Frequently Asked Questions

Why begin a second language in Kindergarten?

Your child's brain is at the optimal stage of early development to learn language, meaning your child has twice as many synapses (connections) in the brain as you do. These connections must be used or lost. There is a window of opportunity in which your child can learn any first language normally. After this period, their brain becomes slowly less receptive. Your child can learn as many spoken languages as you allow them to hear systematically and regularly.

What is immersion?

Language Immersion is an approach to second language instruction in which the usual learning activities are conducted in a second language. This means that the new language is the medium, as well as the object of instruction. Immersion classes follow the same curricula, and often use the same translated materials as those used in the non-immersion schools of their district. The ultimate goal of the language immersion classroom is language acquisition.

In early years, immersion teachers know that students will not understand everything they say. Teachers use body language, visuals, objects, exaggerated facial expressions, and expressive intonation to communicate meaning. In kindergarten, it is common for students to speak English with each other and when responding to their teacher. As the years progress, students naturally use more of the immersion language. (Fortune and Tedick, 2003)

Why immersion?

According to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota, immersion programs are the most effective type of foreign language program. Students can be expected to reach higher levels of a second language proficiency than students in other school-based language programs.

A great deal of research has centered on second language acquisition in various school settings. Over the past thirty years, due primarily to the success of immersion programs, there has been a simultaneous shift away from teaching language in isolation and toward integrating language and content. This shift is based on four principles:

  • Language is acquired most effectively when it is learned in meaningful social context. For young learners, school curriculum provides a natural basis for second language acquisition, offering them the opportunity to communicate what they know and what they want to know along with their feelings and attitudes.
  • Stimulating content provides a motivating context for learning the communicative functions of a new language. Young children are not interested in learning language that serves no meaningful function.
  • First language acquisition, cognition and social awareness are correlated in young children. By integrating language and content, second-language learning also becomes an integral part of a child's social and cognitive development.
  • Formal and functional characteristics of language change from one context to another. An integrated language and content model in an elementary school setting provides a wide variety of contexts to use the second language.

What are the effects of immersion education?

A growing body of research on immersion education has shown that immersion students consistently meet or exceed academic expectations in the following areas:

  • Second language skills: Immersion students by far outperform students in traditional foreign language classes. They are functionally proficient in the immersion language and are able to communicate according to their age and grade level.
  • English language skills: In the early years of English instruction (K-2), there may be a lag in English reading and writing skills. By 5th grade, however, immersion students do as well, or better than students in English-only classes.
  • Content areas: Immersion students achieve in academic areas as well as students in English-only programs.
  • Cultural sensitivity: Immersion students are more aware of, and show positive attitudes towards other cultures.

Key components of our program

  • The second language is the language of instruction for all our classroom instruction from kindergarten through grade 2.
  • The curriculum parallels our District's English curriculum in all subjects. Your child will be taught to read, speak and learn in the second language.
  • Direct instruction in English begins in the 3rd grade for reading, writing and language arts in English.
  • Your child will continue to be taught the other subjects in the second language through 5th grade.
  • After two or three years in an immersion program, your child will demonstrate fluency and their comprehension skills will be comparable to those of native speakers the same age.
  • Research, however, has found that immersion students’ second language lacks the same grammatical accuracy, variety and complexity produced by native speakers. Attainment of that skill level is a long-term process. Native-like proficiency in every skill area is unlikely.
  • Our model is uniquely successful in terms of student achievement. Many immersion schools report that English test scores may dip from grades 2 - 4 and rebound by grade five to be equal to, or higher than the non-immersion classes. However, in our schools this has not occurred. Our Immersion students perform on par with their English program peers at all grade levels. A strong commitment by parents to read with children in English at home every night complements our exceptional instruction in English in grades 3 - 5, resulting in outstanding achievement levels by all of our students. By the end of fifth grade, most of our students are reading in English at the 11th grade level (according to NWEA Measures of Academic Progress).

Sources

History

When did the School Board adopt Immersion and were other models considered to better enhance the opportunities for all students?

Our School Board adopted Language Immersion in December, 2006 to begin in September 2007. The decision followed an extensive process to consider the most effective models for meeting student needs and families' goals for their children.

In October, 2004, the District invited parents, community members and staff to participate in study committees of the following instructional models:

  • Continuous Progress
  • Language Immersion
  • International Baccalaureate Primary and Middle Level Years
  • Math and Science Magnet
  • Accelerated School
  • Core Knowledge
  • Montessori
  • Year Round School
  • Other models that may be suggested by potential study participants

The study committees began presenting their findings in March, 2005.

Why did the District adopt the immersion program when several years ago they removed the Spanish classes due to cost?

In 2007, the introduction of the new language immersion program provided an opportunity to once again grow an elementary world language program, but in a more cost efficient and effective way than the exploratory program formerly offered. The immersion options are now inclusive and open to all kindergarten families who wish to enroll.

The concept of returning the previous exploratory language program was considered; however, the former model is more costly and less effective for language acquisition than the current immersion model. The goal of immersion is language acquisition. The goals of the exploratory model is exposure to the culture and language. The exploratory model has three significant barriers:

  1. Higher Cost: The former model relied on language specialists at each of the schools, which equated to an additional 6 teachers at the elementary level or about $300,000. The language teachers were in addition to classroom teachers. In an immersion model, the classroom teacher and language teacher are one in the same.
  2. Limited language acquisition: The former model provided less than one hour of language/cultural instruction per week. It was designed, and thus limited, to be an exploratory model. Such a model does not support language acquisition. Students still entered the high school at Level 1 of their world language. The immersion model promotes language acquisition and fluency during elementary school.
  3. Time: Fitting in another elective (like art or music) takes time away from core instruction in the classroom. A thorough review of this issue in 2000 resulted in the reinstatement of elementary art, but not of world language exploration. Higher standards for all students in math, reading/language arts, and science require more classroom time on those topics. Minnesota already has fewer instructional days than many states, and the United States already has fewer instructional days than most nations. The immersion model teaches math and other subjects in the second language (making the second language both the mode, and subject of instruction), and does not take time away from other content areas.

Most people are surprised to learn that the immersion model is LESS costly than our previous model. Many assume that a new program requires a great deal of financial support. In reality, language immersion does not require significant additional financial resources. Three traditional expenses for education are cost neutral using the Minnetonka Language Immersion Model.

  1. Teachers: Students in Kindergarten already need a teacher. In an immersion program, we are taking an existing teaching position and changing the assignment from teaching in English to teaching in the second language. This is cost neutral.
  2. Transportation: Utilizing the school-within-a-school concept, students attend their neighborhood school without any additional cost.
  3. Textbooks: There are no textbooks in most K and Grade 1 classrooms; the curricular materials are “consumables” and need to be replaced every year. Therefore, there is no additional cost because materials would simply be purchased in that second language. In later elementary grades, and in middle school grades, textbooks are used. There is a textbook adoption and replacement cycle so purchases are part of this regular cycle.

Our School Board and Administration believe that offering a world language experience when children are best able to learning a language is important to providing a world-class education.

How were the two languages selected for the immersion programs?

Spanish was selected because of its popularity and pervasiveness. Chinese was selected because two of our schools already have after-school Chinese clubs, and there is a great deal of interest in Chinese language, both among our community and as a state initiative. In addition, our District is a recognized leader in Chinese language instruction, which has been taught at Minnetonka High School for almost twenty years. Our long-time partnership with the Minnesota-China Teacher Exchange Program positions Minnetonka advantageously to attract highly qualified teachers of Chinese language.

Immersion in the Minnetonka District

The Minnetonka Language Immersion Model is unique in Minnesota. There is a school-within-a-school option in each of our District’s elementary schools. The program began in 2007 with kindergarten and grade 1. Today, our immersion students have successfully progressed into our middle schools and high school, and the District is committed to supporting world language growth through graduation.

Families who enroll their children in kindergarten are asked to make at least a six-year commitment to the immersion program.

At grade 6, students move to one of our middle schools where students transition to an immersion continuation model. Students have an 87-minute block of instruction in the second language that covers social studies and world language curriculum. This model has been carefully designed to ensure continued development of the immersion language while allowing full access to honors and elective courses for all students.

At grade 9, students will have a very strong foundation in the second language and will be prepared to enroll in AP Language and Culture in their Immersion language, as well as more advanced language and literature courses being developed for grades 10-12.

The languages

Why Spanish?

The Spanish language is the most common second language in the United States, and the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world (after English, Chinese and Hindustani). It is an official language on four continents and a frequent second language in Europe.

The Hispanic population is the fastest growing demographic within the United States. This presents great domestic opportunities, as well as career opportunities for bilingual professionals.

As countries in Latin America are strengthening and expanding their economies, they are becoming more important as trading partners. Many countries in Latin America have signed, or are on the verge of signing on to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which was originally set up by the United States, Canada and Mexico. This should further strengthen trade and business ties between these countries and the U.S. – making the Spanish language an even more important asset for Americans in the business world.

Spanish is a relatively easy language to learn because much of its vocabulary is similar to English. Spanish has the highest enrollment in both middle schools and the high school in Minnetonka.

Why Chinese?

Chinese is spoken by one-fifth of the world’s population– ranked number 1 among first languages spoken.

Since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, both our State and Federal government have made Chinese language and culture an important educational investment.

The growing economic presence of China will only make it more significant in commerce. Currently, China holds the largest portion of American debt and is quickly becoming one of the world's economic superpowers. Many Minnetonka businesses regularly conduct business with China.

Chinese language programs are growing faster in enrollment, and in 2006-07 three neighboring districts started Chinese programs in their middle or high schools.

Our District, has a longstanding positive history teaching Chinese for over 20 years and was one of the first districts in Minnesota to offer Chinese as a world language. Today, more than 150 middle and high school students study Chinese in Minnetonka. Each year, we host one or two Chinese teachers from the Hangzhou Foreign Language School. In turn, Minnetonka teachers have taught in Hangzhou.

If Chinese was taught at the elementary school level, how would the children learn the English alphabet and spellings of English words? Would all the work done be in Chinese characters?

Mandarin Chinese, the official language of the People's Republic of China, uses both Chinese characters and pinyin - a Romanized or phonetic alphabet officially adopted by the Chinese government the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as the standard Romanization for modern Chinese in 1979. Children learning Chinese learn both the characters (a symbol or picture based language) and the pinyin. Instructional materials also include both the letters and characters.

Enrollment questions

Is the program open to all kindergarten students?

Yes. Generally, any kindergarten child whose family values learning a second language may enroll in the program. The immersion programs are designed for students who want to develop proficiency in a second language, rather than students who are already fluent in one of the immersion languages. All students are eligible to participate, but students with language processing disabilities are less likely to be successful in a second language so an immersion program may be inappropriate for those students.

If I don't enroll my child in kindergarten, can I enroll my child later, perhaps first or second grade?

Entrance to the immersion program is generally restricted to those who enter in the beginning of the program at kindergarten. However, students may enter in later grades provided they meet specific standards and pass appropriate assessments demonstrating appropriate proficiency in the second language. For example, students who transfer into the District from another immersion program should have the appropriate language proficiency to enter in an upper grade; however, an immersion setting would not be as effective for a 3rd grader who has never had any education in the second language.

How many students are enrolled in language immersion?

Approximately 50% of kindergarten students in Minnetonka enroll in the language immersion program.

General questions about language immersion

Is language immersion a new concept?

Immersion has been used in Canada for over 35 years. Immersion schools in the United States are gaining popularity as an effective method of language learning. In reality, the immersion concept has been around for thousands of years since it is the way all of us learn our native language. In immersion, language learning is done in such a natural way that students are comfortable with the instruction. Children are excellent mimics. They are eager, curious and less self-conscious than adults in experimenting with and acquiring new languages.

Is Immersion an option for all children?

The Immersion program is open to all children entering kindergarten. Families who value proficiency in a second language acquired during elementary school are encouraged to enroll in the Immersion program.

Immersion is not for everyone, however. Many parents want their children to master the English language before learning a second language. Many students don’t have a passion for language; their passions lie elsewhere. There are many high-achieving Minnetonka High School students who take only the basic level of language (recommended for college entrance) and do not pursue proficiency. There will be students who want to study French, German, Japanese or American Sign Language who will wait until middle school or high school to begin a language. Our middle school world language curriculum permits students to begin high school level world language with all day, everyday world language instruction in 8th grade.

Parents know that each child is unique, and children develop talents in many areas: music, language, numbers, visual arts, movement, science, and social intelligence. Language is only one of the Multiple Intelligences human beings possess. In Minnetonka, there are many paths to excel, wherever a student’s talents and academic interests lie. Parents are encouraged to focus on the educational program that will be a good fit for their child. No matter what choice they make, it is a good choice if that choice is based on the temperament, learning style and other needs of each child. Each child will benefit from our District’s excellent teachers in all of its educational programs.

Is a background in the new language needed?

The school is designed for children of families who do not speak Spanish or Chinese. Teachers consider this fact when they communicate with parents and assign homework. Communication between home and school is in English.

What percentage of class time would you say is expected to be in the Spanish/Chinese language?

In the kindergarten program, teaching in the classroom is 100% in the second language. Students will naturally ask questions in English, but teachers will most often respond in the second language (with many gestures, pictures, and visual cues). During first and second grade, students begin having art, music, physical education and media center time with specialists in those areas; specials are taught in English. In third grade, formal instruction begins in English (about 25% of classroom instruction).

How do children learn English?

During kindergarten and first grade, all instruction is in the second language. Students may use English, but their classroom teachers respond in the second language. As students become more accustomed to hearing and understanding the second language, they are encouraged to express themselves in the second language.

Outside of school, parents are asked to read to or with their child everyday in English, which is the same advice given to non-immersion students' families.

In third grade, direct instruction in English and reading strategies begin. Students work on spelling rules, parts of speech and some basic writing skills. The amount of English language arts instruction increases at the upper elementary grades.

Students will eventually acquire the same English language skills as the students in English-only settings. At every grade level, reading to and with your child at home is imperative for your child’s language development.

What role do parents play in the school?

A long-term commitment is essential for children to experience the great benefits an immersion education yields. Parents can support their child in these ways:

  • Make a long-term commitment to immersion.
  • Develop an understanding of immersion education.
  • Provide experiences outside of school to develop English language skills.
  • Encourage the use of the second language outside of school.
  • Most importantly, be sure your child attends school everyday.
  • Volunteer at school and in your child's classroom.

Various volunteer opportunities exist in the school. Parent involvement in school activities shows the child that education is very important to the family.

Are teachers native speakers?

Some immersion teachers may be are native speakers, although this is not a requirement. Teachers must have a Minnesota elementary teaching license and be highly proficient in the language of instruction. Our teachers have traveled or lived abroad and have an excellent understanding of other cultures and the value of global education.

What level of skill in the second language will students have by the end of fifth grade?

The goal is for students to speak the second language fluently. They will also have strong enough reading, writing, and listening skills to master the core academic subjects in the second language.

Would the Kindergarten Immersion be 1/2 day or Extended-Day?

Parents have the option of selecting either the 1/2 day or Extended-day option for the Immersion Program.

Will you require elementary language immersion teachers to have a certificate in language immersion education?

Language immersion teachers will have to be certified in elementary education and also demonstrate a high level of proficiency in the second language.

In the elementary language immersion program has thought been given as to how culture will be integrated into language learning?

Culture will be an important part of our immersion classrooms. Teachers may incorporate culture into lessons, activities, classroom artifacts, and by bringing in classroom guests.

Will elementary language immersion classrooms be using the same curricula as English-only classes?

Yes. Our Immersion classrooms will be held to the same content standards as other classrooms, learning the same science, math, social studies and reading lessons; however, they will be taught in the second language. Specials (such as music, art, physical education, and media center) will be taught in English.

Is the class taught entirely in Spanish, or would Spanish be a special subject similar to music, gym, etc? What percentage of class time would you say is expected to be in the Spanish/Chinese language?

The majority of the child’s day is taught in the second language (Spanish or Chinese). The language is both the mode of instruction and the subject of instruction. Specials such as music, media, gym, art are taught in English.

How do Immersion students perform on state reading and math tests?

By fifth grade, our Immersion students meet or exceed proficiency levels of their English peers on state tests.


Will there be student exchanges through the language immersion program?

Student exchanges may develop in the future; but they are not included in the first year of the proposal. However, with the growing number of immersion programs throughout Minnesota, opportunities for local exchanges are developing.