Kindergarten Language Immersion and Classroom Dynamics

ICS Playground and Mural

Playground and New Mural at Independence Charter School

In the language immersion program, students at Independence Charter (ICS) get 90% of their curriculum in Spanish.  I have already made it clear my infatuation with the idea of language immersion programs and the benefits for cognitive development in elementary school.  In a conversation with someone at Independence Charter, I learned about a benefit that I hadn’t ever previously considered, and possibly one of the root causes of the measured difference.

It is a given–at any kindergarten, students start at different levels–how much each student can read and write varies widely.  ICS is certainly no exception.  I suspect that since they are a charter school and draw students from all over the city (46 zip codes, if I recall?), the variance in ability is probably even wider.  In a typical kindergarten class, the disparity in abilities forces some level of grouping–the most obvious forms are reading groups.  I am no classroom expert, but I would guess that there are subtler forms of grouping as well, where kids who are less able start to fall behind more.  Maybe the get called on less, maybe they get frustrated as they struggle to understand concepts that their peers already know pretty well.

What does language immersion add to this equation?  At a school like ICS with wider variances, the grouping would have to be more pronounced, right?  One of the realities of a language immersion program is that everyone is starting at the same level.  Maybe my kid can’t read but another kid can.  Guess what?  When the class starts and the teacher is speaking only Spanish, every kid is lost.  Every kid is starting from scratch.  So by definition, the students are all at the same level, at least for vast chunks of the curriculum.  I imagine that this state of uniform ability creates a great dynamic in the class, engaging all students equally, not separating students with labels of “gifted” or “special needs” so quickly.  It is a fascinating and intuitively compelling idea.  I wrote before about the overall benefits of language immersion for brain development.  The studies seem to imply that the process of language acquisition at a young age positively impacts brain development and achievement across all subjects.  I wonder, though.  To what extent can these cognitive development benefits can be attributed to classroom dynamics–that as kids stay more engaged with the classroom, they learn more?  Whichever way it works, immersion remains compelling to me.

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