Director of Educational Design, Avenues: The World School

“We will graduate students who are … truly fluent in a second language….”

Avenues’ Mission Statement

At the many parent events held for prospective Avenues families, Chris Whittle highlights the critical difference between schools that offer “language appreciation” courses and schools that offer immersion programs leading to true fluency in a second language. Chris admits his own foreign language courses produced little more than menu comprehension, if that. Nods from many in the audience suggest that such an experience is all too common.

Avenues: The World School plans to educate students who are truly fluent in a second language.

What is the best way to do that? Or, as our immersion consultant has urged us to consider, how do we make sure we do it right?

Second-language instruction works best when taught in content areas where the language becomes real as a tool for discovery.

We do it with care: with in-depth research into best practices and research findings.

An Avenues team of curriculum specialists, working with an immersion expert, has spent the past several months studying the “how” of second-language fluency. Extensive research into bilingualism and second-language literacy, with a particular focus on proven results, was augmented by visits to several immersion schools, including schools in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

What did we learn?

  • A school must offer a second language in depth to be truly global in its approach.
  • Learning a language takes time. A child needs to be immersed in the second language 50 percent of the time—what is called “partial immersion”—in order to achieve true oral and written fluency.
  • The younger a child starts to learn a second language, the better. As children are learning English, starting with elementary words, they can acquire a second language at the same time.
  • Second-language instruction works best when taught in content areas where the language becomes real as a tool for discovery.
  • Learning a second language provides thinking advantages. Students studying two languages have an advantage in thinking and learning to read over those studying just one.
  • Immersion students attain at least the same level of proficiency in reading, speaking and listening in English as students in all-English programs. They equal or surpass their peers on standardized tests.
  • Those studying two languages move faster through the stages of cognitive development, demonstrate selective attention to information and have an advantage in cognitive processing.

In April, NPR broadcast an interesting piece on the advantages of bilingual education, “Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power.”

When school opens in fall 2012, Avenues will offer the choice of Spanish or Mandarin as a half-day, or “partial,” immersion program for students from nursery (age three) through first grade. The immersion program will expand a grade each year until all students through the fourth grade are included. Students in the second grade and up in fall 2012 will be offered the beginning level of Spanish or Mandarin, while students with prior study in either language will also be accommodated.

In following school years, after completing the immersion program through fourth grade, students in grades five through eight will continue an in-depth study of Mandarin or Spanish. Immersion opportunities such as after-school study, summer immersion programs in New York and international travel and exchanges with international schools will further deepen the global and cultural approach to language study.

Starting in ninth grade, students interested in starting a third language will have the opportunity to do so.


  1. Jon Stout

    Posted October 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    I’ve learned languages by immersion twice, first when my family moved to Mexico and I entered a Spanish-speaking sixth grade, and second when I joined the Peace Corps and 50% of the training was in Nepali before I went to Nepal. I think it is by far the best way to learn a language, although nothing is magical. In Spanish sixth grade, I did best at non-language related subjects like mathematics and art, and worse in history. I always welcomed some grammar study to help me make sense of things. Even after fifty years of working on my Spanish, with every resource available, I am still only, say, 95% of total fluency, but I’m still working on it.

  2. tatiananikitina

    Posted October 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Would love to hear thoughts from Avenues and other experts on how to handle a child (4.5 yrs) who is bi-lingual already (English and Russian). We want to make sure that her Russian expands to reading and writing and does not stop at her current level of speaking only. However, she will be starting to learn Mandarin at Avenues next year. Should we think about some small amount of tutoring in Russian to continue that language as well or is it too overwhelming for a child (even though nothing to be overwhelming for our kids anymore!)

    Thank you.

    • Sarah Bayne

      Posted October 21, 2011 at 3:11 pm

      Hi Tatiana,

      Given her age, where she will soon be learning the English alphabet and the start of Mandarin characters in school, I would suggest holding off on introducing her to the Russian cyrillic alphabet at the same time. Most of her language at present is oral, which is where children of her age should be. Tutoring is not necessary for any reason at the present time; enjoying life, and enjoying communication, definitely is!

      As she grows, and after she begins to acquire written language in English, perhaps in 2nd grade might be a good time to consider learning written Russian. How fortunate she is to be learning two languages at home!

  3. Avenues Social Media Team

    Posted November 8, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Here is an interesting article on that describes various types of immersion programs in the U.S.:

    “Bilingual Education: Si or Non? The truth about dual language programs.”

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