Monthly Archives: May 2009

Time to Move On to Other Subjects

            There is always something to say about teaching French as a Second Language in Canada, but I feel that I have said enough.  For now.  Many thanks to those of you who joined the discussion.

            At the moment I am embarked on a new topic in education; I am studying the 2005 document from the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, Education for All:The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and numeracy Instruction for Students with Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6.  It is taking me some time to plough through it.  I am looking at it as a teacher who might not only be expected to implement the document but look like she is implementing it.  There is an awful lot about tracking and questionnaires in Education for All so I have been copying, modifying and creating my own versions of the kinds of tracking charts and questionnaires that seem called for.  As I create them, I imagine myself as an elementary teacher doing her best to teach well and I try hard to think of ways to 1) make them work for the teacher and her students and 2) reduce the nuisance factor that so many new ideas have.

            This takes time, of course, and I will be willing to share my attempts with my readers and colleagues out there when I have finished.  I have also gone back to an old hobby of mine, studying the brain.  This sounds very impressive before I explain that I have done so little science that axons and dendrites were new concepts for me.  It’s going to take me a while to grasp how the electrics in the brain work.

            I am using a rather odd assortment of books to teach myself.  The key book is The Human Brain Coloring Book by M. C. Diamond, A. B. Scheibel and L. M. Elson.  This book has given me a whole new respect for colouring as a learning tool.  There are others in the series and trust me, they aren’t for children.  Check them out sometime.

            I am also using Netter’s Concise Neuroanatomy. I bought it because the pictures were beautiful but it’s also a second opinion when the colouring book isn’t clear.   Zen and the Brain by James Austin and Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens make up my little library of reference books on the brain.  The former I bought because Buddhism fascinates me and the latter because of my interest in consciousness.  As I read them, I come across references to the brain and I work through the colouring book until I have a better understanding.  Then I go back to the books.  I keep a notebook with blank and ruled pages to sketch my own drawings and diagrams, record and integrate notes from the books and jot down questions for later.

            So why am I telling you all this?  When I learn and when I teach I observe how I do it and what seems to work best.  It always informs my understanding of the research I read and often raises questions I don’t find direct answers to in the research.  That in turn gives me more ideas to try in the classroom or in my own learning.

            My initial degree was in English; as a lover of books it really didn’t seem necessary to study much beyond reviewing content.  I have rarely had courses since where it was necessary to actively learn content.  The truth is that the further we go in education, the more we specialise and the more we specialise, the greater ease we feel in the subjects we study.  We may have to work hard, but our engagement is such that the learning seems to come almost naturally.

            A few years after I started teaching, I was given a job that involved teaching math to two grade seven classes.  As I had forgotten my multiplication tables, I decided to take a grade thirteen reach-ahead summer course.  It ended up being a review of almost all the math I had ever learned. 

What I learned about being the dummy in the class was invaluable.  I knew I was smart enough to do it, but I didn’t have the tools; I struggled every day both with the homework and catching up.  When we worked in groups I realised that I was good at analyzing the problem and the other students were good at figuring out which formula to use.  I passed with 53% but I had learned a great deal about how it felt to struggle in math and what strategies would help struggling learners.  More teachers need to take a course or two outside their comfort zone in areas where they would have to struggle to learn.

Learning about the brain for me is more about memory and fitting together information than thinking. In studying the brain, I am doing the kind of learning I have always avoided: memorising facts.  By observing what works for me, maybe I will gain some insight into what might work for students.  The $64,000 word for it is metacognition.

But that’s not the only reason I’m studying the brain.  It seems to me that learning disabilities are caused by subtle insults to the brain and that the principles behind the techniques that help stroke victims could be applied to children and people with learning disabilities.  How much better would it be if we could cure rather than accommodate learning disabilities?  There is already some work being done in this area.  Norman Hoidge in the The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science refers to Barbara Arrowsmith and her school in Toronto.  It seems to me that her techniques resemble techniques used for rehabilitation for people with brain injuries.  It will be interesting to see what will come from further research into her techniques.

If my speculations are correct and her work bears it out, then our integrative approach to dealing with learning disabilities is exactly the wrong way to go about working with these children.  There are also other implications for teaching regular students; perhaps the repetition involved in teaching handwriting, math facts and memorising poetry does more than just teach those specific subjects.  It may be that we threw the baby out with the bathwater when we rejected rote work as not valuable educationally.

Finally, current research in mental illness indicates that some illnesses such as depression leave actual changes in the brain and brain chemistry.  That some illnesses do not appear until late adolescence or adulthood suggests that there is a trigger in the maturational process.  Is it the maturation of the brain or the body?  Is there some practice, such as yoga, meditation or the deliberate habit of kindness, which would inhibit some mental illnesses?  These are things worth reflection and research.

I doubt that I will ever have enough expertise in the brain to make a significant contribution to the field of understanding the brain.  On the other hand, in the age of specialists, it seems to me that there is a great need of generalists who poke around in a variety of areas looking for connections and patterns.  Perhaps I may be fortunate enough to make such a contribution or even persuade one of you to look beyond your field.

French as a Second Language is not Taught in a Vacuum; How Do We Teach All the Children?

I have spent a number of posts writing about the attempt of the New Brunswick Ministry of Education’s attempt to revise its FSL program because it mirrors situations in provinces and communities across Canada.   The situation there seemed to be typical not only of difficulties in FSL education across Canada but also typical of the way efforts to improve education are stymied by political haste and unwillingness to thoroughly understand the issue, typical of the insufficient or inadequate resources used to research every aspect of the problem and typical of the inflexibility in proposing solutions apparently set in stone.  Surely solutions require brainstorming for a time before an effective answer can be found.

            Let’s look at the problem New Brunswick really had:

  • Very few of the students were leaving high school with any kind of fluency in their second language, French.
  • The FSL teachers could not be guaranteed to be Francophone or of native-like quality in their French
  • If the FSL teacher’s French was excellent, his training in teaching L2 couldn’t be guaranteed to be sufficient.
  • Both the Early and Late French Immersion programs were losing large proportions of their students before the end of high school, thus making it unlikely that the bilingual goal of the programs would be achieved.
  • Some parents were placing their children in Immersion in order to ensure that their children were in a stream with few learning-disabled, immigrant or disruptive students. 
  • In spite of the politically correct statements about French Immersion being available to all children, the truth is that there was little support for children who flounder in the program for whatever reason.  If there are not enough bilingual teachers with appropriate training to teach French, it stands to reason that there would not be enough bilingual special education teachers.
  • Only 80% of children of the appropriate age live within 16 kilometres of a school offering EFI.  This means that one fifth of New Brunswick children entering first grade did not have the option of entering EFI.  I suspect most of those are in rural populations.

Unfortunately, almost everyone who took issue with the Croll/Lee report focussed on Early French Immersion; they saw it as an attack on Early Immersion. Although they fiercely criticised the report and many of those criticisms were warranted, they missed the kernel of the problem and not only proposed no solution but did not acknowledge that there was a problem.  Most critics were too busy marshalling their arguments for the reinstatement of the EFI to concern themselves with the whole picture.

So here is the problem: New Brunswick wants its Anglophone graduates to speak sufficient French to get by in a Francophone area.  At this moment very few are anywhere close to modest fluency, much less bilingualism at graduation.  N. B. can’t throw money at this problem to fix it. 

French Immersion is a pretty good system for teaching French when the students stay in it right through to Grade 12 and when the appropriate supports are provided.  Most students who start in FI, especially EFI, don’t stay the course. Of the kids eligible to start in EFI, 20% would have to travel over 16 k, making EFI an unlikely option.

There is strong evidence that the ministry has not been successful in training or finding enough near-native French speaking well-trained French teachers.  This is one of the reasons that support for children floundering in FI is not available.  It is also a factor frequently ignored by researchers, educators, parents and politicians.  Would it be better to have fewer and better French teachers?

The other problem with FI seems to be social; it may be due to inadequate support from the ministry or class perceptions of the parents.  Whatever the cause, students in difficulty in FI don’t stay in FI.  With that awareness, some parents won’t even put their kids in FI, some will be gently dissuaded by well-meaning teachers and other parents will have their children transferred to the Core French program when she starts to have difficulties.

Daily lessons don’t seem to be effective in teaching FSL; we don’t know why but it doesn’t work.  Students are usually bored and uninterested at best.  A program called Intensive French, requiring a one off year of differentiated programming shows promise on a number of levels.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  What solution will do the best job of teaching all of the children to speak sufficient French to order a meal, make an appointment with a doctor or ask for help in normal day to day life?  Of course, some of the children can go much farther than that so we want a program that will provide for them, too, if we can afford it; we have to remember, though, that some things don’t just cost money, they also cost opportunities for others.  This should be the bottom line for every ministry of education in the country and every Anglophone board of education in the country.

THE SOLUTION will require the wisdom of Solomon and parents who are willing to put other people’s children’s needs first.  It will require politicians who call it like it is and researchers who look beyond one narrow area of research.  It will require unions who will acknowledge that although their mandate is to protect jobs, they are teachers first and want what provides a good education for students.  We have the capacity to provide for the educational needs of our children but not the wants of all the stakeholders.  It is time for the adults to act like adults.

Talking to Everyone

         The Croll-Lee Report on FSL in New Brunswick has been justifiably criticised as sloppy and limited in its use of research on methods of teaching FSL.  Critics have also pointed out the inaccurate use of figures and tables provided by the New Brunswick Ministry of Education.  It was unfortunate that New Brunswick children were so ill served in what was a good cause and for which there was so much solid evidence available.

            Before I go further, I want to discuss academic research in the social sciences as it has some bearing on this issue. The social sciences such as education are seen as soft sciences because so little can be proved quantitatively.  By quantitative, I mean what can be measured and reproduced given the same situation.  For a start, it is impossible to have identical situations where people are concerned.  In education, no two teachers are alike and no two classes are alike.  No matter how carefully we select for similar age, gender, socio-economic status (i.e. are they upper, middle or lower class) race, faith and ability the classes may be similar but never the same. To do that we have also recognised our own bias, abandoning the myth that researchers operate objectively in studying their subjects     

For many people, this is a new way of looking at things.  Acknowledging bias in scientists, valuing description and narratives as part of the results of research? This is a different world from the expectation that numbers are the most precise way and therefore the best, least biased way of measuring the world around us.  We admit our bias and record it with the narrations or anecdotal evidence.  Sometimes, as action researchers, for example, teachers doing research as they work, the bias is very much a part of the research.  

Just as quantum physics discovered that under some circumstances observation changes what is observed, so too, observing in the social sciences changes what we observe.  I suspect quantum physics may have opened the quantitative thinking world to the potential of qualitative research.  This recognition and the awareness of bias have lead the researcher to include herself sometimes in the story of the research.

That being said, there were facts and figures that needed to be included in the Croll-Lee Report.  The commissioners did comment that little useful information was available.  This is not surprising.  Education ministries and school boards do not evaluate results for their programs as a rule.  They may do it as a spot check or because anecdotal evidence suggests it is necessary but rarely in an ongoing fashion.  Before we become too critical, we have to remember that many ministries across the country have been asked to cut the fat, the deadwood and all positions not relevant to teaching.  Researchers and analysts would be among the first to the guillotine.

A reporter in British Columbia, responding to the events in FSL education in New Brunswick asked the B.C. ministry of education how their French Immersion program was doing.

Asked for comparable B.C. figures [to those citing dropout numbers and numbers achieving ministry goals in N.B.], an Education Ministry spokesperson said the government does not have them. “We don’t track early immersion students through to Grade 12,” she said… “I guess tracking French students was something we’ve never done,” she said.

According to Education Ministry policy, the “major goal” for the French immersion program is for students to become bilingual. The ministry is not, however, checking to see how many students meet that goal.

         From Does Early French Immersion Work? In BC, high demand. BC hasn’t tracked costs or results, but New Brunswick is pulling the plug. By Andrew MacLeod
Published: April 10, 2008,

                  However, the dearth of statistical information should not have stopped the commissioners from making good use of what was available.  When I was tearing my hair out trying to get a handle on calculating statistics for a course on research design I took in graduate school, a colleague explained to me that I didn’t have to do my own statistics.  Many people hire a statistician to help them plan the taking of data and the analysis afterwards; studying stats was a good idea, as it would give me an understanding of what was involved.  It was sufficient that I understood the theory and the kinds of cases in which certain methods were used so I could work knowledgeably with the experts.

            Similarly, if time was limited or neither Lee nor Croll were adept at number crunching, they should have employed someone to do it for them.  The sad fact is that the few errors I reviewed with the aid of my own number cruncher may have given them the wrong numbers, but if they had done them the right way, they would have had almost as effective evidence for the points they were trying to make.

            Another unfortunate error was the lack of explanation of research results into the three major teaching methods they were discussing.  Croll and Lee did not need specific expertise in this area; if expertise were needed in all the topics they covered in their review and recommendations, they would have needed experts in teaching FSL, learning disabilities (especially language related ones), school organisation and management, rural and urban schools, language development and teaching L1.  That would have just been the beginning. 

            The purpose in doing graduate work in a subject is to learn to do original research, think logically knowing your own bias and add to the body of knowledge. Most importantly, the student develops expertise to be shared with other people so they don’t have to spend inordinate amounts of time doing their own research or guessing wildly. The student also acquires the skill to read work in other disciplines with a critical eye.

The academic information was available and I have reviewed it in my last post.  With the tools at their disposal, they should have been able to do a more thorough and clearer job.  Dr. Croll taught at the University of New Brunswick, which had a Faculty of Education and housed the Second Language Research Institute of Canada (L2RIC).  I am sure the latter would have been happy to provide appropriate information; they certainly were after the report was published.  In fact, Paula Kristmanson presented a paper on Intensive Core French (see April 19 post on 3 options for FSL delivery) at the fourth International Symposium on Bilingualism in 2003.  She was then at UNB and is now at L2RIC.

If time had been a problem, they should have asked for more time.  If they had a proposal but needed to review it with others who had more specific expertise, then they should have asked for time to do that.  In other words, they did not have to be experts, they only needed to know when to consult them.

What did the commissioners get right?  They did their best to make sure everyone was heard.  I know that one complaint was that there wasn’t enough time for everyone to be heard.  I also know that many people pass the large signs in their neighborhoods announcing an application to deviate from the local bylaw in a building application and neglect to stop and read the details.  They are often the first people to complain when application is approved, the building is built, the tenants move in and they discover the deviation is going to affect their property.  I read through the lists of organisations that were contacted and asked for input; if their members were contacted then, as far as I can tell, every avenue was used to communicate with stakeholders.

The anecdotal evidence the commissioners provide in their report made it clear that there was general and considerable discontent with the way FSL worked in New Brunswick.  The issues were not the small irritants of school life; they concerned quality of teaching, availability of resources and equity issues.  This was not a problem of a few rotten trees, it was a tangled forest of education where flowers bloomed in a few clearings and much of the undergrowth in the rest was so thick it made progress difficult.  The department of education and Croll and Lee were trying to see the forest.  That they botched it is regrettable.

For some interesting criticisms of the report go to     The author does not give sources for many of his facts and he doesn’t state his credentials for weighing the arguments given by the ministry.  However, some of his points are solid.  One of the best points he makes is that Croll and Lee recommend starting the FSL program in Grade 5 with Intensive French.  He correctly points out that programs where Intensive French has been used at that age have had students who have already had several years of French. 

What the commissioners proposed was to start the students study of FSL with Intensive French.  This was not something that had been studied although Intensive French and Intensive English at this age had proved successful with learners who had some of the L2.  By some I mean a little. Starting L2 learning with IF is an idea that needs to be thrashed out with second language teachers and especially those with experience in Intensive French.

The blogger above inadvertently makes a point on behalf of the ministry when he demonstrates that 20% of New Brunswick students, who are the right age for Early French Immersion, live too far away from an EFI program to make it practical.  You will remember from an earlier post that just under 50% of N.B.’s population is rural; one could infer that most of the students who are too far away from EFI are part of that rural population.  Perhaps the ministry was aware that two French streams were de facto discriminating against rural students.

The obvious solution to this is to put French Immersion into all schools, but to advocate that is to forget the enormous costs of two streams in five grade schools of 100 to 200 students. 

In the end the Croll/Lee report was a disaster because it was intended to correct a number of problems but due to its sloppiness created a political whirlwind which destroyed any chance of seriously reforming FSL in New Brunswick.  It became a rallying point for the middle class to push French Immersion rather than a place to start discussions concerning the most effective way to teach French to children.


Does Early French Immersion Work? In BC, high demand. BC hasn’t tracked costs or results, but New Brunswick is pulling the plug. By Andrew MacLeod
Published: April 10, 2008,