Leveling the playing field with Dual Language Immersion

Story and photo by KATHERINE ROGERS

Jess Martinez’s fifth-grade classroom looks like any other at Riverside Elementary in West Jordan.

Desks are pushed together to make small tables. There’s a row of hooks for the kids to hang their coats and backpacks on. Posters with encouraging sentiments cover the walls. Remnants of the day’s lessons are still up on the whiteboard.

This room would not stand out in a mainly English-speaking school, yet the posters and lesson are all in Spanish. Martinez is the fifth-grade Spanish teacher in Riverside’s Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program.


A reminder on Martinez’s whiteboard that translates to “kindness, listen.”

The DLI classes have two teachers: one who teaches in English and one who teaches in the target language. The amount of time the students spend with their target-language teachers gradually increases as they get into higher grades. For example, kindergarteners in the Spanish DLI only spend about 10 percent of their day in Spanish, but by the time they get to fifth grade, the languages are split 50-50.

At that point, there is a trade-off between the teachers. Martinez’s partner teacher, Rebecca Fenstermacher, will introduce math concepts in English. Later Martinez will reinforce those concepts in Spanish. The reverse is done for science. It’s introduced in Spanish by Martinez, reinforced in English by Fenstermacher.

Martinez says this is the best way to do it. Teaching people in ordinary language classes doesn’t work. After all, that’s not how we learn to speak initially.

The teacher points out that babies learn to speak by copying things their parents and those around them say. They refine it later. This is “language acquisition” rather than language learning.

That’s what the DLI programs aim to do. By immersing the students in the language throughout the day, the kids aren’t learning it, they are acquiring it.

Dual immersion is still a relatively new concept in Utah schools. It was started in 2008 and has grown over the years. The program being only 10 years old means many students didn’t get to benefit from it. The ones who felt it most were those enrolled in English as a Second Language programs (ESL).

Sinai Valero, 22, graduated high school in 2015, and so she just missed this opportunity — one that likely would have been immensely helpful to her in elementary school.

Her parents had emigrated from Venezuela to Utah in 1996, hoping for a better life for their future children. They mainly spoke Spanish at home. Valero’s parents were new to the country and the language. Spanish was just a way to have something familiar.

As a result, Valero knew very little English when she started school. The school did what was done with all the students in her situation, she was enrolled in ESL.

Children in ESL were enrolled in the same classes as all the other kids. Valero recalls that the difference was that once a day an English teacher would come and get them from the class. This would be during the times of day when the students would be working on whatever Language Arts lesson was planned for the day.

Valero pointed out that doing it during Language Arts meant that the ESL students didn’t miss anything in class, but it didn’t stop the spectacle. The ESL teachers would come to get their students, the class would usually watch the ESL students as they left.

This was not just uncomfortable for the ESL students, but watching their classmates be gathered up made it obvious to the other students that they were different. “I felt singled out,” Valero said. Other students would tease her for not speaking English and for her accent.

In DLI that sort of separation doesn’t exist. The Spanish-speakers will understand the Spanish class better than the English-speakers and vice-versa. It levels out the playing field between the English-speaking kids and the Spanish-speaking kids. No one gets to feel superior.

There’s another unexpected benefit that DLI has for native Spanish-speakers. It refines it.

Martinez says that many of his native Spanish-speaking students don’t speak fluent Spanish. They speak what he called “house Spanish.” It is a Spanish that pertains mainly to the domestic realm.

They learn vocabulary for things around the house, but not for science or social studies. Helpful at home, not so much out in the professional field. DLI teaches these kids Spanish that they may not get at home.

DLI could also encourage all students to speak their target-language. This is something that could be highly beneficial to native Spanish-speaking children.

Alex Guzman, president and CEO of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, immigrated to the United States from Guatemala 11 years ago with his family. His son was still a child at the time and was soon enrolled in elementary school in Utah.

Guzman said his son struggled for a while. That he and his teachers couldn’t understand each other caused frustration on both ends.

Over the years, Guzman’s son has been speaking Spanish less and less. Guzman fears that his son, now in his 20s, is losing his Spanish and as a result, his culture.

Both Guzman and Valero think that DLI programs are a potential solution to this. Not only will all students in the program get to learn a new language, but the Spanish speakers also can take more pride in their language and culture.

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