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Essay: Second language instruction – language and content can be taught in a classroom together effectively

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  • Published: 15 October 2019*
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Throughout the study of second language instruction, the concept of content-based instruction has been actively studied by researchers through time. Content-based instruction can be approached in a couple different manners in a second language classroom, either through dual-immersion programs or total immersion programs. This paper will aim at looking at content-based instruction in the context of dual-immersion and total immersion environments in order to answer research questions on the topic. The goal of this paper is to look at academic literature from two different time periods to collect the analyses of researchers looking at immersion studies and how effectively content and language can be taught together in a second language classroom. The analysis provided by the academic literature should provide answers to the following research questions: How long does it take to learn a language in the context of an immersion program? How does the time it takes to learn a language factor into academic performance? Can it be concluded that dual-immersion and total immersion are effective processes in teaching both content and language? Does language come before content or vice versa? The answers to these research questions will provide the necessary information to determine whether language and content can be taught at the same time in an instructional environment.

The first academic journal concentrates on coming up with “generalizations on optimal age, L1 cognitive development and L2 academic achievement” (Collier, 1989, p. 509) by looking at variables such as “first language acquisition, second language acquisition, student age at the time of exposure to a second language, academic achievement (as measured by standardized tests in all subject areas), membership in a language majority or language minority community, and language(s) of instruction in school” (Collier, 1989, p. 509). These variables are being analyzed in order to come up with the optimal age for a second language learner to learn a language through content immersion. The study ultimately comes to five generalizations regarding optimal age to learn a language through an immersion program. The results of the study conclude that the optimal age range is usually younger rather than older in relation to immersion programs. The data in this study states that depending on the variables listed above, “the average time it takes to learn a language in this context range varies from a little as 2 years to 10 years or not at all” (Collier, 1989, p. 526-527). The overall concluding generalization of this study is that “Consistent, uninterrupted cognitive academic development in all subjects throughout students’ schooling is more important than the number of hours of L2 instruction for successful academic achievement in a second language” (Collier, 1989, p.527).

Furthermore, the second academic source looks at a set of immersion programs in the United States that concentrate on dual-immersion in both Japanese, Spanish or French and English. In this study, Thomas states that first off “the goals of immersion are additive bilingualism (cognitive advantages), high literacy rates and academic success” (Thomas, 1993, p. 170). This academic resource is looking at primarily whether language and content can be taught at the same time in a second language classroom, and also determining whether or not immersion programs are effective ways of teaching language and content together. The method of this study was to look at the “Level of achievement in mathematics compared to others not in the immersion program, levels of achievement in English language arts compared to others not in the immersion program and the national norm, and the level of achievement in oral proficiency in the target language being Spanish, French or Japanese” (Thomas, 1993, p. 172-173). By looking at these indicators, Thomas would be able to determine whether immersion programs are effective or not. The results of this study concluded that “in the first two to three years students were not achieving academically at the same level as students outside the partial-immersion program; once students reached the fourth year of schooling they began to catch up and perform the same as students outside the program; and by the fifth-year students in the partial immersion were outperforming students academically” (Thomas, 1993, p. 174). This study clearly finds results in favor of the efficiency of immersion programs, and concludes that there are many advantages connected to these immersion programs.

The third academic source looks at Canadian immersion programs that concentrate on French and English in their respective dual-immersion and total immersion environments. In this study, three types of academic settings are analyzed, “(1) an early total immersion program (grade K-2 all-French instruction, English introduced in grade 3); (2) a delayed immersion program (grade K-3 English instruction with 30-minute per day FSL instruction, 60 percent French instruction in grade 4); and (3) all-French schooling (total immersion)” (Genesee, 1989, p. 251-252). The method of this study was to give students a series of tests in order to determine the proficiency level of each student in the French language, English language, and academic content performance as well. This was done in order to determine whether or not these immersion programs are effective or not in teaching both languages as well as academic content at the same time. The results of this study concluded that “the present study demonstrates the additive bilingual effects of extended immersion in a second language for majority language students” (Genesee, 1989, p. 262) and “the anglophone students in the all-French schools were able to function effectively in French at the appropriate grade level indicated by test scores and on French composition, typical academic task” (Genesee, 1989, p. 262). This study concludes in favor of immersion programs stating that there are many advantages to the additive bilingualism present in these programs.

In more recent studies, CAMMARATA and TEDICK look at the challenges tied to bilingual immersion programs. These two researchers conducted a “phenomenology study that tapped into the lived experience of three immersion teachers who participated in a professional development program that concentrated on making teachers aware of the equal importance that both content and language hold in an immersion classroom” (CAMMARATA and TEDICK, 2012, p. 255). This study concentrates on making it clear to instructors in second language classrooms that it is important to concentrate on both language and content in an academic setting without letting one or the other fall behind. “Balancing content and language in instruction, a curricular and instructional necessity that is essential to the implementation of successful immersion programs, will remain difficult or even impossible as long as such reforms elude us” (CAMMARATA and TEDICK, 2012, p. 265). In this quote, the researchers in this study conclude with their findings that current immersion program models do require some type of reforms in order to better attend the necessity of balance between content and language in the instructional environment.

Another recent study concentrates on another question relevant to teaching content and language in a classroom environment, “The question that remains unanswered is whether students in the CBI classroom make improvements solely in content and receptive skills, or whether their production develops linguistically at the same time” (Rodgers, 2006, p. 374). This question is essentially asking whether language and content are developed simultaneously in the classroom. This research study by Rodgers looks at “a content based Italian geography course at a university in the United States” (Rodgers, 2006, p. 375) where the achievement in both content and language are being monitored over the time of the course. This study concludes by determining that “overall students in the CBI classroom made gains in both subject matter and linguistic form” (Rodgers, 2006, p. 384), which provides support for immersion programs that focus on language instruction through content-based instructional strategies.

In conclusion, the research questions in the introductory paragraph can now be answered.

How long does it take to learn a language in the context of an immersion program? This question can be answered, but probably requires further current day research, but existing studies put the amount of time it takes to learn a language at anywhere from 5 – 10 years in the specific environment of immersion programs. How does the time it takes to learn a language factor into academic performance? Most studies conclude that learning a language only affects academic performance with the first three years of grade school, and then second language immersion becomes a huge advantage in later grades. Can it be concluded that dual-immersion and total immersion are effective processes in teaching both content and language? In general, the studies conclude that both of these processes are effective means of teaching both content and language, however current day studies do see challenges in immersion methods that need to be worked on through reforms to the programs. Most notable is making sure content and language are getting equal attention in the classroom. Does language come before content or vice versa? These two areas appear to be learned simultaneously by students in immersion program. The general analysis of this study is that both language and content can be taught in a classroom together effectively.

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