Tag Archives: Intensive 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.

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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