Exploring pedagogy in a German Bilingual Program

In Canada, there are several options for bilingual language education in addition to the official language program (French Immersion). Teachers in these programs must integrate both content and language teaching in their practice to encourage students’ language development, using the second language for up to 50% of the school day. Ideas about best practices are often informed by the curriculum, discourses in the school district, and prevalent beliefs about language learning.

This ‘immersion pedagogy’ has mostly been studied in French Immersion, and less is known about the teaching practices in other classrooms. Teachers in bilingual programs are often non-native speakers who have a general elementary teacher training, rather than second language pedagogy training. Uncovering how they understand and enact immersion pedagogy is therefore important to their professional development, and our understanding of bilingual education.

Dr. Roswita Dressler investigated an early years’ classroom in a German Bilingual Program over five months. Dr. Dressler interviewed two teachers, who were team teaching a grade 1 and 2 multi-grade class, and observed classroom lessons. These teachers sought to teach according to how they understood immersion pedagogy, and their explanations and choices revealed the discourses influencing their decision making.

Bridging Contexts

Aligned with current trends in second-language teaching, the teachers supported a focus on meaning and oral communication, rather than grammar and writing exercises. The teachers used repetition, songs, and rhymes to help students learn the language, and to help them enjoy the experience.

The teachers felt strongly about striving to teach 50% of the content in German. Apart from English Language Arts, the teachers noted that there were not many times in the day when they only used English. Keeping the German subjects only in German was particularly important to these teachers, whereas they felt more comfortable integrating German into some of the English-designated subjects.

Adopting a prominent discourse in French Immersion classrooms, the teachers reported trying to avoid ‘code switching’ back and forth between German and English. The teachers attempted to rephrase and scaffold students’ understanding without relying on English. However, examples in the recorded lessons showed that the teachers might use English more flexibly than they realize. Thus, in this bilingual classroom, the strict avoidance of English was not as strong as they claimed.

Intersecting Ideas

Our understanding of bilingual education and immersion pedagogy in Canada is highly influenced by French Immersion research. Even though the teachers in other bilingual classrooms have very different backgrounds, the ideas and discourses can still be seen as influencing their practice. This has important implications for hiring and supporting bilingual education teachers; these teachers have unique needs and face particular challenges, which are not as well researched.

In particular, the teachers reported that second-language pedagogy was not often a focus of the professional learning communities within the school.  Discussions about how to approach German bilingual education, and how to achieve 50% second-language use, would provide support to teachers, especially those without the background in second language pedagogy. By exploring immersion pedagogy as a group, teachers can co-construct knowledge around effective strategies and innovation, and increase their understanding of bilingual pedagogy.

See more from Dr. Roswita Dressler on her profile

Connected Citations

Dressler, R. (2018). Canadian bilingual program teachers’ understanding of immersion pedagogy: A nexus analysis of an early years’ classroom. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 74(1), 176-195.