Which is the better method for teaching ESL learners, bilingual education or English immersion?There are two schools of thought regarding the five million children in our nation’s school system...

Which is the better method for teaching ESL learners, bilingual education or English immersion?

There are two schools of thought regarding the five million children in our nation’s school system with deficiencies in English. Some contend that bilingual classrooms offer the best way to gradually introduce a child to English, so that those students can become comfortable and competent in English before being mainstreamed into regular, English-speaking classrooms. However, other experts argue that immersion, all-English, all-the-time, is the best method to get students on track in the least amount of time. There is research supporting both sides. Which do you believe is the better method?

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Personally, I don't support total immersion. We adopted a child from China, as did several other couples. Our daughter was an infant, but two of the other families adopted older children. I know that for a time it was very hard for these youngsters not to be able to communicate with their new parents, and it is for their emotional comfort that I have concern. The children did learn to speak English and are both doing very well, many years later. But at the beginning, I can only say that the children seemed traumatized: crying and hysterics, or a failure to speak at all.

However, I have also taught English in public school. Whereas I might get a non-English speaking student for a short period of time in class, usually he (she) would be moved to a lower-leveled class, and given time in his schedule for instruction in his native language and with his new language.

While these youngsters will learn, as the brain is still able at younger ages to adapt quickly, my concern is for the child who is totally immersed in a new culture and language: there seems to be a sink or swim attitude here. Traveling to another country that does not speak my language can be frustrating for me: case in point, the ham and pineapple pizza we ordered, and the tuna and onion pizza we received. This is humorous enough now, but at the time it was frustrating. Focus now on a child that has been removed from all he knows, all he is comfortable with, engaged in learning a new language, surrounded by an abundance of kids he does not understand. If there is any taunting of other students involved (and kids can be cruel), the child is isolated and unable to share his concerns until he goes home.

The learning of a language may be achieved with great success by total immersion, but I believe that the needs of the "whole" child need to be addressed. I'd vote for the bilingual classroom.




M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As an ESL instructor my experience has been that every intervention must combine a number of strategies that would target the student's interest level and academic readiness. This being said, what many people outside of the linguistics field do not realize is that teaching a second language requires many similar interventions as are requered to teach reading. This means that, in order to expose a student to a new language, there MUST be a number of things within the immediate learning environment to include materials in print (posters, cards, word walls, labeled pictures, magazines, books, comics).

Although some educators may not agree, phonics instruction in L2 learning is actually beneficial. Word chunking, isolating of prefixes and suffixes, and learning root words must come hand in hand with complete exposure. In most EFL/FLES settings this is done by doing an 80/20 format, where the 20% of the time the class can be given in the typical language in order to introduce this type of information. During the other 80% the student is often learning phrases, engaging in small conversations, exchanging written information, or reading from basals according to their level of readiness. Hence, it is possible to do a total immersion as long as you also set aside time to help the student make sense out of what they are saying in a more formal way. So, in conclusion, many strategies are always better than only one because our students do not come in just "one" version. :)




Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I was previously strongly in favor of bilingual education, but I had a personal event happen a few years ago that has since changed my views on this debate.  I received a new student from China mid year that had no English skills whatsoever.  As a good teacher, I spent some time differentiating my instruction for him and even communicating with him through a google translator I found on-line.  While he was obviously behind, I felt I was making progress.

Once our director for English Language Learners found out she was very upset.  Our campus (unbeknownst to me) had a policy of total immersion and I was instructed to stop my methods immediately.  I unsuccessfully tried to explain the merits of my work with the student, and was very upset that he was just going to have to sit there and struggle with no help.

Fast forward to the end of last school year.  The student finished the year speaking clear, understandable English and passed his state competency exam with strong scores.  If I hadn't known better, I would have never guessed that he couldn't speak a word of English less than two years ago.

I still have some reservations about total immersion, but the experience I explained above has made me rethink my original belief.  At least in this instance, total immersion worked incredibly well.


Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

My mother spoke only German until she was 7 in 1921. The way she learned English was by going to school. The school was a small one in the vineyards of the northwestern side of an agricultural town in Central California. They spoke English. They read schoolbooks in English. The other German children, cousins and friends, spoke German in the playground and everywhere but in the classroom. Once in the classroom, it was English only. This wasn't a philosophy. This was the way it was.

I am not an ELL/ESL pedagogical expert. I analyze literature and grammar! But it seems to me that language learned the way language is naturally learned is the best way to learn language. In current methodology, the best match would be the immersion approach. My mother's English learning worked out beautifully. She would even help my grandfather (educated at the University in St. Petersburg before the Revolution) learn English by reading the nightly newspaper aloud with him (the reverse of Scout and Atticus). In addition, sociolinguistics studies tend toward support for the principle of immersion while also supporting herappleness's assertion of the necessity for (limited) mixed approaches.

Sociolinguistic findings

Language immersion

dftbap eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Immersion in a foreign language, especially at an early age has been shown in several studies to be much more effective than contained lessons.  This is one of the basic reasons many high schools and colleges offer a foreign student exchange or a foreign study experience.  There is nothing one can create in an artificial environment that can compete with complete immersion in the language and culture of another country.

Understably there will be difficulties for some individuals with learning reading, writing, and speaking another language as they may have a learning difference in their home based language as well. However, these individuals still have the opportunity of hearing the language spoken, and will be able to speak and understand the different language easier than if only learning in a contained classroom.  As well, there are some whom may never speak as a native speaker if they have not heard the phonemes of the language at an early age. However, with full immersion, they will be able to read and understand, while the speaking aspect may be more difficult.


mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Those of us who have experience in learning another language ourselves well understand the difficulty and trauma of "total immersion."  Common sense really informs that there must be a bridge between the languages at first.  When the immigrants from Europe came to the United States and did not know English, there were greatly assisted in their transition to American life by the Ellis Island inspectors and others called upon who spoke foreign languages. Once they settled into their ethnic neighborhoods, they were able to learn English from others of their own native tongue.

Another real model of teaching ESL comes from the state of Texas, whose company Stech-Vaughn created an effective program with workbooks which contained pictures, etc. for Spanish-speakers who desired to learn English. This program has long been in existence.

So, why would public education not try to model programs upon this effective method of learning English as a second language?



pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have never taught ESL, though I have taught many students who were in ESL programs and had Spanish as their native language.  I often tried to do semi-bilingual instruction with them, doing things like allowing them to write answers to my English questions in Spanish (for History and Government classes).  I felt this was the best way to get them to learn some content.

However, from the point of view of someone who has learned languages other than English, I can say that immersion is much more effective.  At least, it was much easier for me to learn the language I was immersed in than to learn languages when I was not.  Therefore, I am pretty torn.  Bilingual education seems more helpful in the short term but perhaps less so in the long term.

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As a teacher in Texas, helping English Language Learners is one of the biggest focuses of education in the state.  Many methods have been tried and utilized, but I have been in districts that have ESL classes that are contained.  In my experiences, those students progress at a MUCH slower rate then those that are immersed or mainstreamed with assistance (my preferred method).  The success rate of students able to get out of an ESL class and successfully join an on-level class was staggeringly low.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although I have never technically taught ESL, I have studied language (French) before. Although I learned the technical aspects of the language, I believe that immersion is much better.

I had an exchange student last year. Her English was very broken and she lacked the knowledge of slang used by high school students. After a few months, the student was far more knowledgeable regarding the English language and learned how to converse with her peers on a better level.

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