by Charlotte Hewson

This feature was first published in Journeys Summer 2019.

This article was written by communications writer Charlotte Hewson.

Does SAS need to change?
The traditional education system, built on the foundation that academic content knowledge is king, is no longer adequate to prepare our children for the modern and evolving workforce. An emerging economy requires students to have new and different skills, and a shifting emphasis in US education and universities, and new competition in Singapore requires SAS to be more nimble. There is a sense of urgency for change, but figuring out what to change, and helping change the mindsets of educators, parents, and children themselves hasn’t been easy.

For the last five years, Singapore American School faculty and leadership have been on a journey of transforming an existing successful school to better serve students as we prepare them for a constantly changing world. The R&D process was designed to challenge deeply held assumptions, engage faculty, shape culture, and included thousands of hours of research and visitations to over 100 schools worldwide. Over 100 college admissions officers were interviewed, internationally known educational leaders were consulted, and a strategic plan is now in place reflecting what has been learned. 

Chinese Immersion Learning Community
The Singapore American School daily language program is in its tenth year running and is built around the American Council on the Teaching
 of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)
 Oral Proficiency Levels. Students learn Chinese or Spanish and the curriculum for each language is vertically aligned across the school, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Starting sixth grade, students are also able to opt for French.

Chinese is the most spoken language in the world and with a set of over 50,000 characters (3–5000 needed 
for literacy in daily life), it is probably one of the most complex languages to learn. With the introduction of the Chinese immersion program, students have language opportunities integrated into every moment, allowing them to develop high capability with the language while learning in the language. 

Commenced: 2017–18 
The Chinese immersion program is the product of extensive research and development, and was one of the recommendations that came from the elementary school R&D team. Elementary school principal David Hoss and director of world languages Sally Lean along with deputy principal Jo McIlroy, visited Washington
Yu Ying Public Charter School in Washington DC, a highly successful Mandarin immersion program and two immersion schools in Minnesota. 

The team was able to form a plan—and get to work. From a talented pool of candidates, Holly Xi and Julie Zhang, then teachers in the world languages program, were selected to be the founding teachers for immersion. They visited existing immersion programs and spent a semester embedded in regular kindergarten classrooms at SAS learning pedagogy and teaching techniques across all subjects. They adapted the immersion curriculum materials from the regular program directly, translating and in many instances, recreating. 

The program launched in 2017–18 with 31 students across two kindergarten classes. In 2018–19 these two classes rolled forward to first grade, while the second year of the program experienced strong enrollment overall in both kindergarten and first grade. 

Desired outcomes/Measures for success
Assessment measures are paced and aligned closely with grade level benchmarks

• Similar learning opportunities through curriculum and content as peers in the same grade level.
• Math testing follows the grade level in full alignment.
• Reading is assessed through an online reading system that was designed in reference to the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system as well as character and vocabulary recognition.
• Writing—students are assessed through similar rubrics and expectations as are used across the grade level, with adaptations for the language conventions around writing characters instead of writing letters and words.
• Social Studies/Science—students are assessed through similar rubrics and expectations as are used across the grade level, with adaptations as needed.
• Students’ oral proficiency is also tracked across the year in 1:1 mini oral proficiency interviews.

• Benchmarks are adapted due to the limited nature of the English learning time in the immersion program.
• Aimsweb as well as Columbia Teachers’ College assessments are used as reference points for teachers to know if the children are meeting the immersion English benchmarks.

The goal 
To build a responsive program that begins with a focus on developing students’ foundational Chinese language skills through a one-way total immersion, with the curriculum content learning being fully aligned with the regular program. Over the course of elementary school, English learning time is gradually built up over time until the program becomes a two-way bilingual program in fourth and fifth grade.

What worked well?
By the end of the school year, most students were able to read more than 80 books in Mandarin. That figure surpassed the benchmark set for kindergarten.
• Students were able to independently write personal narratives, and introduce themselves and their families and friends using an expansive vocabulary.
• As the year began, the teachers frequently collaborated with Ms. Lean, Ms. McIlroy, and the team of regular kindergarten teachers, learning, sharing, implementing. Now in their second year, they continue to work together and report feeling more confident in their instruction and ability to settle children into their learning routines quickly.
• The Chinese immersion teachers have worked to adapt the regular kindergarten curriculum to Mandarin immersion and commensurately, Mandarin instruction to a program outside the traditional Chinese language system. They are masterful at planning their lessons with double objectives—one for content learning and one for language.
• The kindergarten model worked so well it was decided to continue the approach and also the ‘hub’ style of learning and teaching into first grade.

Room for growth
• As the program builds, we are looking for naturally occurring opportunities for vertical alignment of the immersion program as well as alignment for the development of language skills in both Chinese and English.
• Deepening teachers’ understanding of latest pedagogy, classroom management, and research-based approaches to education.

Changes along the way
• Smaller adjustments have included expanding the inquiry-based approach to math instruction (in both the immersion and regular programs).
• The introduction of running records to track reading comprehension and growth to capturing students’ understanding and thinking at regular intervals is intended as a way to track students’ progress and provide richer data for teachers and parents alike.

  • Chinese
  • chinese immersion
  • elementary
  • learning community
  • lessons learned
  • Spanish
  • World Languages



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