Bilingualism is a growing trend in the United States, and immersion programs have become increasingly common for early childcare centers and elementary schools. Deciding whether or not to enroll your child in an immersion program is an important choice for any parent, but what about parents of children with language-based learning differences?
Join us as we dive into the most current research about language acquisition and phonologically based learning differences. We have gathered some great resources to help you make an informed decision about which educational placement is best for your individual child's needs.
According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is "...a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language..."
The phonological component of language is what we use when we sound out words while reading or spelling, when rhyming, while identifying all the different sounds letters can make, or when breaking apart a word into its syllables.
Recent data suggests that the relationship between phonological awareness in foreign language reading achievement is equivalent to that of English. In other words, if students struggle with English reading and spelling, they will struggle to the same extent in a foreign language. With this in mind, we have created a list of four questions to consider when choosing a program for your child:
1) Will your child have access to reading intervention through the immersion program delivered in the target language AND English?
Most public elementary schools are required to use screening tools for students in kindergarten and first grade to identify students that are likely to struggle with reading. It is crucial that immersion programs use a screening tool developed *in the target language*. If the school does not have access to this, they may be unprepared to meet the needs of your child.
Once students are identified as struggling readers, it is important that they receive early intervention. Since we know that these students will struggle with reading across all languages, this is a crucial time to begin intervention in the target language AND in English. Learning to read requires linking spoken language representations with print, which is best accomplished in the language of greatest proficiency (Goldenberg, 2008; Mortimore et al., 2012). Many immersion programs will hold-off on English intervention until later, but this is contradictory to the empirical data.
This also brings us to our second question to consider:
2) When will your child have access to English reading instruction in addition to reading in the foreign language, and is the instructional time equivalent?
Not all immersion programs are created equal. Genesee (2014) states that when English instruction is not introduced until grades 2-5, there is a temporary lag in skills related to phonological awareness for all students. For students with dyslexia, this lag may be less temporary, and can contribute to a greater reading gap. Additionally, instruction time for English language skills is a critical factor to consider, and it should be equal or nearly equal to the instructional time spent immersed in the foreign language.
With this in mind, students with dyslexia may benefit from a Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program that teaches the foreign language and primary language equally.
Reach out to the teachers and administrators in each program you are considering and ask to have a meeting. Go over the four questions included in this article with them, and ask them to explain their approach.
3) Are the teachers qualified?
Of course they are...right? Unfortunately, not always. This is an important question to ask when making a decision for your student. Most general education teachers have limited training on how to teach students to read, and little to no instruction on how to provide intervention for students with dyslexia. This being said, teachers with foreign language degrees are even less likely to have training in these areas.
Additionally, some immersion programs, even those provided through the public school system, will hire teachers that are not specialized in teaching foreign languages. It is important to note that being a native speaker of a language does not qualify you to teach it in an immersion program.
Qualified teachers should have a Bachelor's degree or higher in foreign language education in addition to being proficient in the foreign language.
4) What is the reputation of the program?
Finally, a lot can be learned about a program by reaching out to other families that have been through it. Social media is a great resource for collecting information about the experiences of other families and students. Seek out parents of children with language-based learning differences that have also gone through the program.
Immersion programs should never be considered a status symbol or the best program for all learners. There are many factors to be considered when choosing the program that will best meet the needs of your individual student.
You got this, parents - and we are always here to help!
-The LD Expert
Resources and Research:
Bilingual education and at-risk students (free download of full PDF text available)