Sheltered Immersion: Contrasts and Controversy

Sheltered Immersion: Contrasts and Controversy

Jill Kerper Mora

Proposition 227 requires that all English Language Learners in California receive a program of "sheltered immersion" or "structured immersion" taught "overwhelmingly in English" for one year before beginning transferred to mainstream or regular classes.

Below is a comparison of the mandated "sheltered immersion" model of instruction with second-language immersion programs in Canada and other countries internationally. The purpose of this comparison is to describe how the program mandated by Proposition 227 bears little resemblance to what bilingual and second-language educators call an "immersion" program.

The term "immersion" has been used properly by second-language educators to refer to immersion programs as a category within bilingual education. In their volume on international immersion education, Johnson and Swain (1997) state the following:

   "Given the core features we have proposed, we would argue that there are some programs labeled immersion that have overextended the use of this term to the point at which a discussion of common issues and problems becomes difficult, if not impossible. A good example of inappropriate over-extension is the labeling of English-only programs for Spanish-speaking minorities in the United States as "immersion education." Such English-only education leads to replacive or subtractive bilingualism in the academic domain, while the wide use of the L2 in public domains leads to the development of interpersonal and social proficiency that immersion students do not have the opportunity to acquire." (p. 12)

Attrition statistics will come in the form of numbers of transfers of LEP into mainstream program during and following the normal one year program enrollment. Failure to progress in the mainstream may or may not be used to infer success or failure of one year sheltered immersion.

Goals & Structure
Considered a form of bilingual education Considered a form of English-only education
Program objective is full bilingualism and biliteracy based on an additive model of bilingualism. Program objective is proficiency in English based on a subtractive model. L1 literacy is not developed.
L1 and L2 are both majority languages, equally prestigious and recognized as valuable by the community. L1 is a minority language. L2 is the majority language. L1 may be denigrated and relegated to inferior status. The message is conveyed that only English is valid or important.
Minimum of four to six years to acquire "receptive" skills of listening and reading Students expected to gain proficiency enough to enter mainstream classes in one year
Curriculum Design
Uses L2 as the medium of instruction. Focuses on learning the target language through content teaching rather than on teaching the language.  Uses L2 as the medium of instruction. Focuses on learning the target language through content teaching rather than on teaching the language. However, for a one-year program, content objectives are not clearly defined.
The curriculum is designed to have coherence, balance, breadth, relevance, progression and continuity. Students at all points receive a curriculum parallel to non-immersion students. Initial focus is on understanding L2, and later on speaking L2 in a natural and gradual progression. One-year of immersion is seen as "normal." Students may be re-enrolled for longer with parental consent. Students transfer into mainstream classes that may or may not be connected in terms of curriculum content. Students must be provided "appropriate services to overcome language barriers" until they attain academic achievement equivalent to average native English speakers.
Initial literacy developed in the second language. L1 language arts instruction often delayed, but phased in over time until biliteracy is achieved. Initial literacy developed in the second language. L1 literacy not developed as a part of the program.
Student Population & Grouping
Approximately 6% of total school population enrolled in immersion. 25% of total school population are enrolled, unless students are granted "parental exception waivers."
Parents of students place them voluntarily. Programs are promoted and supported by parents. Parents are generally middle-class or upper-class. Sheltered immersion is the "default mode" for limited English proficient students. Under special circumstances, parents may opt out of the program; otherwise, it is mandatory. Parents are generally lower class and non-English speaking.
Students are all at the same academic level–usually progress as a cohort group beginning with no L2 proficiency. Students grouped by English proficiency levels, but multi-grade level grouping permitted.
Presumes a homogeneous language classroom–most students are native speakers of the same L1 Encourages heterogeneous classrooms–students are expected to speak a variety of native languages. 
Teacher Qualifications 
Teachers are highly skilled bilinguals with a strong commitment to bilingualism and multiculturalism as educational aims. Teachers serve as linguistic role models. Teachers use L2 methodology systematically. Teachers are trained to provide comprehensible input through the use of their L1 skills and appropriate methodology. Teachers may be monolingual English speakers without specialized training in L2 methodology. Teachers may or may not value bilingualism. Bilingual teachers are restricted by law in the amount of L1 they are permitted to use. 
Historical & Expected Student Outcomes 
Students expressive skills in L2 often lag behind the native-speaker norm, although listening and reading skills may be nearly equivalent. There is no research evidence to demonstrate what level of competency is attainable in each of the four language skills in a one-year program.
Attrition rates are high due to academic and behavioral difficulties. By sixth grade 43% to 68% of students transfer to the regular L1 program. About 75% of students who transfer out will repeat a grade


Baker, C. (1993). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. Ltd.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., & E. Hamayan. (2000). Dual language instruction: A handbook for enriched education. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Cummins, J. (1995). The European Schools Model in Relation to French Immersion Programs in Canada. In T. Skutnabb-Kangas (Ed.) Multilingualism for all, pp. 159-168. Lisse, the Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger B.V.

Johnson, R.K., & Swain, M. (1997). Immersion education:  International perspectives. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.