What encourages and concerns Tara Fortune about the growth of immersion education

July 19, 2016

The growth of dual language immersion programs is no small phenomenon. There are now thousands of immersion programs, with numerous different types of program models operating across the U.S. The growth of multilingual models of education has the potential to equip both English language learner and English dominant students for a globally competitive job market. We consider ourselves fortunate to have been able to play a role in making west Michigan a regional hub for immersion by partnering with innovative public and private school leaders.

However, as Dr. Diane J. Tedick, president of addalingua’s academic advisory board shared with our partner school stakeholders last spring, “Dual language immersion is not a panacea.” Dr. Tara Fortune echoed her concerns during a visit to addalingua in January, explaining that not every model will deliver similar student outcomes.

Their concerns were validated by the recent audit of the immersion program at Tucson Unified School District where the significant challenges to realizing the threefold goal of quality dual language immersion education were on full display. Despite research evidencing the seemingly paradoxical notion that more time and intensity of instruction in the minority language actually fosters higher academic achievement in ENGLISH for both ELLs and English dominant groups, a lack of clear understanding about the most efficacious models and educational policy ‘skewed toward monolingualism’ are all barriers to graduating students with advanced levels of proficiency in two or more languages.

Dr. Tara Fortune, director of Immersion Research and Professional Development Program at CARLA, reflects on what encourages and concerns her with the growth of dual language immersion programs.


The troubling reality is that in most states, educational policies support and promote implementation of weak, transitional bilingual or partial immersion models considered harmful by some advocates for “all in” dual language models.* In other words, Tucson is the canary in the immersion coal mine. They may be the first to make headlines, but they won’t be the last major immersion program to overpromise and underdeliver. For the good of all U.S. students, we believe this has to change.

Multilingualism is a 21st century skill. Full stop.

Policies that subtract a child’s home language in favor of English acquisition, rather than building upon it to gain true biliteracy and bilingualism, fail to serve the best interests of our students. Policies that favor monolingualism fail to prepare tomorrow’s graduates for the opportunities that globalization and demographic change will afford them.

At the same time, we know that implementing quality, research-based models that ensure all students receive enough time in the immersion language to foster biliterate academic achievement is a marathon-like endeavor. It’s not for the faint of heart.

It requires of school stakeholders a commitment to go above-and beyond what’s passable as immersion education, and to take on misconceptions about how students acquire language. For example, the fear that students won’t acquire English without early literacy instruction in English, (and will therefore struggle on standardized tests) continues to drive much immersion program design. However, the research shows that literacy skills developed in the immersion language actually strengthen the acquisition of English as students mature.

Policies that subtract a child’s home language in favor of English acquisition, rather than building upon it to gain true biliteracy and bilingualism, fail to serve the best interests of our students.

Shifting our nation’s monolingual mindset won’t happen overnight. It will require courageous school leaders, outside innovators, and policy makers with foresight all working in partnership. For the sake of our students and the future they’ll inherit, we’re committed to the work, and excited for what lies ahead.

If you’re interested in joining the multilingual movement and talking more about building and sustaining quality dual language immersion education programs, let us know using the form below and we’ll be in touch.

*“As noted by many leading researchers, these bilingual or “‘immersion’ programs are not always clearly defined… “This is especially true for programs for minority language students where local schools have considerable autonomy in designing their own programs” (Lindholm-Leary & Genesee, 2014, p. 176).  In fact, many schools adopt “weak” bilingual programs understanding that the ultimate goal is English monolingualism  (Menken and Kleyn, 2010, p. 400).”

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