Tag Archives: literacy skills

Struggling to Read with Comprehension

There are two kinds of people who decide to enter the teaching profession: those who were good at the game of school and those who weren’t.  Those who weren’t nurse a hope that one day they might make a difference to someone else who isn’t good at the game.

I was mainly the latter although I was pegged as someone who Could Do Better if only I worked/did my homework/ was motivated/ wasn’t so lazy.  I was very good at reading so as a teacher and even though I knew better, I never really got the concept that a child could read words with some fluency and yet haven’t a clue what they had just read.  Never, that is, until I started studying Chinese in September.

I am a motivated student, prepared to work hard.  Most days I spend between three-quarters of an hour and an hour and a half studying, using every tool that comes to hand in addition to doing the assigned homework.  I wasn’t able to start the course until a couple of weeks into it and it was another four weeks before the textbook and workbook were available.  I used Internet sites and my notes to study for the first couple of quizzes.  My wrists and thumbs hurt from writing characters in pencil on paper and on the pad on my computer.  I remember why written work was such hell for me in school.

My average is probably an A- or B+ in spite of those difficulties and I would be proud of myself except that I rarely understand the professor when she speaks to us in Chinese. I stumble over the simplest replies. I read sentences with the halting lack of expression of a very early reader and worst of all even if I had recognised every character with ease, I still wouldn’t have a clue what I had read.

In short I am that reader I didn’t understand: the one who can read the words without understanding the sentence.  I am beginning to understand how they can get by for so long and even do well in school!

For a start, textbooks and readers today are packed with full colour pictures, diagrams, maps, charts and other supplementary information about the topic at hand.  The non-reader can garner a lot of information from the visual aids on the page.  In fact, students are encouraged to do just that as part of their reading strategies; the illustrations provide a legitimate means of giving readers information about the topic and a chance to anticipate where the text is going.  The non-reader will rely heavily on the information, not just use it a supplement to the reading material.

Secondly, students are often tipped off by the phrasing of a question as to what answer is expected.   “Do you think Goldilocks should have gone into the cottage?” is a fairly clear indication that the questioner thinks not.  It is not easy to create a question to elicit answers that will indicate how well a student understood the story; that is an art in itself.  I have often spent time before class jotting down ideas for effective questions or rephrasing the ones I had.

These readers in difficulty are unlikely to volunteer answers unless they are sure their answer is correct.  While you don’t want to embarrass them, you do want to know how good their comprehension is and you do want to engage them in discussion.  A teacher who intermittently chooses volunteers and those sitting on their hands to answer will prepare all the students for being called on when they aren’t sure.  This will be especially true if the pattern is random so students will not be able to predict who is next. Following up an error with tactful questions to the student or the class as a whole can be the beginning of using mistakes as a learning experience.  Comments more widely directed such as “that’s a different way of looking at it.  How would you support this argument?” can help the class as a whole consider less conventional ideas instead of embarrassing the student who didn’t understand the work.

“Interesting thought, Jenny.  Can you tell us what made you think of that?” will work once the student is confident enough to think on her feet.  This gives her a chance to refer to the text (struggling readers don’t miss everything) or bring in other experiences or texts, strategies encouraged in all readers.

If the struggling reader avoids participating in discussions of stories and other texts, she has many ways of faking it on paper.  Many adults have told me that they just listened to class discussions and used the information as a basis for answering questions.  If the teacher uses multiple choice or fill in the blank type exercises, then the work has just got easier.  Usually a child who is paying attention can figure out which choices or words are the best candidates for right answer.  Then he makes a guess.  If there are, as usual, four choices and the student guesses wildly, he has a 25% chance of getting the answer right.  If he correctly narrows the answer down to three or two choices and then guesses, he improves his odds to 33% or 50%.  If he actually figures out a right answer or two, he may pass.

This all assumes he does not cheat or receive a little help from his friends.  It also assumes that he does not employ bafflegab in writing answers.  This is the fine art of confusing the reader with such convoluted language or grammar and oversized words that it is unclear what the writer intended to say.  A good dose of if-it-doesn’t-make-sense-then-the-answer-is-automatically-wrong usually cures it.  However most teachers do give the student the benefit of the doubt a time or two before lowering the boom.

In other words, the struggling reader can often do a good job of faking it, especially if he is reasonably bright.  When he declines to read in front of the class or stumbles on his words he will allow the world to assume that he is just shy.  He will announce that he hates reading and then no one will know for sure unless they explore in depth.

Why won’t the teacher be concerned?  If the child is generally well behaved, is scraping through in reading and passing in the other parts of Language Arts and the other subjects, that’s good enough.  Many teachers have the attitude that reading is not part of other subjects so don’t support weak students with new vocabulary or more sophisticated grammar in subjects like history or science.  They may believe that they need to accommodate the child in learning the material, not in means of learning the material.  What they forget is that reading and writing are fundamental to academic success.              The language and thought of each subject needs to be learned along with the subject matter itself.

In addition, the teacher will have a handful of students who are working below grade level and others who have been identified as needing support.  The teacher will have her hands full doing the paperwork for those students and planning for them as well as the normal workload for her class.  A brief interview with the parents of the struggling reader and a suggestion that they read with her at home may be all she has time for.  She could suggest educational and psychological testing but she knows that the child will be low on the list and children with more serious needs will regularly be popped in ahead of their student.  In the end the child would be placed in a regular classroom with support, where she is now.

A child whose timed reading comprehension is in the 7th percentile will not get help, in fact, no one will suggest testing if she has a C average (high level 2).  Most teachers will not even suspect that she is anything more than lazy or dislikes reading

So what are the struggling reader and I to do?  I know what I will do.  Classes have finished and I have my final exam on Saturday, December 18 from 7 p. m. to 10:00 p. m.  I am going to start by spending a chunk of my studying time listening to a pod cast teaching oral Chinese and practising saying the sentences I hear.  I will still spend time every day practising writing characters and listening to sounds and writing the characters, pinyin and tones I am hearing.  With luck and hard work, by the 18th I will be able to read a simple sentence of Chinese characters and understand the meaning at the same time.  If it gives me insights into how to help the struggling reader, I will let you know.

Rethinking “Education for All” Charts: Does Paperwork Improve Teaching?

Having just posted a number of charts based on Education for All, (See For Teachers: Some Charts Based on Education for All) I find myself appalled at the amount of paper work a teacher deals with. These charts add to the already increased load of paper a teacher might find herself dealing with in the course of the year.  If it improves learning in the classroom, I am all for it; the question is does it improve learning?

First let’s review some of the paper a teacher deals with in the course of a normal year:

1.     Set up marking records

2.     Collect tombstone data about students and pass on to the office, recording relevant information for own files beforehand.

3.     Reviewing students’ OSRs  (Ontario Student Records) for information about the children.

4.     Collect and record money – school fees, Scholastic books purchases, milk for lunch, hot dog day fundraisers, school field trips, photographs; it is expected that the teacher add up the money, record who paid what and record the amount of change, dollars, cheques & totals before submitting it to the office.  Often she is expected to hand it in to the office on a daily basis for safekeeping.

5.     Write a detailed description (after researching and reserving activities and possibly buses) to apply to take her class on a field trip.  Her principal and superintendent review this; if either of them wants a change, it must be rewritten and resubmitted.  This means that the teacher does every thing she can to speed the approval process along, as she is anxious to have approval quickly to retain her spot and bus.  Field trips include anything outside the school grounds which means that even a walk around the block must be written up and submitted for approval.

6.     Locate, price and write up an order sheet for textbooks for an application to the principal to purchase on the off chance the money is available.

7.     Record sufficient notes about behaviour and academic performance of each student in the class so she can support her comments in any interview with a parent.

8.     Write up her notes for the next day’s plans in a clear fashion with reference to textbooks etc. so a supply teacher can take over her class in event of illness or accident.

9.     Prepare materials for lesson plans manually in the event suitable textbooks are not available.

10.  Do attendance at least twice a day and see that it is sent down to the office.  No, students may not do the attendance.  A mistake can wreak havoc, either worrying a parent or not alerting the school & parents to a child’s absence.

11.  Notes from parents about children’s absences.

12.  Everyday memos from the board, the union, the parent council, colleagues and the school, catalogues and flyers end up in a teacher’s mail slot; some require action, some request help, some are merely informative.  I have a bumf file and put everything in it in case I need a memo later on.  At the end of the year, I can usually throw the whole lot in the recycling.  Still, some of them are important so each must be scanned and the key ones dealt with, responded to, pinned on the bulletin board, information provided, door decorated, children informed or taught, time allocated or lesson plans changed.

13.  Report cards are largely done on computers these days.  The programs change yearly or every two years, mainly in response to bugs in the previous programs, but each new version requires time spent learning.  In some schools, the teachers print them, in others it is done by the office personnel.

14.  Report cards – sign, fold, put in envelopes, give to children; Make sure all the comments sheet with parental signatures are collected from children the following week, then filed with a copy of report card in the OSRs – every term

15.  Write IEPs for every exceptional student in the class, copy filed in the OSR and a copy is sent to the parents – by the teacher, every term

16.  Record number of hours each child has spent in French class updated on a card in the OSR in June – by the homeroom teacher.

17.  Photographs of each child in the class stuck in place in the OSR and dated

18.  Tidy contents of OSR into a specific order in June

19.  If the students are in a class that is leaving the school in June, bundle the students’ OSRs according to which schools they will attend.

20.  Of course, teachers photocopy their own material, create or buy signs, posters and other decorations for the classroom.  If the equipment is available, they also laminate them.  If they are lucky, money is available for decorating the classroom.  Either way the classroom is empty when they arrive and they are expected to decorate it appropriately.

Now add the documentation from Education for All

So what is all that paperwork for?  The two main reasons are records and accountability.  When you think of it, they overlap in spots: report cards both record and account for student progress and marking records and teacher’s notes support the more formal report cards.  Even recording hours of French is necessary given the number of different programs.  It wouldn’t be sufficient to record the program as students frequently drop out into other programs. (See French as a Second Language is not Taught in a Vacuum; How Do We Teach All the Children?)  Recording hours of French is a form of accountability although it is not related to the teacher recording them.

The question is, how much paperwork is necessary to provide sufficient record keeping for the sake of accountability?  Just looking at the incomplete list above, you can imagine what proportion of a teacher’s time this requires.  Which of these activities would be better replaced with planning, helping children before and after class and assessing the students’ work?  I can list several items of which all or part are not directly related to teaching:  #2, 4, 6, 11, 13 to 20.  As you can see, much of it involves filing.

When I first started teaching, my principal believed that teachers should have goals for their students written down.  This only came out when some teachers were evaluated and expressed their indignation at what was an unusual expectation.  Most teachers have goals for their students tucked in the back of their mind, goals that change as the child changes, but few think of writing them down any more than they would write down the criteria that determine where they seat a child in the classroom.  Believe me, that can be a long list, including sight, hearing, behavioral and learning factors, friends, distracters, need for cues from the teacher and so on.

As a new teacher, I was also being evaluated, so I quickly jotted down my thoughts on my students and casually stuck the page behind the half a dozen pages that formed my notes supporting my plans for the day and week.  Naturally, when the principal went through my day plan, he found them and I earned brownie points.

The thing is that writing down my goals for my students hadn’t created them; they were there all along, otherwise I couldn’t have hastily written them down before the principal’s visit.   The most that writing them down had done for me (besides improving my evaluation) was to clarify them a little.  Within a week or two, the goals were no longer accurate because the child was changing, showing new strengths or weaknesses or I was gaining greater insights.

Where writing down observations and goals did help was when I had students whose difficulties seemed beyond help in my classroom.  Then, I worked to write them down accurately and clearly because I was going to turn to my colleagues or principal for help.  If they did not know the child, then I was going to be the sole source of information.  At that point, the information garnered through the Education for All Charts would be useful.  Virtually nothing is left out.

Is it necessary to fill out all the charts on literacy and numeracy for every child?  Most teachers are very aware of the basic academic and learning skills of each student in their class by the end of the first term and many have them pegged much earlier than that.  As long as each child is learning well and assessed accurately both formatively and summatively, is a learning profile worth the cost in time?

To explain:  formative assessment is evaluation used to figure out how much the student has understood.  This helps the teacher determine how to teach the next section; it also helps the student understand what needs reviewing.  Summative assessment is used for final evaluation i.e. marks.  In theory, these are separate assessments; in practice, they may cross over as when a teacher allows redoing assignments for mastery or when the most recent, highest marks in a unit are used for final assessment.

Returning to paperwork: time is most effectively spent on learning profiles when a student is struggling.  At that point, a thorough understanding of strengths and weaknesses will be an asset as a starting point in determining the next steps in helping the child.  Time spent observing, reflecting and writing down the points in each part of the learning profile may provide the basis for useful insights.

A learning profile as an aide memoire in preparation for report cards or a guide for planning units may also be helpful.  The danger is that principals who don’t trust their teachers to use their professional judgment may jump on the Education for All bandwagon and ask that all these forms be used.  It will look like accountability, but it will be no more accountability than asking teachers to sign time cards.

Am I saying teachers shouldn’t do any paperwork?  No.  I am saying that before teachers are asked to do any paperwork, the usefulness of the paperwork as records or a measure of accountability should be weighed against the usefulness of the teachers’ time spent teaching or planning or assessing or consulting with colleagues.

For More Information:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

For Teachers: Some Charts Based on “Education for All”

PART 4 of “Education for All”

A Guide to the Charts & Questionnaires Adapted from Education for All And Complementary to It

These charts and adapatations are free.  All I ask is that I be given credit for my work.  Feel free to modify to fit your needs.

There are a number of charts in this post.  They divide into the following categories:


Generic Skills Evaluation 23 kids

Generic Skills Evaluation 27 Kids

Generic Skills Evaluation 36 Kids

These are templates for listing student names and recording information on two categories.  If you have electronic copies you can enter the students’ names and will have a template you can reuse for other categories.  If you don’t have electronic copies, you will have to photocopy and enter the students’ names as well as the categories each time you use them.

I have created the templates for classes of 23, 27 and 36.  I hope no one has more than this number in their classes.  I have found that it is easier to collect information using the classroom seating plan as alphabetical lists slow me down.  However the template is useful in the absence of a seating plan or if you are marking a stack of assignments.


Writing individual learning profile template


Oral communication individual learning profile template


Individual Learning Profile Template Oral & Reading

Individual Learning Profile Template Writing & Math

Learning Skills per report card

Level Descriptors

Questionnaire for Parents of Elementary Students

Questionnaire for Elementary Students

These are as detailed as the charts in Education for All, except that I have shortened sentences and used abbreviations.  I imagine that for many of the categories you will end up putting a tick or a level, only writing a note where a child shows either difficulty or abilities that need recording.  I hope these will prove useful in writing report cards or IEPs.

The questionnaires are not professionally created.  The questionnaire for students is suitable for the older grades.  Teachers of primary grades will need to modify them considerably.  If you do not assign homework, you will need to cut out a lot of questions.  Feel free to modify for your class.  Please let me know how well they work and what difference your modifications have made.  Suggestions and comments are welcome.  Sharing your versions is even more welcome.

I am going to try to create a key, especially applying attribution theory AKA locus of control AKA who does a student attribute success or failure to.  That may take even longer but will probably be useful.  In the meantime, a quick skim of key answers will probably give you a reasonable picture.

Learning skills cover a wide range even within each of the nine parameters.  I have found it useful to reduce the range by combining some skills.  It still leaves a great deal to assess per child.  Some teachers meet this challenge by only evaluating a few skills a term.

I prefer to look at the not-satisfactory to excellent on the report card as the equivalent of ministry levels 1 to 4; the first day of school, I give all my students a level three – good – on the assumption that children whose learning skills are above or below ministry expectations will quickly catch my eye.  This works particularly well if I am using Excel to keep track.  Most days I have an observation to jot down beside at least one child’s name (a date stamp is useful here, especially if you are using the classroom plan). After a couple of months, I check for children who have no comments on my record.  I make it a point to monitor these children carefully because it is often the students we do not notice who slip between the cracks.

The disadvantage of this system is that in first term, some children may end up with higher marks in some learning skills than they normally would.  One or two may be miffed in the first term at not getting the excellent they got in the preceding year, but by and large the system works.


Socio Affective Classroom Profile Template

Classroom Profile Mathematics

Classroom Profile literacy

These are simply charts from Education for All to use the information from the children’s profiles to summarise in a class profile.



Identifying Writing Challenges & Stategies to Help



The idea here is to help you quickly identify the key problems a child is having and note how you intend to deal with them. Education for All in Chapter 8 has outlined a number of useful strategies and you probably have hundreds more up your sleeve. By circling the problems you have identified and jotting down strategies you are considering using, you have a record of what you identified and the strategies you have considered and used.

They should also be useful for creating an IEP and writing the child’s report card.


Learning Difficulties Tracking Chart (6 pages)

Learning Difficulties Tracking Sheet Shorter Version(4 pages)

One of the most difficult things in a very busy school year is keeping track of what happened when.  These sheets are intended to help you keep track of the in school and out of school team meetings that will occur in the process of getting a child identified as exceptional.  It is easy to forget to bring samples of a child’s work or remember the sample you brought last time or who promised to do what last time.

They will also remind you the things you need to do to be well prepared, so it can serve as a checklist, too. I have used the back of the envelope method but later on, I am not sure what my notes were referring to.  This way, the teacher can circle, cross out or write the minimum and stay focussed on the real job, the meetings and what is best for the students.

These sheets are intended to help the classroom teacher track what is happening.  They are intended to be a personal record.  If you think you may be expected to hand them in, then keep a second copy for your personal comments and questions and photocopy the official copy for your records, too.

There are two versions: the six page version and the short (4 page version).  Both are set up so you can print up one tier and the teacher’s reflections at a time.   They don’t run into each other.


You will need a profile for each child and one for the classroom no matter what.  There are two ways of storing them so they are close at hand.  One is a binder and the other is top of desk files.  I prefer the latter as I don’t like snapping binders open and shut.  I do like having this kind of information easily accessible for putting notes away and accessing it for the administrator who will inevitably have an urgent question in the middle of a class.  Ideally, each child will have their own file folder so you don’t get information mixed up; the folders will hold, at a minimum:

The child’s profile for each subject

The child’s questionnaire

The parent’s questionnaire

Dated samples of work as appropriate

I find it useful to dump any notes from home, notes on behaviour (good & bad) and anything else pertaining to the child as the term rolls on.  It is amazing how much you can forget over a couple of months.  Of course, if it becomes necessary, you will add Identifying (Subject) Challenges & Strategies to Help and Learning Difficulties Tracking Chart and anything else which will help you identify challenges and design strategies to meet them.

A folder for the class profile will also be needed and again any notes concerning the class as a whole can be popped in, too.  The class profile might prove helpful to a supply teacher, too.  Supply teachers often have some insightful things to say.

For More Information

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

What’s in “Education for All” Besides the Concept of Universal Design?

Part 3 of “Education for All”

Education for All was written by a collection of administrators and professors lightly seasoned with a teacher.  It is a collection of good ideas for clarifying the strengths and needs of students and working out ways to teach them well.  Making the best use of it will require taking time to read it carefully and make note of the most useful ideas.  Some teachers may find the ideas too time consuming.  Not every idea is practical in every classroom, especially if there is only one teacher, but in principle, the ideas are promising.  Here is a brief guide.

As I noted in a previous post, the writers failed to make their point about Universal Design but they did a nice job of demonstrating differentiation in the second chapter.  They go on to make lots of useful suggestions for basic approaches to teaching.  Unfortunately, as you will find throughout the book, the suggestions are general; to get something specific and especially concrete that can go from book to classroom, you will have to turn to other books.  Some are mentioned in the bibliography, but they are not distinguished from the purely academic.  This may seem a trivial point but for a teacher hoarding every minute, the time involved in sieving a bibliography for nuggets of usefulness can be too much.

The writers do refer to a great teaching method, but one I wouldn’t normally recommend for K to 6 students.  The Expert Panel calls it Problem Based Approach (p. 17).  They haven’t quite grasped the concept of Ill-Structured-Problem-Based Solving they are actually trying to describe.  It is effective but needs careful design, firmness and support in order to work.  There is a reason it started with Harvard and the innovative McMaster medical school and not in someone’s grade 4 class.

The chapter on Assessment and Evaluation of students with Special Education Needs is useful for both the new teacher who is unfamiliar with the steps required in getting help outside the classroom for students and any teacher who has been confused by the red tape involved.  I have tried to create some charts to help teachers track steps and required information, but referring to this section would also prove useful.  For the charts, please see the post EDUCATION FOR ALL:  Stuff to Help Teachers in the next post.

Developing Learning Profiles: Know your Students

There are lots more charts in the next chapter to help teachers develop learning profiles of their students and the classroom.  I have adapted them somewhat to make them easier to download and use.  In the next post I will explain and offer the charts.  The one thing the ministry does not provide but strongly suggests is questionnaires for parents and children.  These are things teachers have not been trained to create.  I am working on some and will make them available but I strongly suggest teachers sit down with their own divisions and create their own.  My designs might be useful as a starting or discussion point.  The parent questionnaires might stay the same for all grades but student questionnaires will need modification for most grades.  Students may need some explanations about the questionnaires; doing it as part of a unit on data gathering as an authentic activity to demonstrate real life applications might be an effective way of killing two birds with one stone..

And Then We Get to the Part about Teaching in the Inclusive Classroom

Education for All spends three chapters outlining potential challenges for students in acquiring literacy and numeracy skills and ways of anticipating those difficulties.  This is probably the most useful part of the book.    A chart identifies these challenges and strategies for meeting the challenges.  The suggestions are excellent but abstract; busy teachers need concrete suggestions that can be applied immediately.  On the other hand, it is a good starting point for thinking about meeting these challenges.

Teachers would undoubtedly have been grateful for a list of books which had concrete methods, blackline masters and even lesson plans relevant to specific grades and subjects which met Education for All’s criteria.  For example, I have found the following three books invaluable: When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12 by Kylene Beers; I Read It, But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani and Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom by Susan Winebrenner. In today’s inclusive classroom, I would add Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in the Regular Classroom, also by Susan Winebrenner.  I don’t know what books I would add for numeracy, but the teachers guides to many recent textbooks do offer excellent suggestions for accommodations.  These books, however, are favourites of this intermediate elementary teacher.  Primary teachers would have others.

Accommodations and Modifications: What’s the Difference?

A good explanation of the differences between accommodations and modifications and a detailed chart of many accommodations a teacher might make is provided in Chapter Nine.  A teacher might find it worthwhile to photocopy the chart and put it with the materials used to create lesson plans; it is a good general source of ideas.  A word of caution to teachers: if you are accommodating four students and modifying lessons for three more in addition to being a good (not a walk on water) teacher you may find yourself putting in extra hours every day.

You Say Syllabus, I Say Curriculum; Either Way There is a Lot of Work to Do!

For each subject, Ontario’s Ministry of Education sets out in broad strokes an outline of expected knowledge and skills outcomes.  They do not provide a detailed syllabus (or curriculum, depending on which side of the Atlantic you reside) with texts to use in order to reach those goals.  As a result, teachers end up reinventing the wheel.  In the primary and junior grades there are usually math texts with good to excellent teacher guides that the inexperienced teacher can follow.

The ministry is also creating Targeted Implementation and Planning Supports for Revised Mathematics (TIPS) that is available to grades 7 to 10 teacher at the moment. It is worth taking the time to figure out. The grade 7 and 8 teachers whose contracts are negotiated by the Elementary Teachers Federation will have to look under the Secondary section of the Education web site.  Nothing similar has been done for the elementary grades.

Aside from math, textbooks are rare in the primary and junior grades.  English textbooks don’t exist in grade 7 or 8.  It used to be that curriculum consultants created a model curriculum that reflected the goals of the ministry.  I still treasure my history binder from the board that I have interleaved with my notes, overheads and photocopied pictures.  However, budget cuts have put an end to curriculum consultants who have the time to do more than workshops on changes to the curriculum.

That being the case, the Ontario teacher is now expected to create the course that will result in the proposed outcomes, and the accommodations and modifications. At the same time she is dealing with more duties and has less help because there are fewer specialists such as teacher librarians.  Teachers in schools where there is another teacher with the same grade would be smart to team up with each other.  With careful co-operation, teachers may reduce their workload to half the planning, half the returning items to the literacy and numeracy resource room, half the time spent photocopying and a better chance of getting home in time for a game of Ultimate Frisbee or to chill with a good book.

Who Does the Work?

The principal is listed under people who will share responsibility with the teacher for inclusive education.  While a teacher may hope for the ideal principal on page 113, the reality is more likely to be a politician who has to watch her back; with tact and diplomacy teachers may get the facilitation needed to implement inclusive education. Principals who come close to that supportive, collegial ideal should be cherished. Teachers such as the Special Education teachers (the name changes regularly) who provide support in the classroom are not likely to be there for times other than language skills or math.  Classroom teachers might consider switching subjects (such as history, geography and science) which make use of literacy or numeracy skills occasionally with language arts or math time slots.  It would be an effective way to support these skills across the curriculum.

Notice that the principal shares responsibility and the special education teacher will provide support but the burden of work and responsibility rests on the shoulders of the classroom teacher.

Computer Assisted Technology

The document addresses computer assisted technology.  While it has useful things to say about it, the most important things are not said.  First, a child will frequently have to wait until the next school year to receive any technology he or she needs.   In the meantime it will be the parents and teacher who will be improvising and trying to keep the child’s spirits up.

Secondly, all technology requires a learning period; initially the student will learn quickly but then start to slow.  Although this is normal, it is discouraging; a student will get frustrated and want to quit.  The teacher should check to make sure everything is working properly and then work with the parents to encourage the student to keep going.  The assistive technology won’t prove really useful until it becomes a tool to do something else, not an end in itself. If you have read Outliers, you will know that mastery of any skill takes many hours of conscious practice.  Parents and teachers will have to resist pressure from the student to let them give up the new aid.  Things Take Time.

Tools for Implementing Inclusive Classrooms

It is fashionable in the educational world to talk about Professional Learning Communities and this document is not any different.  When I picked myself off the floor where I was rolling around laughing at the concept of having the time for a professional learning community, I indulged myself with the fantasy.  I think that the only thing better for a teacher than a professional learning community is personal time.  One of the difficulties (besides time) is that a professional community involving a principal who will eventually assess a teacher might inhibit frank discussions.  That being said, teachers who do have the time and opportunity for a real PLC should go for it.

The writers take five pages to suggest that Professional Development is a Good Thing.  All levels of education, including universities, should be involved and teachers should have plenty of opportunity to learn the skills needed for the inclusive classroom.  Unfortunately, they didn’t mention where the money is coming from.

Finally, the writers make 12 recommendations that should be read and considered by those who have the power to make them happen.  Parents should read them and trustees should read them and administrators should read them.  If inclusive education has any hope of working, these recommendations, practical professional development and, yes, professional learning communities need to happen.  Successful change does not happen by saying, “make it so”.

For More Information:

Education for All: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy and Numeracy Instruction for Students With Special Education Needs, Kindergarten to Grade 6, 2005

NEXT POST: Giftedness & Education for All August 21

FINAL POST: Help for Teachers: Charts taken from, modified and created from Education for All August 26

Time to Move On to Other Subjects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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