Reviewing French Immersion research is like watching a shell game. Under this shell, FI is bilingual education and students benefit from the cognitive gains of being bilingual. If we study the shells a little further, we realise that even if the education were bilingual, the students aren’t. They may become bilingual if they remain in the program until the end of grade twelve but at the age of six or nine or twelve, no one could honestly describe them as bilingual. If students aren’t bilingual before they have completed the education, then they are not receiving the cognitive benefits of being bilingual until then. We will have to explore that in another post.
Watch the next shell, ladies and gentlemen: the earlier students start French Immersion the better. The research says otherwise. For the most part there is little difference between the achievement of early immersion students and late immersion students. Most research supports students learning to read and write in their first language before they start to learn a second language. The skills they learn in their first language will transfer to the second; learning the second language is more efficient when an older and literacy experienced brain is being used. Another interesting set of facts to explore in another post.
Support for Children with Learning Difficulties in French Immersion is Rare in Most Provinces
Here’s a third shell: everyone can be in French Immersion! Indeed they can, provided they have the same supports that they would have in the regular English program. The truth is that the support varies from province to province and school board to school board. A child with a learning disability should theoretically have support in French from a special education teacher but the truth is that support is rarely there in the same way as it is for children in the English program. The policy on whether French Immersion is for all students is rarely spelled out explicitly; often one has to read between the lines. Let’s look at four Ontario school boards:
Ontario’s Peel Board on Special Education Support in French Immersion
The Peel Board advises that FI is open to any child starting grade one, but qualifies that statement with the following caveat:
Based on more than 20 years of experience with immersion programs, we have found some characteristics that are common to successful students in French immersion. These characteristics are indicators to help you to make a good choice. We strongly recommend that you discuss these characteristics with your child’s kindergarten teacher.
A successful student:
is verbal and likes to talk
has strong skills in his or her first language
has a good memory
is a risk taker
enjoys new challenges
has demonstrated a successful transition from home to school
Pre-screening by parents, with the teacher’s guidance, is a clear indication that the Peel board believes that FI is not for all students and that this determination can be made by the beginning of grade one. The checklist describing the successful student reinforces the expectation that not all children will succeed in French Immersion. One would expect with the caveat above that a child who is not successful in the Peel Board’s FI program might be invited to transfer to the regular English program. It is unlikely that the child would be supported with remedial help or, if appropriate, special education resources. Another Ontario school board is not so explicit in suggesting requirements for success in the FI program, but they are there, nevertheless:
Ontario’s Grand Erie Board pronounces
The French Immersion program is designed for English-speaking children. Students who possess good first-language skills, are good listeners, self-confident, and motivated, will likely do well in Immersion. Grand Erie District School Board (February, 2009 ) http://www.gedsb.on.ca
From Ontario’s Ottawa-Carleton Board on FI
The Ottawa-Carleton board explicitly notes that academic ability, economic or social status are not factors in succeeding in French Immersion. It is less explicit concerning the support provided for students in FI who might have learning difficulties:
Academic ability is not related to performance in French language skills. A child’s learning difficulties in reading, writing, or other subject areas will surface regardless of the language of instruction. These difficulties should not normally be a barrier to bilingual education. French Immersion teachers are very aware of children who may be experiencing learning problems and will work with your child to provide the learning support services required (bold & underlining mine) http://www.ocdsb.ca/Documents/OCDSB_Publications/FSL.pdf French As a Second Language Programs fact sheet (February, 2009)
Surely all teachers in this board are conscious of children who are experiencing learning problems. The difference is that the other teachers will not only work with those children, but they can draw on resources such as the Learning Support Teacher and, if the child is eventually IPRCed (identified as having a learning disability), the special education specialist in the school. It is entirely possible that things have changed since May of 2007 when the Special Assistance Team for the OCDSB wrote:
At present, it is clear that children experiencing learning difficulties or who have learning styles which, presently, are not necessarily accommodated in French Immersion programs are clustered in the English track schools which house the special education programs for students with exceptionalities and the English as a Second Language (ESL) students.
The Team, which reported to the Minister of Education for Ontario, went from description to prescription:
…student(s) who are experiencing difficulty in French Immersion … are often demitted quickly and sent from the school where they began their year to another school in the English stream. For some but not all students, the reason for demission from FI is deemed to be the need for Special Education support. This support must be available to all students in the Board regardless of their language of instruction. (bold & underlining mine) http://www.ocdsb.edu.on.ca/Documents/Board/Finances/SATReport.pdf (May 7, 2007)
It would be a reasonable assumption that this last sentence represents the ministry’s policy, but the statement in the ministry’s curriculum document for Extended French and French Immersion is not quite so explicit:
Extended French and French Immersion for Exceptional Students Recognizing the needs of exceptional students and providing appropriate programs and services for them are important aspects of planning and implementing the curriculum. A regulation made under the Education Act requires that school boards establish a committee, called an Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC), to identify and place exceptional students. When an IPRC identifies a student as exceptional, it must, in its statement of decision, provide a description of the student’s strengths and needs and a decision on appropriate placement for the student. The IPRC can also make recommendations for suitable education programs and services. When an IPRC identifies a student as exceptional, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) must be developed and maintained for that student. The Ontario Curriculum, Ministry of Education 2 0 0 1 French As a Second Language Extended French Grades 4-8 French Immersion Grades 1-8 Page 7
Ontario’s Trillium Lakeland’s Board’s Vision for FI Students
Finally in our sample of Ontario school boards is the Trillium Lakelands District School Board. Their web site has clear statements about their policies on French Immersion:
Our Vision for French Immersion
Trillium Lakelands District School Board supports the French Immersion Program and intends that the program be inclusive and accessible to all students within the Board. The Board also intends that graduates of the secondary school French Immersion Program will be able to communicate and function in French and be able to pursue work or postsecondary education in French.
Trillium Lakelands District School Board (February, 2009) http://www.tldsb.on.ca/pdfs/programs_frenchbrochure.pdf
In simple language, the Trillium board states how good the French of Immersion graduates must be and the board’s commitment to making FI accessible to all students. It is more explicit in its vision than the Ontario ministry. If you teach or have children in this board, please let me know if the TLDSB fulfills its vision or at least strives to! Let us turn finally to another province, Manitoba, for its policies on French Immersion:
Manitoba’s Expectations for Special Needs Services & FI
Curriculum Policy for the French Immersion Program July 2008, 3rd Edition http://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/docs/policy/frenchimm/implem.pdf
4.5 SPECIAL NEEDS SERVICES
Special needs students are capable of learning another language. In view of this, every school offering a French Immersion program must provide the human and material resources to meet special needs requirements (remedial, counselling, and other specialised services), in the same way as schools offering the English program. These services must be available to the students in both English and French.
In other words, plan to provide all the services a child might need before planning a French Immersion program. If a board doesn’t have the resources in French to meet those needs, then an FI program is not possible; it needs rethinking! Compare Manitoba’s direct support for all students who wish to take French Immersion with Ontario’s sidestepping of the issue by describing the IPRC process. To meet special needs requirements for FI students requires money; in Ontario, it may mean using French funding for French instead of redirecting it to (for example) busing. For more on that issue, see my post: Is French Immersion a Money Maker for School Boards?
It is as simple as that. If we can’t provide the same services to students in French Immersion as we do to students in English language programs, then we are creating a ghetto of English language classes with large numbers of students needing special services and the same teacher student ratio as the French Immersion classes. Students fortunate enough to qualify for FI or who have parents who can pay for extra-curricular coaching can remain in an enclave of students without learning difficulties.
Education in Ontario’s Dirty Little Secret
Let me add that this is a dirty little secret within our schools and has been for over twenty years; I have been chastised for accurately describing the English program classes when among colleagues. I was chastised not because I was wrong, but because it was disrespectful of the students and their teachers. I think the conditions those teachers and students work under is disrespectful; the truth is not.
Next post on French Immersion: the province that tried to do the right thing for all of its students and was run over by politics and French Immersion.
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