Does TWI Work for Native English Speakers?

Observing Two-Way Immersion students in Mexico.

I’m currently in Mexico for spring break with several Evanston families whose children are enrolled in District 65’s Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program (mine included).  Today, I asked many of the kids, ages 6 to 13, how their exposure to Spanish is serving them here.  Some of their responses surprised me; it almost felt like a TWI “support group”:

Sometimes TWI gets kind of irritating. 

It’s been really helpful. 

So so. 

I think it’s really nice to be able to learn Spanish.  I feel lucky to be in TWI. 

It’s really tiring sometimes when you’ve been speaking Spanish all day at school.  I get frustrated when the native Spanish speakers can get stuff done so much faster than me. 

I wish the TWI program didn’t teach us the main subjects in Spanish.  I wish we’d learn the Spanish on smaller side-stuff. 

I really didn’t learn any math until 4th grade, when it was taught in my native language. 

In TWI, they don’t really teach you Spanish.  They teach you things IN Spanish. 

It sucks.

I like being in Mexico using my Spanish. At school, I feel pressured to use it.  When I’m here in Mexico, I remember all my Spanish so much more.  No one’s judgmental here.  The Mexican people are like really good teachers…they offer us alternatives and suggestions when we’re trying to speak Spanish, and that really helps.  My teachers just sit there and wait until you get the words right.

Since I'm a mother of three children who’ve taken part in (or are still enrolled in) District 65’s Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program, I've certainly got an opinion on this matter.  As an English-speaking family, my opinion of the program only covers one perspective.

The Center for Applied Linguistics defines a Two-Way Immersion Program this way:

Two-way immersion (TWI) is a distinctive form of dual language education in which balanced numbers of native English speakers and native speakers of the partner language are integrated for instruction so that both groups of students serve in the role of language model and language learner at different times.

The structure of TWI programs varies, but they all provide at least 50% of instruction in the partner language at all grade levels beginning in pre-K, Kindergarten, or first grade and running at least five years (preferably through Grade 12).

My husband and I considered the merits of the program for quite some time; we enrolled our first child in TWI with our fingers crossed.  We’d both been exposed to Spanish instruction growing up – 10+ years for my husband and four years for me. 

Without divulging grades, I’ll summarize my overall assessment of District 65’s TWI program after 7+ years as wonderfully inconsistent.  For children who are naturally drawn to world languages (a term more often used than foreign language), the TWI program offers an incredible opportunity.  For those kids with less aptitude for languages, the program needs significant work. 

I’ve watched two of my three children ask to leave the program at various times.  I’m confident anyone who’s practiced a musical instrument will relate to this scenario.  As a parent, I’m always trying to weigh the benefits of sticking to something (even if it’s difficult) while still maintaining empathy for my child’s personal learning style.  It’s a fine line, and the experience varies wildly among each of my kids.  There have been many tears to counterbalance the highlights of the TWI program.  And, just as it happens with general education instruction, teachers vary in their strengths and weaknesses.

If I could change something right now about the TWI program in District 65, I’d ask the teachers to acknowledge and remind students that it’s a tough but worthwhile program.  I’d have them use phrases like, “I know this might not come easy,” “Hang in there,” and “I was in your shoes.”

With so much talk lately about how U.S. students aren’t challenged enough by their education, I’ll say unequivocally that a TWI program challenges many a child:  English Language Learners (ELL) as well as native English speakers.  I believe in the program’s mission, but I hope to see more consistency among teachers, more basic conjugation instruction, and above all else, more compassion for how challenging the instruction can be.

So, do I think TWI works for native English speakers?  I guess you could say that depends...on a lot.

Suzanne July 04, 2011 at 06:18 AM
I'm interested in the TWI program for my daughter who is presently a toddler. I'd be curious how much Spanish the author of this opinion piece did with her children before they started the TWI program? Are the teachers in the TWI program all people with Spanish as their 1st language? The answers to both of these questions would be extremely helpful to me as I figure out how to teach my daughter Spanish. I speak Spanish but English is my first language. Thanks! Suzanne
BRG August 22, 2011 at 04:48 PM
As a person who speaks a few languages and someone who has taught ESL, I am not supportive of D65's continuation in TWI. Anecdotally, I have not heard positive things about the program.
Christine Wolf June 22, 2012 at 07:38 PM
Hi, Suzanne. 1. I took 4 years of Spanish in high school. My husband had Spanish classes in elementary school (California), high school and college. Neither one of us kept up our foreign language skills after college, so neither one of us is conversational. Our Spanish is "passable" at best. 2. Less than half of our kids teachers are native Spanish speakers.
Christine Wolf June 22, 2012 at 07:39 PM
If you care to share, I know many readers would love to hear what you've heard (negative and/or positive) about the program.
Liz A. September 01, 2012 at 03:09 PM
Just brought back my 6 year old daughter from Mexico City. Born in Chicago, her 1st language was English, at 3 1/2 left to live with grandma and now she's back with mom & speaking, reading, writing, beautiful, clean, Spanish, but forgot English. She has qualified for the TWI program, but I am unsure if this is the right program for her. While she currently cannot speak English, we played a word puzzle game and she is able to clearly spell in English (reading pronounciation was sometimes mixed with Spanish, but 90% was good). I spoke with TWI teachers who told me that by 2nd grade children would be reading and writing Spanish...my daughter already does and very well....so I get the impression this program is geared more towards English speaking children who want to learn Spanish and that I'm better off putting my daughter in a fully English school, although the 1st month or two will be challenging for her....I'm confident she will pick up very quick. The only advantage I am seeing out of the TWI program, is that if she stayed through 5th grade, she would continuously be exposed to learning how to write and read English (keep up with the gramatical side of it), but then again, she'll be spending time in Mexico every year, so perhaps if it was French, I'd be as interested as a Native English mother who would like their children to be bilingual. She's been accepted to Willard, any guidance, feedback or comments are greatly appreciated. Best to all of you. Liz


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