Category Archives: bilingualism

French Immersion: Is It Accessible to All Students?

2012_05_090007 One brain, two minds

2012_05_090007 One brain, two minds (Photo credit: Gwydion M. Williams)

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.

English: Chart showing rates of bilingualism i...

English: Chart showing rates of bilingualism in Canada, Quebec and the Rest of Canada 1941-2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Sackville EFI Protest

Sackville EFI Protest (Photo credit: Harold Jarche)

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:

English: Chart showing rate of enrollement in ...

English: Chart showing rate of enrollement in French Immersion Programs in Canada, less Quebec 1980-2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

enjoys books

imitates easily

has a good memory

is confident

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:

English: Political cartoon. Title: "The n...

English: Political cartoon. Title: “The next favor. ‘A flag to suit the minority.'” French tricolor is given greater prominence than the Union Jack, and the maple leaf is surrounded by two fleurs-de-lis… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 )                                                                                                          

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) 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) (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)

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


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.

English: Dialects of the french language in th...

English: Dialects of the french language in the world (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: "STOP/ARRÊT": bilingual sto...

English: “STOP/ARRÊT”: bilingual stop sign in Ottawa, Ontario (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Educational Reasons for French Immersion in Canada


            In previous posts I have talked about the importance of learning a second language and especially French for Canadians.  I have mused that French Immersion has created an upper and lower class in our schools and I have pointed out that in Ontario, at least, school boards do not have to account for the funds earmarked for French.  As the funds are paid on the basis of per child per hour studying French, this makes French Immersion a money earner for thrifty boards.

            Today I want to look at the educational reasons for French Immersion.  Normally one would think of the process of immersion as a thorough dunking of an object in something to the point of soaking it completely.  An immersed sponge would become saturated to the point of dripping.  Immersion language teaching varies from that kind of full soaking in a language, idiom and culture of the second language or L2 to daily L2 classes supplemented by daily classes in another subject but studied in the L2.  In the latter case, the student would be living and attending school in her first language, L1.

            There are two good justifications for immersion programs.  The first is the simple pedagogical principle that increased time on task increases proficiency.  Gretzky may have had talent but without the practice and lots of it, he still wouldn’t have been the Great Gretzky.  The second is that language is a tool for thinking and communication, learned more effectively when put in to practice.  Teacher talk calls this authentic learning.

            An example of full immersion would be the program that SEVEC (Society for Educational Visits and Exchanges in Canada) endeavours to provide free to young anglophones. Students spend a month in a francophone region, often billeted with a francophone family and study French intensively in the mornings.  Afternoons are devoted to activities in French.  Use of any other language is discouraged.

            Canadian French Immersion programs falls somewhere between the two points of SEVEC and one extra class taught in L2.  There are three entry points for students: early, kindergarten or grade one, middle, usually grade four and late, grade seven.  Students entering at the early point are taught in French 100% of the time for the first couple of years.  After that English is introduced and each year more of the program is taught in English until grade 5 or 6 when the program is taught half in English and half in French.           

The theory is that young children learn languages faster and more easily than their elders; there is some dispute about that which I will address it in a later post.  The children learn to read and write in French first because learning these skills at once in two languages would be confusing and difficult.  After they have mastered the basics in French, English is introduced at grade two or three.  Learning to read and write in English should not take as long as in French because the students have already grasped the basic skills of literacy.  For example, they know that letters make up words and words make up sentences and together they have meaning.

            In many boards three entry points have become too expensive as it requires four streams of French (including core French) so one entry point, middle immersion, is frequently dropped.  It is also the least popular so I will follow the lead of the school boards’ and drop it, too.  It shouldn’t affect this discussion.

            Students entering at the grade seven point will have 80% of their classes in French.  They will have mastered most of the major skills in English and an English class, which will often be about half the time of that of the regular English class, will maintain those skills.

            These students have been studying French throughout elementary school.  Although early French lessons focus on oral skills, the students will have a good foundation for immersion.  Just as the early entry students saw a crossover in skills from French to English, so these students will see a transfer in skills from English to French and back again.

            The Canadian French Immersion programs are often referred to separately in scholarly tomes and articles about L2 language learning.  There are certain basic principles that key Canadian scholars cite as being characteristic of FI:

Johnson and Swain (1997) summarize eight core features of immersion programs as follows:

1.     The L2 is a medium of instruction

2.     The immersion curriculum parallels the local L1 curriculum

3.     Overt support exists for the L1

4.     The program aims for additive bilingualism*

5.     Exposure to the L2 is largely confined to the classroom

6.     Students enter with similar (and limited) levels of L2 proficiency

7.     The teachers are bilingual

8.     The classroom culture is that of the local L1 community

Additive bilingualism means that the second language is learned without “cost to the first”.  This is claim I would like to take issue with in a later post.  The bilingualism of all the FI teachers is another.  I would agree that it is ideal; I doubt very strongly that every teacher in an FI classroom is bilingual in the sense of being equally fluent in both languages and with a native-like accent in French. 

This post has been a description of French Immersion in Ontario and the theory that supports it.  In my next post I will address the kinds of questions we need to answer before we can say that FI is a successful option for Canadian public school systems:  

Is French Immersion accessible to all students?  

Do students in the program have access to remediation or special education in the event of a learning disability?

Does current theory of L2 acquisition support FI?

Do the students who persist in the program to the end of grade twelve have substantially better French (ideally approaching a native like fluency and accuracy) than their peers who also persisted in studying French to the end of grade twelve?

Is the students’ English unaffected by the program?  

Has the quality of the core French program suffered due to the existence of FI through, for example, the thinning of French teachers or the paucity of materials?

If you have comments or corrections on this post or information that might help me answer the above questions, please contact me.  This blog is always about using facts and logic in the service of education.


For more information check the web site:

For detailed information about the programs across Canada see Statistics Canada’s French Immersion 30 Years Later at

Quoted in Cummins, Jim. Immersion Education for the Millennium: What We Have Learned from 30 Years of Research on Second Language Immersion.

Cummins, Jim. Immersion Education for the Millennium: What We Have Learned from 30 Years of Research on Second Language Immersion.

To refresh and familiarise myself with recent theories and practices in second language learning, I have relied on the three books listed below.  I found them invaluable in filling the gaps since the last time I studied and taught in the field and pulling together the other references I consulted:


Ellis, Rod.  The Study of Second Language Acquisition: second edition. 2008


Kumaravadivelu, B.  Understanding Language Teaching: From Method to Postmethod, 2006


McLaughlin, Barry.  Second-Language Acquisition in Childhood: Volume 2. School-Age Children Second Edition.  1985


Why Study a Second Language – and in Particular – Why Study French?

      For my American readers I should explain that I am a Canadian by adoption and especially proud of the bilingual, multicultural nature of our country.  I believe these facets have encouraged an attitude of tolerance and courtesy in Canada.  It isn’t perfect, but it is a heartening tendency in a world too often intolerant and xenophobic.  As a Canadian I do have a bias on this topic.

            First, as someone who will never be bilingual, but can read, write, listen and speak with modest success in my second language, French, I have observed, as others have, that speaking another language creates another mindset.  It is hard to explain to someone who is monolingual, but it is as if a lightly coloured cellophane overlay of another culture has been settled on your own personality.  Part of it is the style of the language, part the vocabulary, part the literature you read in acquiring the language and part a certain “je ne sais quoi”.  Seeing the world and engaging with it from another perspective is always an experience to be valued.

            The years when we were living in France the most bilingual of our children came to us and proposed that we speak French at home.  It opened a window into how immigrant parents in our country must feel as their children relinquish the language of their roots.  We were shocked by his dismissal of the language we loved.

Fortunately, we knew we were returning to Canada.  As a second language teacher, I knew the importance of maintaining the mother tongue as well; we pointed out to him that speaking English at home and French in school and the village gave him the advantage of knowing two languages. People who spoke two or three different languages peppered our village so our family was relatively normal for that small corner of France.  That was enough for him.

            French has allowed me more understanding of my fellow citizens in Quebec and the francophones of our other provinces.  The difference in vocabulary and accent between France and Quebec has given me more insight than any political writing about the relationship between these two francophone groups. 

            It has also given me a slight competitive edge when I was trying to find a job in a tight market.  Knowing our second language and being willing to use it was an asset.

            There are claims that learning a second language improves cognitive skills and not just verbal skills; there is some research to support the claim.  It is certainly true that learning a second language, particularly one from a similar language group, does expand vocabulary.  I suspect that when we ask our brains to take on a new direction and a challenging task and persist in it over a period of time, there are skills gained beside the obvious ones needed to go in the new direction.  Perhaps they are related to the ability to look at things differently, take risks and persist in spite of perceived failures.  Who knows?

            So a second language may enhance the learner’s cognitive skills in other areas, give them a competitive edge in the job market, give them insight into another’s perspectives and allow them to communicate with other human beings.  What’s not to like?

            The only question that remains for me is what is the most effective way to teach children French in English Canada?  I will address this in another post where I will start by addressing the question:  what do we hope to achieve by teaching French to our children?  What is our goal?  When they graduate with a high school certificate what do we expect them to be able to do in French?

            Let me know if you have answers or comments on those questions.


For further reading on these topics:

1. The Effect of Second Language Learning on Test Scores, Intelligence and Achievement: An Annotated Bibliography  Prepared By Elizabeth L. Webb, Program Specialist for Foreign Languages and International Education Georgia Department of Education

2. Studies Supporting Increased Academic Achievement, bibliography assembled by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages

Please note that the quality of the sources in these bibliographies may vary greatly.  Magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens and PTA are not peer reviewed, nor are the articles necessarily written by experts.  Most of the articles in the first bibliography are at least ten years old; that being said, some are by respected researchers in this field.

Finally, one has to question how researchers determined academic achievement or intelligence. It could simply mean that the students do better at taking tests.

2. The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

© Sheila Diane Scaiff and Teachers Outside the Box, 2008. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sheila Diane Scaiff and Teachers Outside the Box with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.