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Chinese immersion school consortium launched

August 1, 2012

John Huntsman, a fluent speaker of Mandarin and the governor of Utah who launched the state’s immersion education programs.

By Elizabeth Weise

A program launched this year in Utah could make creating new Mandarin immersion schools a little easier, and more sustainable, for everyone. It’s called the Flagship – Chinese Acquisition Pipeline, or F-CAP for short.

Mandarin immersion programs in elementary school are growing at a tremendous rate. In  2012-2013 or, in the 2012-2013 school year alone at least 21 schools began programs. Most of those schools start cold. They’re just one school in a district that has few Mandarin speakers, no experience setting up a Mandarin immersion school, no Mandarin-speaking principals and sometimes no Mandarin-speaking teachers to start.

Until recently, there’s been no road map for these programs, no “Mandarin immersion in a box” program that would tell them, step-by-step, what was needed to create a vibrant, academically strong Mandarin immersion program. Each school has had to work out for itself how to go about creating what many in the world of education believe to be one of the most challenging school programs there is. If they were lucky, program administrators were able to attend a Chinese language conference before they launched. Until this spring, with the publication of Chinese Language Learning in the Early Grades: A handbook of resources and best practices for Mandarin immersion by the Asia Society, there wasn’t even a book that discussed effective practices for starting and maintaining Mandarin immersion programs.

That’s beginning to change. Conferences offer insight and techniques, several programs have become go-to sites for schools that want to start Mandarin immersion, and education professionals with experience in Mandarin immersion are now available to consult with newer programs.

Utah State Superintendent of Education Larry Shumway,.

Until now, however there wasn’t anywhere that offered a curriculum that was “shovel ready,” to use a current term. But this year Utah, which has the largest number of Chinese immersion schools in the nation, launched the F-CAP consortium led by Brigham Young University and the Utah State Office of Education, five other state departments of education and individual school districts in 18 other states as well as the U.S. universities who belong to the Language Flagship, a federal program that supports K-16 language learning.

The goal is to create “a national model of well-articulated and replicable K-16 pathway for Chinese language study,” to be developed and implemented to result in students’ superior level of proficiency by the time they graduate college, said Gregg Roberts, World Languages and Dual Language Immersion Specialist with the Utah State Office of Education in Salt Lake City.

The consortium plans to create two pathways. One for students entering immersion programs in either Kindergarten or 1st grade, and another for students beginning their Chinese instruction in middle or high school. The goal of each is to have students reach an advanced level of proficiency by high school graduation.

Students coming out of either of these pathways will be primed to enter a Chinese Flagship university in the United States offering advanced Chinese training here and in China. The list can be found at: http://www.thelanguageflagship.org/chinese

Much as the International Baccalaureate program has become a recognized leader in education, F-CAP plans to create an easy-to-replicate program that can be implemented at any school anywhere in the country.  It is being funded in part by a grant from the Language Flagship, a federally-funded component of the National Security Education Program at the U.S Department of Defense. NSEP was created in 1991 to develop a much-needed strategic partnership between the national security community and higher education to address national needs for expertise in critical languages and regions, according to its website.

Current Utah governor Gary Herbert.

F-CAP will create an executive committee and advisory board to “guarantee effective use of resources, equal opportunity for all consortium members, plans for national dissemination, program evaluation, and program quality control to ensure consistency in the pedagogical philosophy, goals, and approaches throughout the program consortium,” it said in a statement.

The idea of a ready-to-implement program that any school district could use is helpful given the large number of schools that want to add Chinese immersion programs but don’t have the expertise locally to do so.

F-CAP programs include:

  • Utah State Office of Education
  • South Carolina Department of Education
  • Delaware Department of Education
  • Georgia Department of Education
  • Oklahoma Department of Education
  • Kentucky Department of Education

And local school districts from:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Idaho
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Wyoming

The F-CAP model for Dual Language Immersion:

50/50 Chinese/English instruction and a minimum of two classes per grade level

This allows schools to hire one Chinese-speaking teacher for each grade level and one English teacher. In the morning half the students are instructed in one language and in the afternoon they switch to the other. This avoids the problem of having non-native speakers of English teaching English, and allows Chinese teachers to focus on Chinese. “Our target language teachers are never required to teach in English,” says Roberts. This makes hiring and teaching easier, he adds..

Dual language

All programs work on the dual-language model, meaning they are meant for both Mandarin-speaking and English-speaking students. In dual-language programs, Mandarin speakers and English speakers aid each other in the languages. Some immersion programs are one-way, meaning all students are expected to be fluent English speakers who are new to Mandarin. While many of the schools in the Utah program have low levels of Mandarin-speaking students (as is the case nationally in almost all Mandarin immersion programs) they are designed to offer the chance for Mandarin-speaking students to learn English and English-speaking students to learn Mandarin.

All schools use the same progression

In K-3, Chinese curriculum includes Chinese, math, science, and social studies. The English curriculum focuses on English language Arts. In 4th and 5th grades, math and social sciences are taught in English, though practical application of these subjects remains in Chinese language. In 6th grade, social science shifts back to Chinese and science shifts to English.

In grades 7 through 9, student have two classes a day in Chinese, one in Chinese Language Arts and one in another subject.

In 9th grade students take the AP Chinese exam and World Geography in Chinese.

In 10 – 12 grades students will be offered university-level coursework through blending learning with six major Utah universities. Students are also encouraged to begin study of a third language in high school.

A state program of teacher recruitment

Utah sponsors J-1 work visas for teachers from China and Taiwan and has a well-organized guest teacher program that licenses the teachers for three years. The state has Memorandum of Understanding with China, Taiwan, France, Mexico and Spain to bring in teachers.

For Chinese, Hanban in China is developing immersion teachers for Utah’s needs.

There is also an elaborate system of support for the teachers. In addition to their visa, they get a week of education at the Annual Utah Dual Immersion Institute (AUDII) as well as four meetings a year for the entire team. There is a statewide Chinese Dual Language Immersion director, Sandra Talbot, who oversees the Chinese Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program.

Training for administrators

The Utah Dual Language Immersion Advisory Council, made up of district administrators, principals and instructional specialist from all DLI schools and districts, is brought together four times a year for training and sharing of information.

Cross-coordination among all DLI programs in all languages

Teachers in all Utah DLI languages are sometimes trained together, except when there is language-specific information to be conveyed. This allows a larger community of teachers to share knowledge and experience.

No English allowed after January of 1st grade

Utah has a non-negotiable policy of no English allowed in the Chinese portion of the day after the winter break in 1st grade.(January 15th) “Kids must start doing all their group work in the, target language. It’s all about expectations of teachers, students and parent. You just tell those parents, ‘Your kids are able to answer in English at the beginning but at the middle of January, there’s a conversion.’ It’s all done through positive rewards. The teachers will no longer answer the students if they’re speaking English.” End of quote here?

To help with that,  Utah  focuses on teaching students not just academic Chinese but also social language. “They teach them how to say ‘It’s my turn,’ ‘Move over,’ ‘What do you think?’ etc.,” says Roberts.

While it’s hard to get the students to switch entirely to Chinese, “it’s harder in 4th grade than it is in 1st grade,” he says.

Reading is still the wildcard

Utah, like all Chinese immersion programs, is very aware of the difficulties of getting students to read more in Chinese. Students in this country face the difficulty of having to first learn Chinese and then learn to read and write it. The sheer number of characters that must be memorized to be able to read at grade level (Chinese grade level, that is) is daunting.

Utah has convened two meetings so far to talk about literacy and what came out was a great big question mark: “There is no definitive answer. We don’t have enough data. It’s a big open area to do research on,” says Roberts.

For Kindergarten and Grade 1, Utah uses Better Chinese (www.betterchinese.com/Home.html) a Palo Alto-based company. For 2nd through 6th grade, Utah has adopted the textbooks Singapore uses for Chinese education in elementary school, Chinese Language for Primary Schools. These are the same textbooks used by Portland’s well-known Chinese immersion program.

Singapore is actually one giant immersion program itself, so it’s a good match for immersion students here. More than 50% of children in Singapore live in homes that speak a Chinese dialect, the rest speak English, Malay, Tamil or other languages at home. The main language of instruction in elementary school is English but all students must also learn one of the others as their second language. Just as the Singapore Math textbooks are considered among the world’s best, Singapore’s Chinese textbooks for elementary school are also considered excellent.

Utah chose them specifically because they’re not written as FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools) textbooks, meant for a few hours of instruction a week. They’re meant for students who spend several hours a day learning in Chinese and who are expected to come out of school able to function fully in the world in Chinese.

Many of the popular textbooks used in many immersion programs in the U.S. are too easy for immersion students and don’t provide enough content, says Roberts. “We’ve had a lot of issues with teachers and parents saying ‘It’s too hard,’ but we say ‘Better hard now than later.’

The textbooks feature a more difficult reading program, with more stories and more complicated questions. Utah Chinese Dual Language Immersion classes work about one to two semesters behind what students would be doing in Singapore, so in 2nd grade they do textbooks 1B and 2A, then in 3rd grade 2B and 3A, he says.

“We have learned one thing. We know that without having rigorous literacy materials your kids aren’t going to go anywhere. Literacy is the key to everything and the sooner you get kids literate so they can read, read, read,” they won’t be able to progress in the language.

The problem is finding engaging materials for the students to read that are at the right level. These don’t really exist yet. That’s one of the unanswered questions Utah found when it called the literacy meeting of programs in the Chinese Consortium.

“Dual Language Immersion is probably the most fabulous way to educate kids,” says Roberts. “Hopefully it will be come the mainstream, hopefully in Utah it will just become the norm that all children just start learning a second language in grade school.”

But immersion schools, and especially Chinese immersion schools, need to work with each other and share what they’ve learned. “We’re all on a journey and we should be helping each other a lot more than we do,” Roberts say.

“I think that if this group is sharing resources and best practices it is great,” says Elizabeth Hardage, the Mandarin immersion coordinator at Yuying charter school in Washington. She also consults with Mandarin immersion schools nationally. “In the end, the more kinds of ‘consortiums’ there are, the better it is for all. We can all learn so much for each other.”

F-CAP does require that the subjects taught in Mandarin switch every year, which puzzles some in the field as most schools tend to teach math, science and sometimes social studies in Mandarin. But they applaud the ways the program ties its curriculum to strong benchmarks which students are expected to reach.

Utah as an immersion giant

Utah launched itself as an immersion pioneer in 2008 when then-governor John Huntsman, a fluent Mandarin speaker, urged a state Dual Language Immersion initiative, the first in the nation, says Roberts.

The Utah Senate passed the International Initiatives in 2008, creating funding for Utah schools to begin Dual Language Immersion programs in Chinese, French, and Spanish. Huntsman also initiated the Governor’s Language Summit and the Governor’s World Language Council, both with a goal to create a K-12 language roadmap for Utah. (Dual language immersion means students are taught in two languages, the ‘target language’ and English. In Mandarin immersion, for example, students are taught in Mandarin and English.)

In 2010, Governor Gary Herbert challenged Utah to implement one hundred immersion programs in the state by 2015, with a goal of enrolling 30,000 students. The program has been so successful and there has been such demand that the target completion date was moved to 2014.

For the 2012-13 school year there will 78 Dual Language Immersion schools:

  • 25 Chinese (one third of all Chinese programs in the nation)
  • 40 Spanish
  • 10 French (the second higher number of French immersion students in the country, after Louisiana)
  • 3 Portuguese (to support a large and growing Brazilian community in Utah)

Utah doesn’t spend a lot of money on education, and last year it ranked dead last on the list of per-pupil spending, at $6,356. New York led the nation in spending at $18,126 per student. However that’s ameliorated in part by the state’s relatively homogeneous population and lack of severe poverty. Approximately 78% of students are white, 15% Hispanic, 1.8% Asian, 1.5% Pacific islander, and 1.3% each African American, Multi-racial and American Indian. Just 38.4% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

The focus on immersion education and language instruction comes because Utah realizes its strength is the education of its workforce. It’s already known as a hub of language ability because of the numbers of Mormon missionaries who return after spending two years abroad. The state decided to capitalize on that existing expertise and its citizens’ strong awareness of the importance of bilingualism.

“Utah is a small state and for our future economic survival we must educate students who are multilingual and culturally competent,” says Roberts.

Portuguese came about because of the state’s 30,000 Portuguese speakers. Of those, 15,000 are Brazilian and 15,000 are returned missionaries. There are now 3 million Mormons in Brazil, which adds to the economic interchange between the nation and the state. Angola and Mozambique in Africa are also economically important, with Angola being the continent’s second largest oil producer.

French is popular because it’s still considered a language of culture and it’s the most important business language in the world after English and Chinese, according to the latest Bloomberg report released in August 2011.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Norma Ho permalink
    August 1, 2012 10:45 am

    Thank you for such a comprehensive coverage! I hope we’ll see more immersion programs in the Bay area very soon 🙂

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