What Is the Best Way to Teach ESL Students? Submersion vs. Immersion

by Angie Barnett | Sep 15, 2015

What Is the Best Way to Teach ESL Students? Submersion vs. Immersion

There has long been a debate on the best way to teach ESL students. Some people believe that submersion (sink or swim) is best because it is the fastest way to get ESL students to comprehend the English language and catch up to the rest of their peers. By placing them in mainstream, English-only classrooms in kindergarten, they are given the opportunity and the motivation they need to pick up the language within a couple of years. 

On the other hand, many argue that immersion is the way to go—gradually easing students into the English language while still speaking their first language some of the time in the classroom, which helps increase comprehension, maintain cultural ties, and prevent subtractive bilingualism.

And while there is merit to both sides of the argument, it seems to boil down to our goals in education in determining what is really “best” for our students.

Pablo’s Struggle in a Submersion Setting

I do not want to oversimplify the debate by providing the following example. But I do wish to explain why some people dislike the submersion approach in teaching ESL students. If you feel strongly about the effectiveness of this approach, please post your thoughts under the comments section. We’d love to learn from your perspective.

Several years ago, I worked as an after-school teacher for a local school district. I was assigned to teach the combined kindergarten and first-grade class, much to my delight. They were such a joy to work with! They were bright, inquisitive, and eager to learn. And then there was Pablo.

Pablo played well with the other children but had little interest in classroom instruction. He was enrolled in all-day kindergarten and then had to go to our after-school class after that. He spoke hardly any English, but the sentence I distinctly remember him saying, again and again, was: “Maestra, I’m tired.” And I can’t say I blame him; I’d be tired, too.

Then one day, Pablo’s regular classroom teacher confided in me. She said she was concerned that he would have to be held back and re-do kindergarten the following year. She asked me to go over Pablo’s colors, numbers, and letters with him. She was desperate.

With 20 other students to attend to, I felt overwhelmed. I knew that Pablo needed the help, but I wasn’t sure of the best way to do it while managing the rest of the class. Eventually, I was able to carve out some one-on-one time with Pablo while the other students practiced their quiet reading. I worked with Pablo for months and saw little improvement. I felt discouraged as if I had failed Pablo. And, to my knowledge, Pablo had to re-take kindergarten the following year.

I believe that the submersion approach can be effective as long as students have the motivation and the support system they need to push through those first difficult years of school. Now, there are many unanswered questions in Pablo’s case, including:

  • Was Pablo motivated to learn English?
  • Was Pablo motivated to learn about other classroom subjects?
  • Would Pablo have shown more interest in school had he received instruction in his first language, Spanish?
  • How was Pablo’s support system at home?
  • Did Pablo’s family speak any English in the home?
  • Were Pablo’s parents involved in his schoolwork?
  • Would Pablo have experienced greater motivation and a higher level of success had he been in an immersion setting?

Emma’s Success in an Immersion Setting

After learning everything she could from a traditional, English-only classroom, Emma was enrolled at DIA (a public, bilingual charter school) in February of her kindergarten year. She excelled! Granted, at first, there was a bit of a language lag (her class was taught in Spanish 90% and in English 10% of the time), but she learned quickly and finished out her kindergarten year in the top third of her class.

This example, much like the first example, could be oversimplified to prove why an immersion approach is best. But there are a lot of other factors in Emma’s story that contributed to her success, including:

  • Emma’s first language is English, and she learned concepts in English before being transferred to DIA, where she re-learned concepts in Spanish.
  • Emma’s father, Jorge, emigrated from Argentina, where most of his family still lives. Emma was motivated to learn Spanish to communicate with her extended family.
  • English is the main language spoken in her home, but her father sometimes speaks to Emma in Spanish as well.
  • Emma has a great support system in her home. Her mother is very involved in her schoolwork and regularly volunteers at her school.

Key Takeaways

Both submersion and immersion can be effective approaches part of an effective ELL program in the early years of a student’s educational career. But to create successful outcomes for these students, other factors must be stacked in their favor as well.

Additional Resource

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