shape, sequencing words to indicate the order of the stages, and vocabulary for parts of a plant. While planning lessons, teachers need to thoughtfully consider the following:

  1. What will students need to be able to say and do with language to successfully engage in the learning activities and performance tasks?
  2. What specific language functions/forms/vocabulary will they need that they do not have now?

It is difficult to condense the ideas that inform the “ABC +3” framework as part of an interview. However, I have come to understand that bilingual and immersion educators benefit by honing their abilities as highly skilled integrators of language-content-culture and effective classroom engineers of meaningful interaction in the language of instruction. This professional knowhow transforms their students’ learning experiences and enables the achievement of program goals.

L&K: Here in Brazil we mostly teach in a one-way, majority language setting. Aside from our immersion schools there are content + language courses (CLIL), from 3 hours a week to about 8 hours/week. All of these programmes are promising bilingualism and biliteracy. What makes for a quality program? Mostly elementary and middle in Brazil.

TF: An important attribute of any quality bilingual/immersion program is communicating expectations that are research-supported. In regional contexts in which multilingualism is not critical for living day-to-day or inherently valued, it is important to be aware that achieving meaningful levels of proficiency in two or more languages through schooling is difficult. Quality programs know this and therefore pay attention to research- and experience-informed implementation practices with ongoing systems of monitoring and evaluation that support excellence over time.

In my work as a researcher and former language educator who has worked with many new program initiatives in the U.S. and abroad, I am often asked to outline what we have learned over decades about well-implemented programs. Some practices speak primarily to the program as a whole, others to practices within classrooms. While this list is not comprehensive, it does touch on several aspects of high-quality implementation.

At the program-level, the following practices make a difference:

  • A high-quality planning process of sufficient duration with broad stakeholder representation;
  • An early start and articulated continuation over an extended period of time, minimally 6-8 years;
  • Committed, well-informed leadership capable of modeling and sustaining a clear vision for bi/multilingualism and interculturality;
  • Clearly articulated, achievable goals and sustained commitment to goal-oriented implementation through integrated language and learning experiences;
  • Sufficient allocation of time and linguistic intensity for the new/target language that matches the stated goals and desired outcomes of the particular program;
  • Program-level assessment of all stated goal areas;
  • Engaged partnership with families, extending the learning beyond the classroom.

At the classroom-level, the following practices make a difference:

  • Extensive, sustained/singular use of the new language and important, high-stakes content as contexts for teaching and learning;
  • Highly competent, well-supported bi-multilingual teaching professionals and specialists who collaborate to meet the needs of diverse students;
  • A consistent program-wide focus on curriculum integration and student language production;
  • Targeted focus on developing high levels of biliteracy over and above bilingualism as language outcomes;
  • Progress monitoring and classroom-based assessment of individual student achievement and language/culture proficiency in all targeted areas.

L&K: What is at stake when schools over-promise?   

When starting out any new endeavor, the adage “under promise and over deliver” comes to mind. Certainly, this is an oft-stated truism in business circles. While some research has challenged the value of over-delivering, no one contests the damage under-performing on expectations can do. I believe the potential for harm due to overpromising in bilingual and immersion education is even greater because most parents, and even many educators, already view the program’s stated goals with some skepticism. It IS difficult to believe that schooling through a language one is just beginning to learn can work as well as learning through a language one already speaks. It is also hard to imagine that less input and exposure to one’s native language in school will not result in reduced abilities in that language. It is for this reason that we have amassed so many individual program-level studies on the academic and linguistic outcomes of bilingual and immersion education! Each study seeks to allay the anxieties of parents and educators and prove yet again that using a new language to teach will not jeopardize the development of a child’s first language nor the child’s ability to keep pace academically with same grade peers who are learning in their mother tongue.

Because of this pre-existing skepticism about the programs’ ability to deliver, establishing, and clearly communicating, achievable expectations for language and content is critical. By over-promising and disappointing parents and other stakeholders, a program runs the risk of declining enrollment and even program closure over time. One only needs to look at the state of California for a U.S. example of how fragile and politicized these programs can become. In 1998, more than 60 percent of Californians backed a state statute known as the “English in Public Schools” initiative, which essentially put an end to many bilingual education programs in public schools across California. Bilingual and immersion programs had been in existence since the early 70s and 80s. In 2016, some eighteen years later, voters overwhelmingly backed a new statute reinstating bilingual education, with nearly 75 percent of Californians supporting it. Clearly, public support is not always guaranteed so it is best to deliver on established expectations.

L&K: What are appropriate expectations for L2, in both immersion and bilingual contexts, across various skills? 

TF: If we have learned anything from research on L2 proficiency outcomes, it is that promoting high levels of proficiency in a second language is a challenge, especially when English is the societal language! That said, given knowledgeable leadership and strong implementation practices, research finds the following general outcomes are possible:

  • Students in bilingual and immersion programs achieve higher levels of bilingualism and biliteracy compared with students who participate in traditional world language programs (~2-5 hours/week) or receive English as a Second Language services.
  • By Grade 5, bilingual/immersion students were estimated to be an average of 7 months ahead in English reading skills compared with peers in non-immersion classrooms. By Grade 8, bilingual/immersion students were a full academic year ahead.
  • Overall, L2 proficiency outcomes tend to plateau in the mid-to-high proficiency range between grades 5-8.
    • For programs that target alphabetic languages: reading and listening comprehension abilities reach into the mid to high-intermediate levels between grades 5-8; speaking and writing skills are slightly lower.
    • For programs that target character languages: speaking, listening, and writing skills advance into the low to high-intermediate range between grades 5-8 with speaking as the most proficient skill area; reading proficiency is notably lower (novice high level by Grade 8).
  • Programs that implement a more intensive L2 model (with 90% or more instruction in the L2 during K-2/3) see somewhat higher L2 proficiency outcomes, especially in speaking and literacy, and these higher proficiency outcomes are evident earlier, in some cases already by Grade 2.
  • Spanish-L1 children in the U.S. tend to be more balanced Spanish/English bilinguals with high levels of biliteracy when compared with English-L1 students in the same program whose proficiency levels in Spanish are generally lower.

Immersion students’ language has been described as sociolinguistically undifferentiated meaning that children have difficulty distinguishing between formal and informal registers. Their language production is often viewed as syntactically and lexically more simplistic relative to language produced by a native speaker of the same age. While immersion students are indeed functionally proficient and largely successful in communicating their meaning, their language production is often described as grammatically inaccurate.

L&K: We all know the cognitive benefits of being a competent bilingual. Research indicates that these positive cognitive effects are only achieved when students have ‘advanced capabilities’ in L2. What are ‘advanced capabilities’ and how long does this take?

TF: Such a great question! I have a long struggled with the degree to which bilingual an immersion programs market themselves with the cognitive benefits argument. It is not because I think cognitive benefits aren’t a wonderful thing for children and adults but rather because the vast majority of the research on cognitive benefits has been carried out with active bilinguals who were fully proficient in both languages, sometimes referred to as balanced bilinguals. Moreover, the majority of the research has looked at children who grew up with two or more languages in the home. For these children, the evidence is strong. Advantages have been found to include improved executive functioning which involves three core abilities: the ability to inhibit responses, to shift or switch between tasks, and also to monitor and update information in working memory.

There is, however, an emerging body of research investigating potential cognitive advantages for children who are becoming proficient in additional languages through bilingual immersion schooling. These young second language learners, particularly those who speak English as their first language in contexts where English is the societally dominant language, are in most cases best described as partial or unbalanced bilinguals. Their L2 proficiency generally lies in the low to upper intermediate range depending on the learner’s linguistic background, the languages being acquired, and the skill area even after 5-6 years of schooling.

Recently, Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist who has studied language and cognition with such children, has suggested that it is important to distinguish between at least two factors related to advantages for children being schooled bilingually: level of linguistic proficiency and length of time and experience in intensive bilingual contexts. Other research has suggested that frequency of switching between one’s languages may also play a facilitative role. Of interest, is that emerging findings are expanding the discussion beyond one’s of degree of bilingualism. It seems that measurable executive control advantages may also be related to bilingual experiences of longer duration (3+ years), greater intensity (5+ hours/daily), and with more frequent switching between languages. These findings are preliminary and will require additional study in the coming years.

Importantly, no evidence exists to suggest that growing up with two or more languages or participating in bilingual/immersion schooling compromises brain or child development in any way. On the contrary, there is mounting research evidence substantiating a variety of benefits to becoming bilingual and especially biliterate. For example, a 2014 co-edited research publication entitled “The Bilingual Advantage” demonstrated that high levels of biliteracy over and above bilingualism predicted differential career opportunities and other long-term benefits such as higher educational attainment and increased earning potential.

L&K: Many of our schools start with leaners as young as two in English immersion. Will preschool immersion jeopardize children’s L1 (Portuguese) development?

TF: To date there is no evidence that immersion education beginning as early as two-years of age jeopardizes the child’s opportunity to become fully proficient in the dominant societal language. One of the most recent studies in this area was carried out in a 100% Persian immersion preschool environment in Northern California with bicultural, U.S. born children with at least one parent of Persian ethnicity. The bilingual children were mostly simultaneous Persian-English bilinguals between the ages of two and five.

One of the aims of the study was to compare the English language skills of the Persian-English bilingual preschoolers with those of English monolingual children of similar ages who participated in an English-medium preschool. All participants (15 bilingual; 17 monolingual) completed four standardized language tasks targeting English vocabulary and morphosyntax. Study results showed no statistically significant differences in the performance of the Persian-English bilingual and English-only groups on any English language tasks. This suggests that 100% Persian-medium education at the preschool level was not detrimental to the children’s English language development. This finding held even for children whose parents primarily spoke Persian at home.

The bilingual children in this study who received large amounts of input at preschool and home in Persian, a minority heritage language (HL) in the U.S., generally demonstrated stronger English vs. Persian skills. Other research on the relative difficulty in which HLs develop as compared to English in the U.S. along with findings from this study suggest that preschool immersion educators and bilingual families can actively support HL development in the home. Maximizing HL input for these children even with participation in a 100% immersion preschool program did not jeopardize their English language development. It is important to note that findings from this particular study stem from U.S. families with socioeconomic and educational advantages and thus may not apply to all HL contexts in the U.S. or in other countries.

L&K: Is content-based language teaching appropriate for all students? Are these programmes advisable for students who may have a LD? Will it be too much for them? 

TF: The question of suitability or the appropriateness of teaching academic content in a language that is still developing to all children has surfaced over many decades. Our best response to these concerns is that there is no research support for excluding children on the basis of insufficient first language development, low cognitive ability, or atypical language or learning differences per se. While more research is needed, the preponderance of evidence to date suggests that given strong program implementation, quality school personnel, and engaged family support, all children can benefit from content-based language learning programs, even those who exhibit language and learning differences or are receiving services for disabilities.

In her 2018 review of literature on the effects and consequences of bilingual education for young children, Dr. Ellen Bialystok joins with other researchers and reports no evidence of any harmful effects from participation in bilingual/immersion education. On the contrary, there are some who suggest that the kind of teaching that occurs when teachers cannot assume that their students understand the words they use to teach the curriculum is the best teaching available. Teaching through a new language provides an excellent learning environment for children who struggle with language and learning because teachers cannot assume concept comprehension. To ensure comprehension, well-implemented immersion classrooms abound with visuals, graphic organizers, meaningful repetition of language, verbal and non-verbal scaffolding of new concepts, comprehension checks, and myriad supports for peer interaction and language production. Together, these instructional strategies reinforce content and language learning for a range of learners.

While no one program is the best match for every child, it is important to understand our tendency to assume that learning and literacy may be compromised because of the language of instruction. People readily assume that two languages are one too many! Yet, when children have been transferred out of the immersion setting, their language and learning disabilities transfer with them. Studies that have compared the achievement of language-impaired or learning-disabled children post-transfer typically find the same achievement outcomes regardless of the instructional language. But by remaining in the program, children can develop some level of bilingual proficiency, an opportunity that children who struggle with language and learning in school rarely encounter. To quote Dr. Bialystok (2018), “There is no credible evidence that bilingual education adds or creates burden for children, yet it is incontrovertible that it provides the advantage of learning another language and possibly the cognitive benefits of bilingualism” (p. 676).

L&K: Finally, although the benefits of being a competent highly proficient bilingual student are wonderful, the road is a long one and requires prepared teachers. What skills are essential for an immersion/bilingual teacher and what should schools be doing about this?

TF: There is no doubt that great teachers and program leaders are essential ingredients for high quality bilingual/immersion programs! It is also true that master teachers remain active, reflective learners and take advantage of ongoing professional learning opportunities over the course of their careers.

To facilitate this, effective program leaders will seek out and create professional development opportunities that are tailored to the immersion context and led by teacher educators who specialize in content-based language teaching environments. Whenever feasible, professional learning that takes place in the immersion language is ideal. When this is not possible, providing opportunities for teachers to interact and engage in learning activities in the immersion language is an appropriate alternative. Multiple immersion programs may want to join forces and collaborate to make such professional learning opportunities possible for teachers.

Site-based program administrators are also strongly encouraged to ensure frequent opportunities for teacher co-planning and collaboration both with grade-level immersion colleagues and English teaching partners. Finding ways to facilitate teacher leadership and developing mentoring partnerships is also important for staff development.

Being a skilled immersion teacher is demanding and teachers need support for honing essential skills over the course of their educational careers. The Immersion Teaching Strategies Observation Checklist (2014) that was originally developed in tandem with practicing immersion teachers, offers a solid overview of many essential classroom practices. Given new knowledge and understandings, I think it will be important to include an additional category that explicitly addresses practices related to the development of biliteracy and cross-linguistic awareness in the coming years. There is always more to be done! But this is a tool at the ready that can be used as a point of departure for professional learning dialogue among educators.

To end, I’d like to share one of my favorite concluding activities at CARLA’s Immersion 101 institute. Veteran mentor immersion teachers from local programs were invited to meet in informal small groups and exchange practical ideas with same-grade teachers who were just beginning their journeys as new immersion educators. During this time, after an intense week becoming articulate about immersion research and familiar with the “ABC +3” framework for designing curriculum and instruction, institute participants eagerly welcomed the expert voices of those who brought deep experience from the classroom.

After the mentor teachers had an opportunity to exchange immersion teaching ideas (and emails!) and respond to participants’ remaining questions and concerns, I especially enjoyed inviting the mentor teachers to come to the front of the room and offer final words of wisdom for the road ahead. What is it that they wish they had known when they were just starting out as immersion teachers? The messages were remarkably similar over the years:

  • Collaborate with your colleagues, teaching is NOT a solo journey.
  • You will never feel completely prepared for tomorrow, remember that good teaching evolves over time. Go home and get some rest!
  • Be patient and kind with yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll burn out. Then nobody wins.
  • Never stop learning how to improve your classroom practice or trying new ideas!
  • Believe in the language and learning potential of every child—Never give up!
  • Trust the immersion model and remember, the gift of bilingualism is the gift of a lifetime!

Muito obrigada, Lyle and Karen, for the opportunity to talk with you about one of my most favorite topics ever!

There are many valuable to resources available on the CARLA website for immersion practitioners. Be sure to check them out at:

The interviewee

Dr. Tara Fortune is the director of the Immersion Research and Professional Development Program at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota. Her publications include two co-edited volumes on immersion research, Pathways to Multilingualism: Evolving Perspectives on Immersion Education (2008, Multilingual Matters Ltd.) and Immersion Education: Practices, Policies and Possibilities (2011, Multilingual Matters Ltd.), and Struggling Learners & Language Immersion Education (2010, University of Minnesota).  

The interviewers

Lyle French, M.A.Ed. is Head of Rhyzos Education, a new immersion school in São Paulo opening in 2020. Lyle has over 17 years experience in Brazilian education and held the posts of: Director of Teaching & Learning at Avenues – SP, as well as at Escola Beit Yaacov and PlayPen. As well he has consulted for various ‘bilingual’ schools. Find him on LinkedIn.

Karen Fraser Colby de Mattos is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Escola Eleva in Rio, Director of IC International Consultants and a member of the Editorial Board of New Routes Magazine. Karen came to Brazil to implement and direct the Global Education Program at Pueri Domus 20 years ago, was Curriculum Coordinator at Beacon School and later was the Director of Brazilian Studies and World Languages at Graded School. She has consulted for public and private schools, for publishing companies and for UNESCO.

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