Immersion: A Poverty of Language


Children of privilege grow up listening to rich language.  Parents read aloud to them in one or several languages, co-tell stories as they play, and discuss the world around them.  Children in print-rich homes do better on tests of early literacy and have wider vocabularies (Bracken).

Children whose families are holding down multiple jobs hear “Go play outside.” They spend their days talking to older siblings, some of whom are English-dominant and might not speak their heritage language well, frequently code-mixing languages.  They do not have access to books and are rarely read to.

Financial poverty often correlates with poverty of language.

What closes the gap?  Krashen and Brown explain that bilingual education can imitate the effects of language-rich homes to help children excel in the early years.  Research is so overwhelmingly in favor of bilingual education that, as Stephen Krashen explains, even “it’s harshest critics…do not claim it does not work” (1997).

Bilingual education works to reduce the effects of poverty because it encourages rich language and higher-order thinking early on.  Children use whatever language they speak best to access cognitively-demanding content-area studies, while giving them time to catch up on English.

Sadly, many English-only laws force students into immersion programs where children spend the bulk of their days surrounded by incomprehensible input.  The language around them is rich, but inaccessible.  This results in poverty of language input…only for language minority students.

Immersion means the rich get richer and the linguistically poor get poorer… with a few exceptions that prove the rule.  The only documented cases of successful immersion programs are wealthier, L1 literate English Language Learners (Francisco).  Poorer families who do not speak English are seldom able to speak up for their children.

Most teachers resort to making up (barely) passing grades and providing busy work in order to push children through content-area studies.  Despite what the WIDA consortium states, rote memorization of content-area vocabulary and recalling basic facts is not the solution.

Immersed in Academic English, Newcomers feel discouraged watching their peers interact, engage, and use higher-order thinking and creative expression without any ability to do so themselves. Journalist Ocean Vuong writes that to hide his “shame” at not being able to understand academic text like his classmates, he “would instead spend the class mindlessly copying out passages from books.”

“Mindless” busy work and poor cognition is a direct result of incomprehensible input that children can not process in deep and meaningful ways.  Our brains are use-it or lose-it.  Don’t make English Language Learners wait years to be able to build background knowledge in content-areas and develop rich cognition and metacognition.

Educators should stand up for the most economically disadvantaged English Language Learners by promoting bilingual education.



Brackin, S., & Fischel, J. (2008). Family Reading Behavior and Early Literacy Skills in Preschool Children From Low-Income Backgrounds. Early Education and Development, 19(1), 45-67. Retrieved September 24, 2016.

Francisco, C. R., & Krashen, S. (2013, September). Arnold’s Advantages: How Governor Schwarzenegger Acquired English Through De Facto Bilingual Education. International Multilingual Research Journal, 7(3), 220-229.

Krashen, S. (1997, January). Why Bilingual Education? Language Education. doi:10.4324/9780203416709_chapter_1

Krashen, S., & Brown, C. L. (2005, Spring). The Ameliorating Effects of High Socioeconomic Status: A Secondary Analysis. Bilingual Research Journal, 29(1), 185-196.

Krashen, S., & Cummins, J. (2007). English Learners in American Classrooms: 101 Questions, 101 Answers. Scholastic.

Vuong, O. (2016, June 6). Surrendering. The New Yorker. Retrieved July 24, 2016, from

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Claire Walter

I am an ESL teacher and I promote differentiated, compassionate instruction and assessment for English Language Learners.

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