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by Erica Fischer on Sep 30, 2011

Making Kids Comfortable with the Immersion Classroom

This past Thursday we had a phenomenal #langchat with lots of resources and great debate by all the participants! Thanks to everyone for showing up, and especially to @CalicoTeach for moderating. If you couldn’t find the time to make it out, it’s not too late to join the discussion. Please feel free to comment on anything that grabs your attention in the comment box below; we’d love to hear from you!

We hold #langchat on Twitter every Thursday at 8:00 p.m. EST, with varied subjects chosen by you and your colleagues. This Thursday’s conversation was “How can we make students more comfortable with total immersion-style teaching?” As always, participants really took off with it! Below are some of their great ideas and contributions.

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Making Kids Comfortable with the Immersion Classroom

Total-Immersion Curriculums

World language education in America didn’t use to be all about immersion teaching, but it’s an increasingly popular and effective method. As @tmsaue1 reflected, most people will tell you that they made the greatest strides in their language education when immersed in that language. The problem, however, is that it’s not easy to implement an immersion environment in the classroom.

The ACTFL recommends that 90% of the instruction in a world language class be in the target language, a formidable number! But it’s very important — both to set kids’ expectations and to ensure that they fully acquire the language. Even for beginner classes. If you have to, dance, sing, draw, mime and show videos about the same five words for the first couple of days, @tmsaue1 says. It might take time to reach this percentage, but many participants promise you’ll be a firm believer in its effectiveness when you see your students’ results.

The use of the target language is only one element of immersion, however. Immersion curriculums also need to focus on teaching content. Teach information, not the language. @tmsaue1 points out that it’s pretty difficult to use language when talking about language. On the other hand, it’s easy to use language to share information.

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Atmosphere — Keeping Kids Comfortable

A comfortable atmosphere in the classroom is extremely important, and this is something you need to foster from day one. Making the effort to understand and process the language requires the students to feel at ease. Use the first days of class to create a safe and collaborative environment (@suarez712002) and have higher levels discuss together what they learned in the lower levels (@senoralopez).

Keep the input varied to appeal to all the students and interest them all. Remember the different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic). Several teachers emphasized appealing to all styles through different activities. To get students comfortable, use songs, videos, inviting visuals and realia — a variety of different resources and activities.

@SECottrell recommends using the target language to create an atmosphere of magic. Essentially, it’s the target-language world within the walls of your classroom. @sylviaduckworth’s French class has “la ligne magique” at the door to her classroom. Once students cross the line, they can only speak in French. If students slip up and speak English, they have to recross the line. She also gives tickets to reward students who only speak French.

Immersion Curriculum Techniques

Immersion curriculums are often difficult to implement, but participants shared many great ideas and suggestions on how to make your efforts a success.

Because immersion environments require students to speak as much as possible in the target language, @sylviaduckworth thinks that teachers should stop teaching dry grammar and verb conjugations and instead should focus on teaching vocabulary that students need to communicate with each other.

Students may have trouble finding the words that they need, especially early on. Therefore, it’s good to have the target language displayed around the room so students can both have constant reinforcement and check for words when they can’t think of one. Word walls are great for this. Use a wall to display vocabulary for students to look up themselves or keep in mind. No wall? @louvre2012 uses a whiteboard, and she’s always adding and removing words in a web design so students can easily see how words are related.

Of course, this is difficult for teachers on a cart. If you’re in this position, have several posters with magnets that you can easily throw up on the board before class.

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Easily understood communication is key. Kids rebel against immersion methods when they don’t understand, so make your language comprehensible. Check and recheck comprehension. There will come a time when the students don’t understand, and @tmsaue1 suggests pre-empting this by making sure that students understand what will happen. Let them know it’s ok if they don’t understand. Establish routines to get into for when kids don’t understand. For example:

  • @placido gives students hand signals to show her when they don’t understand so she can reword or incorporate other methods to get her point across.
  • @senoralopez has a colleague who uses green (go) and red (stop) index cards.
  • @suarez712002 uses 1-2-3-4-5 finger signals for students to give her an idea of how much they are understanding.
  • @msfrenchteach teaches students several expressions to express confusion to keep it in the target language

Get out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to use lots of antics and drama or appearing silly, @NinaTanti1 suggests. @SECottrell recommends dancing, singing, drawing or whatever it takes to get students to understand. @Traciepod says students’ comfort levels really increase when they — and you! — can act goofy in the class through singing and dancing and other activities.

We can’t rely on students to always let us know, however. Greg Duncan, through @tmsaue1, reminds us that it’s our job to BE understood. To ensure you are, several teachers say adequate planning is essential. @tmsaue1 says it’s much easier to stay in the target language if your class is structured for it. Try planning lessons only around conversation activities. @profesorM tries to have students do at least one conversation activity per class.

Several teachers use students to assist each other with understanding so that the teacher can remain in the target language. This is helpful, but @placido warns you have to watch for some students who routinely like to translate for the rest of the class, which robs other students of processing time.

Should We Enforce Target-Language Use?

Students often forget (and also “forget”) that they should use the target language at all times. How much should you enforce students’ use of the target language? Generally, don’t pressure them. Rewards work, but often the best solution is to set the right example.

@msfrenchteach has a simple formula: when students speak English to her, she responds only in French. @placido restates the student’s speech in the target language or gently nudges them if they can do it but aren’t attempting.

Enforcing your own language use is even more important than your students’ use. @suarez712002 suggests that you videotape yourself teaching a class and watch to see how much of the target language you actually use.

How much translation should you use? Participants’ views varied on the amount of translation in the immersion classroom. Some believe it has no place; others that from time to time (that other 10%) it is important. Providing translation at times can help to explain particularly obscure grammar point, provide feedback to students and help students recover their comfort levels.

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Immersion Curriculum Ideas and Activities

  • @placido has done a cooking demo for her students, talking while she cooked. Afterwards, students discussed the steps she took in the target language.
  • A think, pair, share activity does a good job of getting students together and communicating in the target language. @louvre2012 uses it good effect.
  • On the first day, @senoralopez has higher-level students “speed date” about their friends, sports, likes and dislikes, clothes and everything else they learned in previous courses.
  • @mayres23 has students “day dream” in the target language for one minute before every conversation activity. It lets students get comfortable about the language and brainstorm some ideas and language to use.


  • Check out @senoralopez’s videos on the importance of learning a new language on her blog at
  • @sylviaduckworth has several videos on her blog showing 100% target language in the classroom at Password is aimlanguage.
  • She also has a YouTube channel, check it out to stream over 1500 videos.
  • Similar to the Magic Line concept, the English Box gives students and teachers room to speak English in the classroom, with just enough of a barrier. @fravan shared a link to the idea here.
  • @msfrenchteach shared the link to the TV5 dictionary for French here. It has a conjugator, thesaurus and more.

Thursday’s #langchat was full of great debate and suggestions by all the participants, and we’re sure you can take away some fantastic ideas to implement in your own classroom. If you’d like to read the entire archive, go here.

Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments box below by letting us and your colleagues know what you think of some of the ideas above. Join us every Thursday night at 8:00 p.m. EST, and in the meantime check out the #langchat wiki at

Good luck in your immersion efforts in school, and remember: it all starts with atmosphere, which is set by you. When kids see how much you love the target language, they’ll follow you anywhere (@louvre2012).

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Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.


  • Katherine

    These are such creative ideas. I can’t wait to implement some of them in my classroom.
    One thing I’d add is that it takes an extraordinary amount of patience to remain in the TL. I’m not a naturally patient person, but I had to learn to become patient once I began teaching. For me, if I am tempted to speak in English, I pause and think “patience” and them am ready to continue in the TL.

    What about project descriptions, complex sets of instructions (for example, for using Google Earth or setting up Glogster accounts) etc? Do you all stay in the TL for that as well?
    From @katchiringa

  • Erica Fischer

    @katchiringa Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Excellent advice to exercise patience. When speaking L2, we have to give the students time to process the words, actions, and situation which also requires patience.
    Regarding your question on discussing more advanced topics: One possibility for complex directions could be to write the instructions in English. After students have had time to read through the directions, the teacher could give a demonstration while speaking the target language which would be more comprehensible after the reading of the directions. I look forward to hearing what others recommend as well.

  • Chris Fisher

    Hi Katherine,

    I come more from the ESL side of things, but always worked with a native-language co-teacher. Having the patience to respond in the target language was a constant challenge for them, too. It’s tough, but ultimately beneficial for the students.

    Erica’s comment on giving students time to process the language is spot on, too. Having multiple ways to absorb the language is key here.

    For complex directions, I think demonstration is important. If you have the resources, a slide show or screen-sharing video in combination with target-language instructions would allow students to see what’s expected of them while remaining in L2.

  • Thanks for posting! I was moving Thursday and couldn’t make the chat, so this summary is an invaluable resource! Thanks again for taking the time to post this.

  • Katherine

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Chris Fisher

    @spanishplans: No problem! We post the summaries every week in case you can’t make it. They’re also useful if you can’t take it all in during the chat, as there’s usually a LOT of information. Hope the move went well!
    @katchirina: You’re welcome. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • […] made my classroom an immersion classroom.  I read a good article at Calico Spanish called “Making Kids Comfortable with the Immersion Classroom” In this article it gave some really good tips to get started with making your classroom an […]

  • Thank you for writing this great article on immersion. The suggestions are ideas are truly helpful. I wrote a post about it on my site. May we all strive to have immersion classrooms for the benefit of our students. 🙂

  • Giana

    The article was great and informative. I am starting a Spanish immersion program in my school, but am struggling to get started. Does anyone have curriculum resources you found useful?

    • Hannah Mason

      Giana, so glad to hear that this article was helpful for you! And that’s a great question – Calico Spanish actually has several different types of Spanish immersion curriculums that we developed that are available at Calico Spanish. We have a video-based program called Calico Spanish Stories for Schools, and we have a more traditionally formatted curriculum called Calico Spanish for Schools: Level 1 and Level 2. Please feel free to explore our website and see which program might fit your needs best, and if you have any questions just give us a call at 888-375-8484 or email us via our Contact Page. Thanks!

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