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Immersion learning - right from day 1

Focus key competencies: Managing self; participating and contributing

Learning area context: Learning languages


Right from the start of their very first lesson in French, students in this teacher’s class find themselves in a learning environment where most of the communication is en français. The teacher does allow his year 9 students to speak in English as they negotiate small group tasks, but by year 10 he expects all such conversations to be in French and he himself communicates almost exclusively in French right from day one.

This teacher says that there is no point to students learning the language if they cannot gradually become confident to communicate without his immediate support. But he is also very mindful of the challenges an immersion context poses for students’ self management. Over the years he has found a number of specific types of scaffolds work very well to accustom students to this unfamiliar learning context, and to support them to take risks as they communicate with him and with each other.

In the beginning the teacher works hard to establish a “basic repertoire of formulaic expressions” such as “How do you say...?” and “What does ... mean?” He makes a point of always speaking in strings of complete sentences, albeit with a lot of repetition and mime. If students hear a word or phrase over and over in the same context, they quickly learn both its meaning and pronunciation. This takes much more time than traditional approaches to building vocabulary but clearly conveys an expectation of communication using those words, right from day one. Posters all around the walls also give contextual clues to many basic words and phrases. Mid-way through the second term, students are no longer allowed to ask “Comment dit-on...?” (How do you say...?) in the whole class context because by now they have lots of basic phrases in their own repertoire and they can create their own approximate sentences.

Keeping it light-hearted, the teacher will send students out of class for a short time if they forget and default to speaking in English in front of the class. He says they quickly learn to speak in French or say nothing and listen! However rewards are also freely given. Once students have acquired 100 basic phrases (that is, 100 stamps on a reward chart), which they keep in a personal notebook, they earn a “prize” (typically something small from the $2 shop). At the end of every lesson the teacher stands at the door to acknowledge, always in French, a specific personal success for each student during that lesson. This comment could be about speed, pronunciation, or perseverance: “one wee thing so they all leave buzzing”. 

Cooperative learning, and especially the write-pair-share, strategy is routinely used to support students to hone their speaking skills. Mistakes are an important part of learning a new language and the teacher is careful not to discourage communication by making corrections in front of the class. This expectation also applies to students: when peer reviewing each other’s efforts they provide written feedback, unless working one-to-one. The emphasis is on “communication over perfection”. He will not accept the typical adolescent strategy of saying “C’est pas grave” (It doesn’t matter) when really challenged. He pushes them to keep going, but makes a point of being lavish with praise once the learning dilemma is resolved.

The teacher makes a strict point of using a 7-second wait-time before answering questions, because students will often arrive at a solution for themselves in that time. In small group work C3B4ME (see three other people before you talk to me about your issue) is an established expectation. And when students request a translation of a particularly tricky phrase, he makes a point of modelling being a learner himself. He will often take the request away to research and report back the next day. As he says, “I am a teacher, not a translator” and there are many translation websites that students can quickly learn to access for themselves.

The metacognitive demands of this type of learning are considerable because each language is a specific meaning-making system. Students need to build their self-awareness of how they make meaning, both when learning something new and when communicating. “How did you learn that?” is a simple but powerful question, often used in these classes. The teacher also has a number of resources that simultaneously build language skills and self-awareness of the learning strategies students are employing to do the task (the teacher uses "task-based" teaching approaches. See recommended reading). For example, a simple ‘spot the difference’ children’s game might be the basis for a small group conversation. Supporting the game, he will provide a table with relevant words in French, some with English translations and some without. These words will have been carefully paired so that those with translations provide clues for translating the others, once students discover the organisational strategy the teacher has used to build the table. He notes that four types of learning strategies are typically employed and students tend to have specific personal strengths in their default choices:

  • Finding similarities between French and English words
  • Using prior knowledge (for example of French phrases that are also in common use in English)
  • Using contextual or textual clues
  • Using visual clues

Students regularly complete simple self-reviews that draw their attention to which strategies they have used in a specific task, and how often. Typically a self-reflection will also include one question that focuses on a specific aspect of the form of French as a language-system. The “implicit becomes explicit” as students note one thing they have learned with respect to the featured aspect of form. In year 9 students are allowed to complete these reflections in English, but again by year 10 they will have moved to communicating even the metacognitive aspects of their learning in French.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

The New Zealand Curriculum emphasises the communicative purpose for learning a language that is additional to the language of instruction (namely English and/or te reo Māori and/or Sign Language in New Zealand schools). (In the past, accurate use of words and grammar was often the main emphasis, but could be achieved at the expense of (or in the absence of) ability to actually use the language to communicate effectively. This traditional approach is called a “grammar-translation” approach to learning a language. For an account of debates about which purpose to foreground in The New Zealand Curriculum, and in associated NCEA achievement standards, see East & Scott, 2011). A Communication strand is the core strand of the languages learning area, supported by two other strands, language knowledge and cultural knowledge:

In the core communication strand, students learn to use the language to make meaning. As their linguistic and cultural knowledge increases, they become more effective communicators, developing the receptive skills of listening, reading and viewing, or the productive skills of speaking, writing and presenting or performing (NZC, p.24).

Levels 5 and 6 the achievement objectives include that students will “express and respond to personal ideas and opinions” and “communicate appropriately in different situations”. Participating and contributing is integral to learning a new language because students must practice making themselves understood. Conversations require listeners as well as speakers and students must contribute to practice by playing both roles.

In this example, students are carefully supported to develop aspects of managing self. In a context in which the taken-for-granted ability to communicate in their first language is largely taken away they must find new coping strategies, the courage to take risks, and the resilience to keep trying even when the required learning tasks might seem overwhelmingly unfamiliar and hence difficult. The New Zealand Curriculum learning area statement makes it clear that students must draw on their learning-to-learn abilities in this unfamiliar context:

As they learn a language, students develop their understanding of the power of language. They discover new ways of learning, new ways of knowing, and more about their own capabilities (NZC, p.24).

A safe and supportive learning environment is critical here. What the teacher does is extremely important if students are to successfully manage their learning in this context.

Reflections on effective pedagogy

This story foregrounds the teachers’ pedagogical decisions and actions as a critical aspect of creating a learning environment in which it is safe for students to take risks with their learning, which is an important dimension of the key competency of managing self. 

Challenge is a central consideration when learning in an immersion context. A safe environment needs to be carefully planned for, so that every student can be supported to take risks and experience success.

Students must take the initiative to speak in French or they will not be able to take a full part in the class at all. Making the learning activities fun, topical, and safe for risk-taking all helps to ensure students will build the confidence needed to be active participants. The metacognitive aspects build self-awareness in ways that support transfer to other learning contexts. 

Discussion starters: A focus on taking learning risks

In this story risk is associated with actively participating and contributing in class (that is, actually speaking out in a new language instead of just listening). What types of learning activities in other learning areas require types of active participation that could feel risky to some students?

Do you consciously support students to take risks and challenge themselves in their learning? How important do you think doing this is to supporting the overall development of the competency of managing self?

What seems risky for one learner is likely to seem risky for many. How students support and respond to each other can be an important enabler of, or barrier to, learning here. Compare the opportunities for developing the self control, self awareness, and a feeling for being in other’s shoes in this story with the performance context in Creating a Pasifika dance performance and the peer assessment context in Being a food technologist. What is the same and what is different about these three contexts for taking risks and managing self?


East, M. (2012). Task-based language teaching from the teachers’ perspective. Amsterdam / Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.

East, M., & Scott, A. (2011). Working for positive washback: The potential and challenge of the standards-curriculum alignment project for Learning Languages. Assessment Matters3, 93–115.

Willis, D & Willis, J. (2007). Doing task-based teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Published on: 15 Apr 2014