Local elementary students learning Chinese in dual immersion program


Nancy West’s classroom looks just like any other first grade classroom. Colorful pictures adorn the wall. Desks are neatly lined up, with each students name printed on a card at the top. A daily schedule is at the front of the room so children can navigate their way through the day.

There’s only one difference between West’s classroom and others at Wasatch Elementary School in Provo — she teaches entirely in Chinese.

Across Utah, elementary schools are implementing dual-language immersion programs. Parents have the option to have their child spend half the school day being taught all the normal subjects, such as math and social studies, only in a foreign language such as Spanish, French or Chinese. Wasatch is the only school in the area that teaches Chinese.

According to nationsonline.org, Chinese is the most commonly spoken language in the world. This, among other reasons, factored into Wasatch Principal Colleen Densley’s  decision to have Chinese taught at the school, West said.

“She thinks it is very important for children to learn Chinese because of the economic and social issues,” West said. “Our Chinese immersion is the biggest in Utah.”

A study done by Horn and Kajaku showed that students who were enrolled in rigorous foreign language programs were more likely than other students to receive higher grades in college and less likely to drop out.

West said that one of the goals at Wasatch is to teach the children to do exceptional in all areas of academia, and to prepare them for the rigors of high school and college.

“Our goal is to teach them, since they stay with us for a half day,” West said. “Between the English teacher and Chinese teacher we share responsibility for content.”

A typical day for students enrolled in the program involves half the day taught completely in English and half the day taught entirely in Chinese. West has a poster set up in her classroom with the daily schedule, all in Chinese, so the kids know exactly where they are at in the day. West said it eliminates the desire for children to ask when it was time to go home.

“The students really like this,” West said. “If I didn’t change my chart the children always point at it and remind me.”

West said there are many rewarding parts to the program. For her, the best part is seeing the improvement in the children, even in just eight weeks.

“I think I enjoy the program because I like to see them from zero to them growing every day more and more,” West said. “The best part is that I see students that love to learn and want to participate and feel very comfortable being in the classroom.”

There are some challenges that come from teaching entirely in Chinese, particularly with classroom management, West said. From day one, the class is taught entirely in Chinese. Because most of the students have no prior background to Chinese, it can be difficult to communicate at first. West said she uses a lot of visual aids and body language to help the children learn. However, despite the initial disadvantage, West said the children are doing very well.

“At the beginning it was kind of hard and chaotic because they don’t know what to do,” West said. “I had to be very patient. Now they are quite comfortable.”

In a study done by Kathryn Lindholm-Leary, she found students who participated in the dual-immersion program had more determination to attend college and had high levels of academic performance.

In addition, of the 142 students studied, only six were not in advanced math courses by the time they attended high school, Lindholm-Leary said. Although West said she could not determine if students enrolled in dual-immersion did better overall than other students, she has noticed higher competency in math skill among her students. Because Chinese is such a difficult language, she said students must have good reasoning skills.

“Our students, half of the day, have to use their brains very hard to figure out what is going on in the classroom,” West said. “They have to learn to use their brain more than other kids — though I’m not saying they are better. They really have to focus to follow all the directions in a different language.”

West said while some people may not be able to learn a language, most people can, whether it be Chinese or another language. West said Wasatch’s main goal is to teach proficiency in both English and Chinese.

The National Standards in Foreign language Education Project feels this is true as well.

“The United States must educate students who are equipped linguistically and culturally to communicate successfully in a pluralistic American society and abroad,” The National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project said. “This imperative envisions a future in which all students will develop and maintain proficiency in English and at least one other language.”

Parental involvement is crucial in a child’s success in the program, West said. She said most parents really like to get involved with their child’s education and are anxious to help out. She said the parents’ attitude really affects student performance.

“If parents get excited, it will be very easy for students to want to perform,” West said. “If the parent is very passive, we can see them struggling.”

Whether a child learns Chinese, Spanish, French or any other language, the benefits most certainly outweigh the negatives. While only a few schools are participating in the program now, other schools across the county and state are preparing to integrate language into a student’s day if they desire, West said. Although the program is completely optional, West thinks parents should evaluate their child’s strengths, and if they seem to have a desire, consider enrolling them.

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