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Cognition, Language Immersion and Literacy

Cognition, Language Immersion and Literacy
Cristine Conforti, Head of Brazilian Program and Anne Baldisseri, Head of Primary Division
 


Why immersion?

Immersion is a natural and effective approach to learning language. When immersed in a second language, children are able to develop the necessary vocabulary and syntax needed to communicate and interact that language.

The ability to speak is is genetically programmed and highly sensitive to characteristics of the mother tongue. At first, a baby will babble in response to a mother's loving murmurs and lullabies. Then, little by little, the baby will shape syllables as she recognize objects, identifies desires and then finally, language.

Language comes to exist because it is an emotive (hence "mother tongue") and social mechanism. Therefore, it is important to introduce a new language in settings that are natural, comfortable, and close to life beyond the classroom. Immersion in a new language should reproduce the experience of learning a mother tongue.

The ability to read follows the ability to speak. Reading is more complex, and shepherds the child's arrival to the world of culture. In psychological terms, it is also the journey from the maternal breast to the paternal universe, then to the organized world of literate civilization.

When a child begins to learn to read, she already has a command of oral language. To learn to speak, children use sounds of their mother tongue to build words to name things, people and the world they know.

If a child is immersed in an English-speaking environment, she may develop oral skills that may ease her path to literacy.

It is important to remember that literacy is not a linear process. It develops through what we call "cognitive leaps." Children who have bilingual families, or live in a community where the language is different than the one spoken at home, usually take a little longer to start speaking. This latency period is necessary for internal processing. As the child develops, she will begin to speak two (or three) languages simultaneously. This is a remarkable cognitive leap!

At Avenues, children will learn to read and write first in English and then in Portuguese. We are basing our immersion model on research-driven evidence that recommends that first-language speakers living in their first-language country should learn to read in their second language first.

"Transparent" languages are those that are written closely and predictably to how they sound. Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and especially, German are transparent languages. English, on the other hand, is more opaque. It can have unpredictable spellings for the same sounds.

There are greater variations in the English language. In Portuguese, there are 31 phonemes, or units of sound. In English, there are 44 to 46. In Portuguese, there are over 3,000 syllables In English, there are 7,000 to 8,000.

This does not mean that literacy is easier with transparent languages and more difficult with opaque languages. It simply means that the identification of words happens earlier with transparent languages than with opaque languages.

Learning to read is different from knowing how to read. When you learn to read, you must understand the mechanisms that connect graphemes (units of text) to phonemes (units of sound).

As the child learns to read in small units, she constantly attempts connections between sound and text. Once she has learned to read, these mechanisms become automated, and more importantly, these mechanisms can be transferred from language to language.

As the child grasps the connection between sound and text, doors will open on her curiosity for the written world. Even though she cannot yet read, now she knows how she will learn to.

At the emotive level, the child uncovers the world of reading by listening to voices she trusts and recognizes. Listening to reading aloud by parents and teachers can inspire a taste for words and knowledge, and then the desire to read oneself. Reading in a group then develops interaction and intellectual exchange amongst peers.

From the linguistic point of view, reading and writing are not independent skills. They are different, interconnected cognitive capacities. From a philosophical point of view, reading and writing are a means to discover the world and join in it. Reading and writing teaches one to think. And Avenues is a New School of Thought.

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