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A Case Study on Reading Instruction in

Early Foreign Language Immersion


The ACIE Newsletter, February 2003, Vol. 6, No. 2

By Tiia H. Korppi, 2nd grade teacher, Kulosaari Bilingual School, Helsinki, Finland

This case study arose from my own fascination with literacy education in early immersion
programs: the idea of first and second graders learning to read and write in a language that they
barely knew how to speak seemed intriguing. A review of the literature on second language (L2)
reading and reading instruction in immersion programs, revealed that this great challenge can
indeed be met successfully, but that it also requires a special understanding of second language
acquistion and reading development from the educators involved in the process. In order to see
how reading instruction is carried out in a real early immersion context, and how the various
challenges are perceived and responded to, I conducted a case study for my M.A. thesis in one
early total immersion program. The findings are briefly discussed in this article.

Students in early immersion programs are presented with a dual challenge of learning to read in
both the immersion and their native language. The majority of early total immersion programs
introduce reading in the immersion language first, delaying reading instruction in the first
language until second or third grade. The rationale behind this practice is to maximize the early
exposure to the immersion language (for further description, see Genesee, 1987). Similarly to
general academic achievement, the students in immersion programs do not seem to suffer
detrimental effects to their reading skills because they are initially taught and encouraged to read
in their second language (Genesee, 1976; Lambert, Genesee, Holobow, and Chartrand, 1993;
Noonan, Colleaux, and Yackulic, 1997). Nevertheless, studies have also revealed some special
concerns that initial reading instruction through a child’s second language can bring. According
to Geva and Clifton (1994) and Noonan et al. (1997), reading development during the early years
of immersion education can be slower and more frustrating for students, and create certain
problems for students for whom learning to read is a struggle.

Research Design

The purpose of the study conducted and reported here was not to build or test theory that could
be generalized. Rather, the goal was to find out how reading instruction is carried out, what
challenges are perceived by teachers and parents, and how these challenges are addressed in an
immersion context. As Walker and Tedick (2000) write, "the what, where, how, why, and when
questions can only be answered in terms of how they apply to a particular [immersion
context]…" (p.22). This case study allowed me to further explore reading instruction through the
eyes of educators and parents of one early total French immersion school. The research questions
that guided the study were:
 What are the characteristics of the study school’s reading program, and what is the
theoretical framework supporting the program?
 What type of theoretical and methodological framework do the teachers use in their
reading instruction, and what kind of pedagogical support and training do they receive for
reading instruction?
 How do the parents perceive and understand the school’s reading program, including
their role in it?
 What type of support exists for those students struggling with reading, and how, if at all,
is the students’ first language used to facilitate reading development in the immersion
language?

Data were gathered through interviews with four first and second grade teachers and the
curriculum specialist of the school. The teachers and the curriculum specialist were asked about
their educational and teaching background, their views on the school’s reading program, the
theories behind second language reading instruction, the benefits and special challenges of the
approach the school was using, as well as existing support for struggling readers including the
practice of teaching struggling students to read in their first language earlier. Furthermore, the
teachers were asked to talk about the support they received or wished to receive to further
develop their skill set for teaching reading.

Data from parents of first and second graders were gathered from a written questionnaire.
Parents were asked to write about their views of the school’s reading program, their child’s
attitude towards reading in both L1 and L2, the level of their child’s reading skills, their joys and
concerns about their child’s reading skills, and how well they thought the school had informed
them about first and second language reading development and what their role should be in their
child’s emerging literacy. Nearly half of the parents (48 of 99 total) returned the questionnaire,
revealing the importance to the parents of the issues addressed and questions asked of them.

Summary of findings and Implications for teaching

It was evident that the educators interviewed for this study were overall very knowledgeable
about the many factors affecting first and second language reading development and had based
their reading curricula on a combination of different methods including phonics and whole
language. The educators had carefully considered existing research and theory. All the teachers
expressed their belief in forming a strong oral language base in kindergarten, delaying the formal
reading instruction in the immersion language until first grade. This has been a common
approach in other immersion programs as well (McDougall & Bruck, 1976). However, more
recently second language educators are calling this practice into question. For instance, Dr. Mimi
Met, an experienced leader in foreign language education in the US, recently argued that as
students coming to second language immersion programs already have pre-literacy skills, such as
semantic knowledge of the meaning of concepts, as well as an oral language base in their first
language, it might be beneficial to expose these students to print versions of L2 oral language
beginning as early as kindergarten (personal communication, 2002).

Another important issue that emerged from the data were questions related to the use of students’
first language to support success with literacy development. The possibility of using L1,
especially with students struggling with reading, had recently been a topic of discussion in the
study school. The teachers were still very reserved about using L1, expressing concern about
confusing students by concurrently introducing literacy in two languages. There was also
sensitivity towards the need to ensure strong exposure to the immersion language in the lower
grades. However, immersion researchers have begun to question these concerns as well. Relying
on the principle of the interdependence of languages (Cummins, 1991), Cummins (2000)
suggests that students experiencing reading difficulties in the early stages of reading
development in immersion programs might be helped through initial literacy development in
their native language and the subsequent transfer potential to literacy in the immersion language.
Naturally, this needs to be planned carefully and done systematically, paying close attention to
keeping the two languages separate.

Summary of Findings and Implications for parent education and involvement

The parents who enroll their child in an immersion program are often well informed about the
basic concepts of immersion education, but, as this study revealed, they are particularly
interested in the development of their child’s reading skills. Parents tend to compare their child
to children in monolingual schools and worry about their child’s first language reading skills.
Even though the teachers in the study school had informed the parents about their reading
program, including the fact that first language reading instruction would formally start in third
grade, delayed reading instruction in the first language was difficult to accept. Some parents even
perceived first language reading instruction as their responsibility since the school wasn’t
attending to it, and expressed concern over the lack of guidance on how to teach reading to their
child.

From these data, it became apparent that parents of immersion students need clear information
on the school’s expectations, the program’s unique characteristics, and reasons behind them, in
order to avoid misunderstandings and to be well-positioned to support a child’s reading
development in concert with the immersion educators. In addition, strong parental involvement
in an immersion setting should not be considered a norm by the parents or the teachers, but
rather, an additional resource.

Recommendations for Schools and Parents

During the interviews, the teachers discussed a crucial need for further professional
development, as well as more cooperation among teachers across the different grade levels.
There seemed to be a need for professional development experiences that would support more
integrated literacy development practices in the early grades. In particular, a strong need clearly
exists for devising strategies to assist teachers in attending to their struggling readers without
compromising a child’s exposure to and development of the immersion language.

Perhaps immersion schools need to find even more means to communicate with the parents on
how to support the development of reading strategies and build links between first and second
language reading. The parents of immersion students do not need to teach reading in L1, but
rather, support reading and language development related to school work. This could be done
through reading books at home on topics discussed at school, modeling effective reading
practices, and reading in different contexts.

To conclude, the intent of this research on the challenges of reading instruction in the immersion
context has not been to discourage initiating reading instruction in the target language. On the
contrary, the study showed that there has been much success with this approach. However, for
some children, learning to read in a second language before they have developed reading skills in
their native language presents special challenges. Parents, educators, and administrators of
immersion students need to remain open to approaches, such as discretionary use of students’
first language, which will support transfer of skills between languages for struggling readers.