Monthly Archives: April 2009

New Brunswick’s Three Options for FSL Delivery


If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll

Part of the debate that rages around French as a Second Language and French Immersion is the everyone-knows statement that very young children learn languages faster than older people. The response to that is: yes, BUT.

The BUT lies in the difference between implicit and explicit learning.  Explicit learning takes place when there is direct instruction.  For example a teacher sets out to teach a grammatical rule, correct pronunciation or use of an equation; the students are experiencing explicit learning.

Implicit learning is often taught by experience.  A toddler copies her parents’ greetings to a neighbour or an adolescent is very clear on what is cool and what is not.  This is also called naturalistic learning.

Given the same amount of time spent in explicit learning, young adolescents are the most effective at learning grammar and literacy in a second language (compared to adults and young children).  However, when it comes to pronunciation, the younger children are most effective at learning pronunciation in a naturalistic setting.  French Immersion works as well as a naturalistic setting.  On the other hand, adolescents and adults have achieved near native accents, but with less frequency, so this is not a hard and fast rule, nor is there a point where abilities such as acquiring pronunciation or learning grammar switch on and off. This is a crude summary of years of research summarised in Rod Ellis, 2008.  I refer you to his excellent book for more detail and direct references to the research.

The answer is that young children who live part of their lives in a second language or take early Immersion in an L2 do learn pronunciation faster and more effectively than older learners.  This is probably why they seem to learn languages so well.  One thing few researchers mention is that very young children have the vocabularies and the grammar of the very young so while they may be fluent in the language of children (and we wouldn’t expect more), this is not a full command of the language.  Just as their L1 will need development, so will the L2.

Some researchers have argued that children have all the grammar they need by a very young age; having taught children from Grade 2 to Grade 8, I disagree.  They may have the basic grammar and be able to use complex sentences, but agreement of tenses and persons and accurate use of tense, for example, often remain a mystery for some years.  High school French Immersion teachers have commented to me on the propensity of EFI students to retain language errors and one researcher has observed a kind of pidgin French developing among some EFI students.  This suggests that they are not sufficiently grammar conscious to self-correct or seek correct forms.

If children are not in Immersion, then starting a second language early has no major advantage.  In fact, a solid foundation of literacy in their L1 may be more effective, in the long run at helping them acquire an L2.   The skills in one language are transferable to the other.   By skills, I mean the kind of things that give the learner more scope and flexibility in developing language: skills such as the capacity to infer meaning, guess at vocabulary from context, tolerate ambiguity, take risks and use resources. These kind of skills are necessary in all academic subjects as well so wherever the student learns them, there will be considerable benefit as the skills transfer.  Most researchers seem to assume that they will transfer automatically; my own experience has been that students often need a nudge to recognise that the context may be different but the situation is similar.  But a nudge is usually all that is necessary.

From this, one might infer that a comparatively late start, such as Grades five, six or seven in learning French might be effective. Starting language training as late as Grade seven or eight is probably too late because as puberty descends, peer pressure increases.  Self consciousness makes it difficult for students at this age to give French the attention that good language learning requires.  This is not an issue only in French.  When we can successfully address it for all subjects, French will not suffer from it, either.  In the meantime, it makes these grades the poorest choice for the mandatory beginning of a second language program.

Except for the perils of puberty, the research supports a later introduction to a second language.  The one exception is that students will be less likely to acquire near-native pronunciation.  How important is near-native pronunciation?  As a former second language teacher, I can tell you that if a student learns the rhythms of a language and her accent does not impede comprehension, she is doing very well.  Daily work listening to news broadcasts, Quebec singers and watching Quebec television shows will help with oral comprehension and accents.

The oral component being satisfactory, we know that the students will learn to read and write in French with more ease, as the skills will transfer from what they have learned in English and their other subjects.  Core French and French Immersion, both early and late were not the only options under consideration in New Brunswick.

The Intensive French Program was based on the concept of the skills transfer described earlier.  In a nutshell, Grade 5 students did five months of only French at the beginning of the academic year.  The program was project based so the students were using French to do or create things.  The creation of the projects was used to teach skills such as co-operative and independent work and concentration.  Both the projects and language arts in French were used to teach literacy skills.  The last five months of the academic year were devoted to a compacted curriculum of the rest of the academic subjects.

The pilot project in New Brunswick proved to be very effective.  The students’ French improved very quickly as did their concentration and enthusiasm for school.  The skills learned in the first half of the year enabled them to deal with the second half of the year effectively.  The researcher, Paula Kristmanson of the University of New Brunswick, recorded positive responses from parents, teachers and students about the effectiveness of the program in her report on the pilot programs.

The one thing the report doesn’t mention directly is whether the students had studied French before.  My own assumption is that they had been taking 30 minutes of French a day since Grade 1.

Intensive French was not new.  It originated in Quebec in 1969 and has continued as a method for teaching French to immigrants.  In 1980 not long after the beginning of French Immersion and its success, researchers reported on the effort of educators to use Intensive French as a means of teaching Anglophone children French.  IS was used with Grade 1 and Grade 6 students.  The conclusion was that although it was effective with both groups, the younger children required more time to benefit.  Intensive French was more effective with an older group of children.  The method is still used in Quebec to teach English as an L2.

Canadian Parents for French used the lack of knowledge of long-term effects of IF as one reason not to allow the implementation of the Croll-Lee report.  I’m not sure how long they felt was necessary but I think 25 years should be enough. Since 1980 researchers have explored the possibilities of Intensive French. From Billy’s research in 1980 to Kristmanson’s in 2005 and the work of Netten and Germain among other researchers between the two, there is probably sufficient work to have confidence that Intensive French is effective in the year it runs and unlikely to do any harm to the following academic years.

In fact, the pilot programs in New Brunswick that Kristmanson reports on in 2005 were based on the design of Netten and Germain’s programs in Newfoundland and Labrador from 1998 to 2001.  By the time Kristmanson was doing her research in 2005, the children studied by Netten and Germain in 1998 would have been in Grade 12.  The second cohort would have reached Grade 12 the year of the Croll-Lee Report..  Finally, in 2004 in the The Canadian Modern Language Review, Netten and Germain referred to 25 years of success in Quebec with this method.  The only difference was that they were using it to teach English. For more information on Intensive French see the research list below

When people refer to research to support their arguments for or against specific forms of FSL, they take for granted that all the FSL teachers will have native or near-native competency in French. This is not the case in Canadian FSL classes.  The Croll-Lee Report (2006), for example, refers to FSL teachers in New Brunswick whose French is poor.  Netten and Germain in describing the parameters for their research into the effectiveness of IF from 1998 to 2001 stipulated three things about the teachers delivering the program:

· a good command of French,

· the ability to use effectively interactive teaching strategies in the classroom, and

· a desire to use innovative teaching methods.

A good command of French was the first stipulation.  Without that, any method of teaching French is working under the heaviest of handicaps.

REFERENCES
Paula Kristmanson, University of New Brunswick, Beyond Time on Task: Strategy Use and Development in Intensive Core French, 2005
J. Netten et C. Germain, Intensive French – An Introduction,  Intensive French in Canada, Revue canadienne des langues vivantes/The Canadian Modern Language Review, Vol. 60, no 3, pp. 263-273.  2004
Ellis, Rod.  The Study of Second Language Acquisition: second edition. 2008

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The Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy: Check it Out


Sometimes you come across something that is so exciting, you just have to share.  In my explorations concerning teaching French as a second language and the situation in New Brunswick, I came across The Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy or CRISP.  The driving force in my interest in second language teaching and indeed, in all forms of education, is a strong belief in social justice.  Education can be a tool for social justice, or handled thoughtlessly, a cause of social injustice.  The interesting thing about CRISP is that education is part of the package for social welfare and equity.  Below is their mission statement and a link.

Mission:

 The Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy (CRISP) is a multi-disciplinary organization dedicated to conducting policy research aimed at improving the education and care of Canadian children and youth; contributing to the training of social scientists in quantitative research methods; and supporting low-income countries in their efforts to build research capacity in child development. CRISP carries out this mission by conducting detailed evaluations of local, national, and international policy initiatives, and by analyzing large complex data bases such as Canada’s National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) and the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). CRISP researchers have been successful in tackling prominent policy issues, such as the effects of poverty and parenting style on children’s developmental outcomes, and the effects of reducing class size on children’s schooling outcomes, and giving them grounding in existing literature on child development and schooling. CRISP also plays an active role in the training of the next generation of social scientists in the areas of research and evaluation methods.

http://www.unb.ca/crisp/index.php

The New Brunswick Experience in Doing Right by All the Students


God give me strength to face a fact though it slay me.

Thomas Huxley

            The most difficult lesson for new teachers is that we will never be the right teacher for all our students.  One of the most difficult things to explain to the parent of a student is that the thing you all agree would be best for their child may be a thing you cannot, in good conscience do, because it would not be good for her classmates. 

            These were the kind of issues New Brunswick faced when it took a long hard look at its French Second Language programs and realised that they were expensive, created ghettos and streaming and did not teach French effectively.  I read the Croll Lee Report with a sense of recognition; Ontario is not much different, we just aren’t ready to admit that the emperor has no clothes. 

The report was frank about what wasn’t working in the FSL programs and the perceptions of the people who were directly involved about where the difficulties lay.  As much as I love the academic world, I know that studies cannot be counted on to give us a guarantee that their results can be reproduced under all conditions.  I also know that teaching and learning do not exist in isolation. 

Children have peers and parents.  Teachers have time limits and families and lives outside the classroom.  Parents have prejudices and want what they perceive as best for their children more than they want what is best for a class or a school or school board.  Administrators want to go home in time for dinner and leave behind the bellyful of complaints, justified or unjustified.  Trustees want to do what’s right but they also want to be re-elected.  And I haven’t mentioned money, yet.  Or any serious politics.  In all these push-me, pull-you wants and needs, it is sometimes so hard to remember that education is about educating all our children as successfully as possible.

New Brunswick, God bless it, remembered exactly that.  In this post and posts to come, you may feel that they made mistakes, but they had their eye on the ball.  They were intent on providing an effective education in FSL to all the Anglophone students in the province and intent on doing it in a way that would be cost efficient.  Yes, it was about money, too.  You can’t be accountable to the public without accounting for the cost of the service you are providing.

Before the Reform of the FSL Program

            A bit of background:  New Brunswick has a population of under 800,000 people of whom 51% are urban dwellers and 49% are rural.  The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of education and rural populations is that very few children will be walking to school.  The second thing is that the elementary schools will be small and the secondary schools will draw from large geographical areas.  I’m not an expert, but I frequently drive through rural Ontario from Ottawa to Toronto and through rural Quebec from Ottawa to our cottage.  I see the schools and I see the buses.  At conferences, I talk to the teachers and hear how teaching in rural schools is different from the urban schools of my experience.

            New Brunswick is the province with the second highest proportion of rural population after Prince Edward Island.  I have cycled across PEI and I can vouch for the fact that nothing is very far from anything else in PEI.  The overall rural population in Canada amounts to roughly 20% and in Ontario it is 15%. 

            Educators in New Brunswick not only face unique demographic challenges but N.B.  has also declared itself a bilingual (French and English) province.  As a result, there is a political push to educate Anglophone children to functional fluency in French.

The three streams for FSL students in New Brunswick were: Early French Immersion (starting in Grade 1), Late French Immersion and Core French.  Money was not evenly distributed among these programs: one year of Early Immersion cost 28.69% of funds spent on French as a Second Language in New Brunswick.  Students in EFI made up only 19% of students in the FSL program.  LFI took an even larger per capita chunk of the FSL budget; they constituted 7.7% of FSL students but used 16.6% of the FSL budget.  By now you will have figured out that 71.1% of the students, those in Core French, those with 93.2% of children with special education needs, those who could use some extra help, were allotted 54.75% of the total FSL budget for one year.

These three streams were not the only systems for learning French in New Brunswick.  The count came to 14 different variations of immersion or core.  This included a technique called AIM and one called Intensive French.  Many of these systems would require follow through in subsequent years, so you can imagine how expensive this could get.  Two streams starting in grade 1 and a third splitting the core stream in later elementary school is costly enough.

When the ministry of education for New Brunswick asked “how well are our FSL programs doing in teaching French?” they commissioned Dr. James Croll and Patricia Lee to answer that question by creating a report on the current conditions and making recommendations based on what they learned.    

The short answer to the ministry’s question was appalling.  Statistics were limited and only in recent years has the ministry begun to separate EFI stats from LFI.  Nevertheless, Croll and Lee did find appropriate statistics for the EFI students who started in Grade 1 in 1995 and would have been in Grade 12 in 2006. (Table 37)

Of the 1,469 Early French Immersion students who started in grade one in 1995, only 613 finished the program by going all the way to grade 12.  The standard expected for a student who had been in the immersion program for twelve years was New Brunswick’s oral proficiency of Advanced or above. Advanced is described as:

Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal, and in all informal conversations, on practical, social, and academic or work-related topics. Can describe in detail and narrate accurately. Can discuss abstract topics and ideas as well as events; can support opinions and hypothesize. Accent may be obvious but never interferes with understanding. Control of grammar is good and speech is fluent. Sporadic errors still occur, but they would not distract a native speaker or interfere with communication 

Of the 613 who did not drop out before grade 12, only 554 took the oral proficiency test.  Of those 554 students, 234, or less than 50% of them actually achieved the Advanced target level.  As low as this seems, if you consider dropouts as failing students and most school boards would consider students who dropped out before graduating, failures, then the failure rate is much, much higher. 

Similar results surfaced in the case of Late Immersion and Core French.  Although they were held to lower standards, those who did finish Grade Twelve French were as unlikely to meet their required standards.

Among the other questions the ministry asked itself was whether the standards were appropriate.  It’s a good question.  Why can’t students achieve a good level of oral French after 12 years of study, some of which were full days of French?  And why do so many drop out, no matter what the program?

The Croll Lee report makes good use of anecdotal reports as well.  A few things become clear in the anecdotes. French materials were in short supply throughout the province, presumably because the various programs, regardless of their quality, stretched the resources too thin.  Teachers of French were too often inadequate because either their French was too poor or because they had not been properly trained by the province’s education faculties.  Parents were placing their children in Immersion, especially EFI, not for educational reasons, but to keep their children out of the regular English program; that program had 93.2% of children with special education needs.

If these issues sound familiar to readers of my blog, it is because I have referred to them in my other posts on French Immersion.  The difference is that this is the first ministry or school board I have found that has frankly taken their obligation to education seriously and faced the facts about what was going on in their classrooms.  FSL in New Brunswick sucked and they wanted to fix it for all the students.

As a quick summary, here is a chart of some salient points.  SEPs are the New Brunswick equivalent of Ontario’s IEPs.  In other words a child with an SEP is exceptional and will require some modification or accommodation to their school program.

Equity & FSL in New Brunswick

 

% Of FSL students

% Of FSL $

% Of students with SEPs

EFI

19%

28.69%

6.8%

LFI

7.7%

16.6%

Core

71.1%

54.75%

93.2%

 

In my next post on New Brunswick: listening to everyone, planning for change that works for the whole community.