7 Strategies for Teaching a German Immersion Curriculum That Really Works
Strategy #1: Make German meaningful in your classroom and beyond
In an immersion curriculum, you don’t “teach German.”
Instead, there’s a normal subject curriculum that’s taught entirely in the German language. But in order for immersion to work, you need to do more than just teach a subject. You have to appeal to your students’ curiosity, imagination and thinking skills. The German content has to be meaningful to them so that they want to understand and use the language.
You can get this going by letting the classroom—and any other place you take your students to—work for you. German should be everywhere. Every student should be exposed to German from day one, even if they don’t understand a word of it. Actually, they should be exposed like this especially if they don’t understand a word of it.
Of course the lesson will be taught in German, and you will lecture and ask questions in German, but other resources like music and games should be factored in as well. Make sure that what the students are doing in German is much more fun than what they’re doing in English. Depending on their age, this can be computer time, excursions, films, games or play time.
Teach your students playground games in German. Take them on excursions. Go see a soccer game in the park and practice the related vocabulary!
Create a German cultural setting. Celebrate exciting cultural events and traditions like Karneval, Easter egg trees, and Nikolaus. And last but not least, introduce a German language class mascot.
Immersion is a great way for anyone to learn a second language or to become completely bilingual. However, it’s important to avoid frustration and maximize learning in your class by assessing your students’ knowledge of the German language before getting started.
Absolute beginners, especially young children, can become bored and frustrated when they don’t understand the language. It’s sometimes better for them to start in a bilingual class and join the immersion class later. If your school offers a dual immersion program, it’s important that enough students in the class speak German, so that others can communicate with them and learn.
If you can, assess your students’ language proficiency before they start in your class. At least, keep monitoring them at regular intervals. Some things you can look for, are:
- understanding of sentence-level conversation
- creative language use (as opposed to memorized expressions)
- use of the correct forms such as past tense, word order, or plurals
- use of a diverse vocabulary and culturally appropriate idiomatic expressions
- how often the language is chosen to communicate
“When teachers talk amongst each other (as they do) or when the going gets tough and things get more complicated with children, they should speak German, which adds to the amount of German the children hear.
— Lisa from Spielwelt German Parents Association
You’re succeeding if the classroom environment stimulates your students to understand and use German. They should be listening carefully when German is spoken, eager not to miss a thing. They should be trying to chatter with their friends in German. They should be curiously asking you more about the language and culture whenever they can.
It’s even more important that they can relate to their German-speaking teachers. And that doesn’t have to be just you.
In fact, you might find yourself teaching in a dual immersion program, where you stick to English while a native German teacher speaks German. The goal of these programs is for students to learn to associate the teacher with the language, making language learning happen in a spontaneous way. Your role in this system is to build up an support the German teacher as a role model for your students.
Any teacher needs soft skills, but in an immersion class, being able to relate to the children is sometimes more important than a formal qualification. See if you can involve (non-qualified, but) native German parents, friends, travelers or other helpers who can establish a good connection with the children. If you can get more than one native speaker in the classroom, that’s even better.
If you can’t seem to track down a native German speaker locally, try online. You might be able to find someone on a language exchange website who’s willing to interact with your students via Skype. If you’re lucky enough, you might find a whole classroom of students in Germany looking for English-speaking peers to be their penpals or Skype buddies!
Another route is to see if your school could attract traveling native German speakers with a volunteer, internship or job opportunity.
Whoever ends up in your classroom is someone with whom you should build a great rapport. Students should see you acting friendly with one another, and always, always speaking German together.
Your options to create immersion situations outside of the classroom can vary, but try and involve the students’ family and friends wherever you can. This can hugely increase the results of your teaching.
If some of your students come from German families, that’s great. The parents likely speak German and can give great support. Grandparents are not to be underestimated either: They love to help. Involve these people in the celebration of German traditional holidays in your classroom. They could do some of the planning as well.
Use the school’s website and social media to let your students’ families and friends know what’s happening at school. Offer them information on what they can do to join in at any time. Respond to questions and comments.
If you don’t have the right soft-skilled native speakers at hand, you could try and find them in the German international school networks.
Contact your nearest Goethe-Institut, get support from the ZfA (Central Agency for German Schools Abroad), partner with a school in Germany or become a member of the GLSC (German Language School Conference). Another option is to ask students at your local university German department to come and help in your classroom.
Language immersion situations can get confusing. Setting some rules about language use can help you maximize language learning.
For your students to be able to associate the German language with certain people, these people should be consistent. You could advise parents about this if they speak German. They could agree, for example, that mother always speaks German with the children, while father speaks English. When they’re all together, they all speak English.
Parents, other relatives and friends should make a clear choice as to which language they speak. If they aren’t German natives, they should either stick to their mother tongue and let the school do the talking, or do the best they can in German, setting an example of trying. They can also help by providing the right atmosphere. They might do this by playing German music, or by leaving German storybooks within reach in “downtime” places around the house.
The family can set rules on doing fun things in German: “Yes, you can watch television/play computer games/play Xbox…if you do it in German.”
Finally, a very important rule about speaking German is that nothing is “wrong.” Students must be encouraged to always keep trying to use German, and to not fear mistakes. As a teacher, you can rephrase what a student is trying to say, without it sounding as a correction.
“All classes follow the European concept to play outside daily. Children bring their weather appropriate clothes and ride balance bikes, play in the sandbox, climb and swing, run around or kick the ball in our beautiful outside play area, our “Spielplatz”
—Michaela Ward, German ISD Director
Finally, German, Austrian and Swiss educational traditions and methods can be very inspiring. Using them in your teaching can help create a German cultural setting. If you’re teaching students that may one day move to a school in the German-speaking world, they’ll be better prepared for that change,
Some methods or plans you could look at are: