Bilingual best practice
By Michelle Sharp

Canadian International School in Singapore has been offering a Chinese and English bilingual provision since 2014. Michelle Sharp explains the opportunities and the challenges that this brings for the school.


The Chinese-English bilingual programme at Canadian International School (CIS) was one of the first of its kind to be offered in Singapore by an international school. It is now delivered in over 30 classes to students from junior kindergarten (approximately 4 years of age) through to grade 6 (age 12).


A bilingual provision is what today’s informed and aspirational parents expect and, if we are to respond to this need, we want to be the best. It helps to differentiate our school from others in the market. Anyone can implement a bilingual programme, but not many can implement a great one. It is important to us that ours is the best in Singapore.


Investing in the right staff

The bilingual programme at CIS is fully aligned to the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) and each class, unlike many other schools, has two qualified teachers: one native English speaker and one native Chinese speaker. Students attend classes with the respective teacher on alternate days,      ensuring equal exposure to both languages. There is absolutely no translation in our programme as we are looking for children to master fluency and understanding in both languages. When a student enters Chinese class for example, they are completely immersed in that language.


As Chinese is one of the hardest languages to master, we hired Chinese literacy coaches to support our students and teachers, and added five periods of additional Chinese language acquisition classes each week to the timetable. For these classes, students are taught by specialty language teachers and are grouped according to their Chinese proficiency levels. This really helps us to ensure that each child’s proficiency in Chinese develops at their pace.


We knew when we developed the bilingual programme that we would need a long-term approach that allowed us to support students who progressed into secondary school, so our Head of Chinese developed a specific Chinese pathway for students from grade 7 to 10 (the IB Middle Years Programme). This ensures that language is supported for students who stay in Singapore for a long time,      allowing them to be completely bilingual in both Chinese and English.


Staff support and development

Delivering an outstanding Chinese-English      bilingual programme requires an ongoing commitment to have significantly more staffing resources. The school has invested in new administrative, curriculum, instructional and support positions to ensure the ongoing development and refinement of this programme.


We have appointed a K-12 Principal for Chinese language and culture to oversee our entire programme, three Chinese language literacy coaches to develop curriculum, support instruction and guide student assessment, and hired a Chinese community liaison officer to build connections with our parent community. In addition, in our annual hiring process this year, we were able to recruit two PYP coordinators who are both fluent      in Mandarin and English.

Our Principal of Chinese language and culture schoolwide, Huali Xiong, is very experienced in teaching Chinese in an international context. She is the author of the highly respected Big Apple Programme, a collection of 130 reference books, and she has experience developing curriculum. In addition, we bring in a global expert on an annual basis to observe and evaluate our programme and use the recommendations in our strategic planning.


Recruiting and retaining exceptional faculty to create and deliver extraordinary learning is the most significant challenge facing any bilingual school. Because we teach our bilingual Chinese-English      programme within the framework of the PYP, it is important we recruit Chinese and English teachers whose teaching philosophy, experience and practice are aligned with those of the IB. Building a strong partnership between our Chinese and English teachers is vital to the success of our programme, and we are constantly challenged to create those opportunities for teachers to co-plan, collaborate and communicate around curriculum, instruction and student learning.

Impacting admissions

Our bilingual programme was initially very popular with Western      expats who wanted their children to learn Chinese while in Asia, but it is now equally attractive to our Asian clientele. As we’re a very diverse international school, it has not changed our demographics greatly, but it has certainly increased interest in our school. We started the bilingual offering in 2014 with 13 classes (240 students), and have since grown to 39 classes with 720 students from many nationalities, including the UK, USA, Israel, Japan, China, Spain, Australia and Canada, enrolled in the programme.


Our efforts developing the bilingual provision have really paid off. Not only do our bilingual students consistently outperform all other Singapore students (including Singaporeans) in the annual Youth Chinese Test, but we are developing students who are bilingual, biliteral and bicultural.


Planning a successful bilingual provision:

  • Prepare for long-term language progression of students

  • Schedule regular staff time for curriculum co-planning and collaboration

  • Language immersion in all subjects ensures students master fluency and understanding in both languages

  • Invest in language coaches to support students and staff with language acquisition

  • Commit to external inspection or accreditation to develop your bilingual programme in an informed way

Michelle Sharp is Head of Marketing and Communications at CIS. You can connect with her on LinkedIn. See the CIS bilingual programme in action here:

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