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Volume 23, No. 2 Winter 2000-2001

High School Immersion in the United States:
A Research Study

by Pat Barr-Harrison, Supervisor of Foreign Languages, Prince George's County (MD) Public Schools and President of the National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Languages (NADSFL)

Foreign language immersion programs offer all or part of the school curriculum through a foreign or second language. A number of these programs are in place across the country at the elementary school level, but there are very few language immersion programs at the high school level. At present, there are no national guidelines or standards for high school foreign language immersion programs in the United States. Immersion planners have few research studies or program evaluations to draw from and must develop their own objectives (Fortune & Jorstad, 1996).

This article describes a research study that sought to identify the program standards, goals, and special projects of existing high school immersion programs and to look for common features among them that could define models for future programs (Barr-Harrison, 1998). The study examined 15 of the 20 high school programs identified by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) in a recent survey of U.S. immersion programs (Rhodes & Seydel, 1999). In addition, experts in the field of immersion education were interviewed about the features they believe should be included in a high school immersion program. Survey results revealed three types of high school immersion programs, and analysis of interview data led to the compilation of a list of 18 essential features of a high school immersion program.

Research Methodology

A 46-item questionnaire was sent to the 20 high school foreign language immersion programs identified in the 1999 CAL study. Questions were asked about program goals, number of content courses taught in the foreign language, content focus, assessment methods, special projects, student exchange programs, and international and other travel opportunities. The first part of the questionnaire asked for information about program standards and objectives. The second part was designed to elicit information about a variety of topics, such as particular features or specific courses. The third part sought information about instructional practices and asked respondents to indicate if or how often a particular practice was used. Out of the 20 schools contacted for the study, 15 responded. Data analysis is based on the responses of these 15 programs.

In addition, 15 experts from various regions of the United States who had key professional roles in immersion education (educators, researchers, program planners, and resource center representatives) were interviewed about essential criteria for model high school immersion programs. The Delphi-Method, a technique for gathering information and consensus through interviews (Linstone & Turoff, 1975), was used in three rounds of interviews. The first two rounds of interviews defined the questions that were asked in the third round. The following questions were used in the third round of interviews:

To bring content validity and closure to the interviews, the researcher selected six additional foreign language immersion experts from six regions of the United States to discuss this question: What are three important characteristics of a high school immersion program? Responses from the interviews provided a broad spectrum of opinions from experts on immersion education across the United States. (For information on how the interview data were analyzed, see Barr-Harrison, 1998.)

Several Findings From the Data

Questionnaire data

Questionnaire responses from the 15 immersion high schools provided valuable information. In response to questions about particular features of an immersion program, two thirds of the schools listed similar characteristics. These characteristics were subsequently used to divide programs into one of three program types (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Three Immersion Program Types

1. High School Language and Content Immersion with Continuity from Elementary and Middle School

2. High School Language Immersion Continued From Elementary and Middle School

3. High School Immersion With No Prior Elementary or Middle School Immersion Experience

In response to questions regarding the skill areas in which immersion students needed the most improvement, more than half of the respondents (69%) felt that writing and reading skills needed to be improved. Results also showed that the most common content course taught in the target language was social studies. When asked if immersion program teachers were certified, 92% responded affirmatively. Other similarities included instructional practices. At least 67% of respondents reported that teachers used cooperative group structures in the immersion classroom, and as many as 85% stated that students developed their writing through essays. A majority (69%) of the respondents stated that teachers used authentic materials in the classroom to enhance lessons. Only four schools indicated that they had an exchange program.

Interview data

Through the interview data, 18 key characteristics of effective high school immersion programs were identified. These characteristics include incorporating national K­12 foreign language standards or second language content standards; developing students' writing through essays, the World Wide Web, and e-mail; including at least 3 hours of daily immersion instruction in selected courses; and including special language service projects in the community for immersion students during their junior and senior years. Additionally, the content of high school immersion education should be determined by the school district. National guidelines should include generic content that most programs can use for planning purposes.


The results of this study are significant for program planners, because there are few studies of secondary-level language immersion in the United States. The questionnaire data have revealed patterns among existing high school immersion programs that have helped to define three types of high school immersion, and interview results from foreign language immersion experts have been used to identify a list of characteristics that will help guide the planning of future programs. In addition, most questionnaire and interview respondents believed that the national foreign language standards (National Standards for Foreign Language Education Project, 1996) should help frame guidelines for high school immersion in the United States.


Barr-Harrison, P. (1998). A study to identify program standards, goals, objectives, and projects in existing high school foreign language immersion programs in the United States. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park.

Fortune, T., & Jorstad, H.L. (1996). U.S. immersion programs: A national survey. Foreign Language Annals, 29, 163-178.

Linstone, H.A., & Turoff, M. (1975). The Delphi method: Techniques and applications. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

National Standards for Foreign Language Education Project. (1996). Standards for foreign language learning: Preparing for the 21st century. Yonkers, NY: Author.

Rhodes, N., & Seydel, R. (1999). Directory of total and partial immersion language programs in U.S. schools. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.

Additional Resources

Garcia, P., Lorenz, E., & Robinson, R. (1995). Reflections on implementing middle school immersion programs: Issues, strategies, and research. In R. Donato & R. Terry (Eds.), Foreign language learning: The journey of a lifetime (pp. 37-75). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook.

Genesee, F. (1987). Learning through two languages: Studies of immersion and bilingual education. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Klee, C.A., Lynch, A., & Tarone, E. (Eds.). (1998, February). Research and practice in immersion education: Looking back and looking ahead. Selected conference proceedings (CARLA Working Paper 10). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Resource Organizations

Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL)
4646 40th Street NW
Washington DC 20016-1859
Telephone 202-362-0700

Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)
University of Minnesota
619 Heller Hall
271 19th Ave South
Minneapolis MN 55455
Telephone: 612-626-860

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