Category Archives: French Immersion

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, TheTyee.ca

                  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 http://educationinnb.wordpress.com/2008/05/27/a-response-to-minister-lamrocks-justifications-for-his-fsl-plan/#more-195.     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, TheTyee.ca

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

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 )                                                                                                                    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.

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: http://www.sevec.ca/main_e.asp

For detailed information about the programs across Canada see Statistics Canada’s French Immersion 30 Years Later at http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-004-x/200406/6923-eng.htm.

Quoted in Cummins, Jim. Immersion Education for the Millennium: What We Have Learned from 30 Years of Research on Second Language Immersion. http://www.iteachilearn.com/cummins/immersion2000.htm

Cummins, Jim. Immersion Education for the Millennium: What We Have Learned from 30 Years of Research on Second Language Immersion. http://www.iteachilearn.com/cummins/immersion2000.htm

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