Schools use immersion and experiential learning to teach foreign languages

A student studies Hebrew at Sela, an elementary school in Northeast Washington that has an immersion Hebrew program. Photo courtesy of Sela Public Charter School
A student studies Hebrew at Sela, an elementary school in Northeast Washington that has an immersion Hebrew program.
Photo courtesy of Sela Public Charter School

Natalie Smith, the principal of Sela Public Charter School in Washington, remembers the way she learned Latin in school: her teacher stood at the front of the room and had the class repeat declensions.

That is the opposite of how Hebrew is taught at Sela, an elementary school in Northeast Washington where children learn Hebrew through immersion, meaning that many classes are taught exclusively in Hebrew. At Sela, learning is also experiential. Children learn the names of clothes by running a mock store and the names of family members by talking about actual families.

This reflects a broader shift in how languages are taught at local schools. As the education world moves away from rote memorization and relying too much on what Smith called “teacher-directed instruction” (think of that Latin teacher at the front of the room), the number of schools that teach languages through immersion is growing, and even schools that don’t use full-on immersion incorporate the experiential learning that so often happens in immersion schools into the way they teach foreign languages.

Take the example of Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax. Graciela Granek, the school’s middle school principal and Jewish Studies and foreign languages director, explained that although it isn’t an immersion school, Gesher uses as a “natural approach” in early grades and instructors teach that language without resorting to translation.

Granek explained that in early grades, students “absorb” various language patterns and then learn how to manipulate them. By teaching these patterns and putting them into practical use, Hebrew teachers do not refer back to English.

“My belief is that when you attach words in a language students are learning to their native language, it’s difficult for students to detach those words from the translation,” said Granek. “Referring back to a native language negatively impacts students’ fluency.”

As Gesher students progress through the grades, the school uses what Granek called a “linguistic progression philosophy,” meaning that the patterns that students can learn and manipulate grow on one another and students “gradually get immersed in the language.”

By the time students reach 8th grade, Granek said that the approach of teaching Hebrew classes entirely in Hebrew allows students to write essays, poems and songs in Hebrew and to converse with Israeli teens “at a very high level.”

Similarly, Marc Lindner, high school principal of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, explained that higher level Hebrew classes at his school area taught “100 percent” in Hebrew, which enables students to focus on things like reading literature in Hebrew. Lindner described the deep benefits of mastering foreign languages.

“Research indicates that learning and working with a second language is beneficial to young people in the brain development that they experience,” he said. “The creation of neuronal pathways that comes from learning a foreign language can be the foundation for young people to not just have facility with other languages but to think in new and different ways as well.”

Smith of Sela echoed how learning a foreign language early can have broad benefits.

“Learning another language really helps our students with accepting other perspectives and thinking outside the box,” she said.

She explained that in Sela’s first two years, in which students are 3- and 4-year-olds, 80 to 90 percent of students’ class time is in Hebrew. In these early years, Smith said that the school emphasizes learning to listen and speak Hebrew, and that the school emphasizes reading and writing later in elementary school. In later grades, students take around half their classes in English.

In keeping with the school’s immersion approach, all Hebrew teachers are native Israelis and do not speak English to the students. She estimated that less than 10 percent of the student body speaks some Hebrew at home, and she said the student body is 71 percent African American.

Smith said that the school is “very diverse” and includes homeless students. Offering Hebrew and the school’s focus on Israeli studies and gives students “a lot of exposure” to cultures and ideas they would not otherwise encounter. She gave the example of how in one unit, students plan a trip to Israel and take a mock plane flight, complete with Hebrew-speaking flight attendants.
“It’s really important to have our students immersed in the real world,” she said. “Students learn through interaction.”

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