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October 1, 2002
Vol. 60
No. 2

Two-Way Immersion: A Key to Global Awareness

Two-way immersion allows students to experience the cultural and linguistic diversity of the world firsthand through integrated education settings.

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Two-way immersion is an approach to education that fosters global awareness in students by deeply immersing them in a new language and culture, allowing them to experience multilingualism and multiculturalism on a personal level. These programs integrate native English-speaking students with native speakers of another language and provide academic instruction to all students through both languages. To date, there are 260 documented two-way immersion programs in the United States (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2001). Ninety-three percent of these are Spanish-English programs, and most operate at the K-5 elementary level.
  • Students will perform on grade level academically.
  • Students will develop high levels of language and literacy ability in their first and second languages.
  • Students will develop positive cross-cultural attitudes (Christian, 1994).
All education programs share the first goal. The second and third goals, however, distinguish two-way immersion from other education alternatives.

Why Two-Way Immersion?

The theoretical basis for two-way immersion is grounded in research on the education of language-minority students in the United States and on immersion education in Canada and the United States. Research indicates that language-minority students (non-native English speakers) perform better academically when provided with education in their native language (Greene, 1998; Willig, 1985), and that a strong grasp of their first language provides a solid basis for the acquisition of English literacy (Eisterhold-Carson, Carrell, Silberstein, Kroll, & Kuehn, 1990; Lanauze & Snow, 1989). Research on immersion education for language-majority students (native English speakers) shows that instruction in a second language enables students to maintain grade-level academic achievement and English literacy skills as well as acquire proficiency in that second language (Genesee, 1987; Swain & Lapkin, 1982).
Two-way immersion programs also have inherent advantages that come with integrated education settings. In most second-language programs, the teacher is the only model of that language; in two-way immersion programs, half the students serve as native language models regardless of the language of instruction. These additive bilingual instruction models allow students to develop strong skills in both the native and the second language without sacrificing mastery of the core academic content.

Central Features

Bilingualism and Biliteracy

A central feature of two-way immersion programs is the value placed on bilingualism and biliteracy. Whereas many schools in the United States have tremendous linguistic diversity because of the large influx of immigrant populations in their communities, most do not promote the long-term development of language and literacy ability in the native languages of non-native English speakers or provide extended second-language learning opportunities for their native English-speaking peers. In contrast, students in two-way immersion programs are expected to maintain and develop their first language abilities while acquiring skills in the second language. Research to date has indicated that these programs are successful in attaining this goal (Lindholm-Leary, 2001).

Cooperative Learning

Two-way immersion programs use cooperative learning as a key instructional strategy, enabling students to interact across native language groups and help one another develop strong oral and written skills in both languages while mastering academic content material. Yvonne Govea, a 1st grade Spanish teacher at Key Elementary, a Spanish-English program in Arlington, Virginia, has developed a cooperative activity for Spanish language arts instruction that yields promising results among her students. Govea forms heterogeneous groups of students comprising native speakers of each language. She gives each group a packet of word cards that correspond thematically with the class's current reading selection. The groups must then arrange the word cards, which include a selection of different parts of speech, into meaningful, grammatically correct sentences. The native Spanish speakers have the opportunity to function as group leaders in this activity because they have greater language facility and an intuitive knowledge of Spanish grammar. Students of both native language groups can work together on decoding words and discussing mechanics. Govea's use of this instructional strategy has helped develop a high level of competency in Spanish in all her students.

Cross-Cultural Understanding

Two-way immersion programs also emphasize cross-cultural understanding. Inter-American Magnet School in Chicago is a Spanish-English two-way immersion program that effectively capitalizes on the diversity of its student body to enrich the curriculum and foster cross-cultural understanding among students. For example, 5th grade students complete a unit on immigration, researching and sharing the experiences of various immigrant groups, including those represented by students in the school. This project provides the students with a deeper understanding of their peers' experiences and backgrounds.

International Exchanges

Many two-way immersion programs participate in international exchanges with sister programs in countries where the minority and majority languages are reversed. For example, Cali Calmécac Charter School, a Spanish-English program in northern California, has a sister school in Acambaro, Mexico. Every year, 8th graders from each school visit their sister school for two and one-half weeks, staying with native families and attending school with their hosts. The exchange immerses the Cali Calmécac students in Mexican culture and the Spanish language and gives them an authentic opportunity to use the linguistic and cultural skills that they have developed, as well as the chance to be cultural and linguistic brokers for their Mexican guests in the United States.

A Case Study: Alicia Chacón International School

Alicia Chacón International School in El Paso, Texas, is a highly effective example of two-way immersion. The need for multilingualism in this border region is evident because many people in the area have family in both the United States and Mexico and interact daily with people from both countries.
The student body at Alicia Chacón is largely Mexican American, but also includes sizeable numbers of European Americans and African Americans. The students are divided fairly evenly among native English speakers, native Spanish speakers, and students who are already bilingual.
Alicia Chacón's international focus is evident. The school provides instruction in a third language, in addition to English and Spanish, for 10 percent of the day to all students at every grade level. Students join language “families” by choosing to study Russian, German, Japanese, or Chinese. For the most part, native speakers teach these languages and are able to impart cultural information as well as foster language development. Students are also taken on international exchanges to further develop their linguistic and cross-cultural skills. To date, students have participated in home stays and school visits in such countries as Venezuela, China, and Germany. These exchanges give students an opportunity to advance their global awareness by living and learning in a completely different culture.
Two-way immersion education affords students the opportunity to get a glimpse of the richness and breadth of the world's diverse cultures. The best way to foster an appreciation of linguistic and cultural diversity is to give students firsthand experiences of them.

Center for Applied Linguistics. (2001). Directory of two-way bilingual immersion programs in the United States. [Online]. Available:

Christian, D. (1994). Two-way bilingual education: Students learning through two languages (Educational Practice Report 12). Santa Cruz, CA, and Washington, DC: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.

Eisterhold-Carson, J., Carrell, P., Silberstein, S., Kroll, B., & Kuehn, P. (1990). Reading-writing relationships in first and second language. TESOL Quarterly, 24, 245–266.

Genesee, F. (1987). Learning through two languages: Studies of immersion and bilingual education. Cambridge, MA: Newbury House.

Greene, J. (1998). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of bilingual education. [Online]. Available:

Lanauze, M., & Snow, C. (1989). The relation between first and second language writing skills: Evidence from Puerto Rican elementary school children in bilingual programs. Linguistics and Education, 1, 323–339.

Lindholm-Leary, K. (2001). Dual language education. Clevedon, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.

Swain, M., & Lapkin, S. (1982). Evaluating bilingual education: A Canadian case study. Clevedon, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.

Willig, A. (1985). A meta-analysis of selected studies on the effectiveness of bilingual education. Review of Educational Research, 57, 363–376.

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