Language immersion classrooms: Programs are popular, diligence translates to performance

Published: Sunday, Jan. 29 2012 10:00 p.m. MST

Numerous studies show how committed, involved parents have a positive influence on student achievement. "Parental effort is consistently associated with higher levels of achievement and the magnitude of the effect of parental effort is substantial." said Karen Smith Conway, a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire. Just how substantial? According to Conway: "Schools would have to increase per-pupil spending by more than $1000 in order to achieve the same results that are gained by parental involvement."

Intriguingly, certain kinds of parental involvement have more impact than others. According to Douglas Willms things like supervising homework, volunteering in classrooms, and attending parent teacher meetings have relatively small effects on student outcomes. But here are things that do impact student achievement. "Taking a genuine interest in kids achievement," by for example, "discussing school activities and helping them plan their programs has the strongest relationship to academic achievement," he said.

Willms is skeptical that parental involvement is what accounts for the superiour performance of immersion students, however, there are those whose work suggests there may be a connection. Fatima Baig, of the University of Iowa, studies the motivations of parents who choose German language immersion for their children. She found that across the board these parents said their biggest motivatior for choosing immersion was that it would give their child a better education. In her research she noticed that because these parents were excited about their kids education, they often wanted to talk with their kids about what they were learning in school. An interesting finding in the context of Willms work.


Cathy Steel chose a language immersion program for her son Ethan because of research she did on how "learning a new language opens up the brain for other kinds of learning" she says. Her fifth grade son Ethan, who has been in in Spanish immersion at Sand Springs Elementary since kindergarten, is reaping the benefits of a mind stimulated by a bilingual education. His teacher, Ms Skousan, calls him "bright" and "engaged." But in addition to the intellectual benefits Cathy expected to see, she says Spanish Immersion is teaching Ethan some important life skills too.

When Ethan has questions about his homework, Cathy's isn't necessarily in a position to help him because she doesn't speak enough Spanish.(Though according to Ethan's teacher Ms Skousan, her efforts to become fluent are impressive). While Cathy is there to support and encourage her son, Ethan is the one who has to find creative ways to answer his questions.

Amy Mullins notices something similar with her son Daniel. "My son is learning to be resourceful and confident because he can't run to mom and dad when he has questions," she says. He is learning to "take ownership for his education...to be independent...and to persist in difficult tasks."

This last element, persisting in difficult tasks is interesting because it is highly correlated with student achievement. Earling Bow and Robert Boruch, professors of education at the University of Pennsylvania, examined student performance on the International Mathematics and Science Study exams. The exams include two sections: the subject test questions and a student background questionnaire. They noticed that student performance on the subjects tests was highly correlated with the number of questions they answered in the background questionnaire. In their analysis of their findings they suggest that if we want to understand differences in student achievement "it is necessary to recognize the non-academic factors, such as student characteristics as majors sources of.... (performance) variability," according to their report.

EMAIL: mwhite@desnews.com

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