Tag Archives: Core French

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.

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.

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

The New Brunswick Experience in Doing Right by All the Students

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

Thomas Huxley

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

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

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

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

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

Before the Reform of the FSL Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equity & FSL in New Brunswick


% Of FSL students

% Of FSL $

% Of students with SEPs













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




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