Tag Archives: pedagogical

Getting Ready for the Teacher-Parent Interview: Part Two of Three


In vain we begged students and parents to focus on the learning skills and comments instead of the marks. Asking them to focus on the comments proved to be a mistake in some cases and here is why.


Teachers are asked to list the students’ strengths, weaknesses and next steps in the comments section, using verbs and adverbs from a number of suggested lists. They do not have to be used, but a teacher who does use them is less likely to be asked to redo a comment. It is accepted practice to write a generic remark for all the students and then individualize each one with appropriate adverbs and perhaps more personal next steps. Some teachers get very clever at writing the generic comment. The generic child in the report card program is called Casper. Here is an example of the generic comment: “Casper has demonstrated an understanding of the usefulness of titles and subtitles in anticipating the topics covered in difficult text. He has difficulty using context, the titles and other vocabulary to infer meaning for unknown words. He is encouraged to read more non-fiction and take time to reflect on difficult language.” In the first sentence, “thoroughly” can be inserted after demonstrated or “a thorough” can replace “a” to create an appropriate comment for a level 4 student. If Casper is having difficulty, then “not yet” can be inserted between “has” and “demonstrated” or more mildly “rarely” or “occasionally” might be inserted. The teacher might have written the second sentence because the majority of students were having the same problem and part of the solution might be encapsulated in the third sentence. Again, the second sentence might be modified by suggesting that Casper has “some difficulty” or “little difficulty” in which case he may be “encouraged to continue to read …” in the third sentence. The program will change Casper to the child’s name and put in the correct pronouns and modifiers. Occasionally it makes a mistake and when we don’t catch it in the proofreading, there is an indignant student.


You may be wondering about all the stuff about sub titles, context and inferring. These are some of the buzzwords in a new (and excellent) approach to teaching reading, called Balanced Literacy. The teacher is signaling to the principal or vice-principal who will be reading and signing her report cards that she is very much au courant with the latest and greatest trend in teaching to the extent of using it and evaluating it in her classroom. It’s also a signal to any parents who like to research the latest in teaching. Why would she bother? Teachers are under some pressure to be seen to be aware of and impressed by whatever the latest thing in education is. This is because principals are pressured to have the latest and best in their schools and so on. Sometimes it is sufficient to have the outward garb such as the Word Wall of Balanced Literacy and it is rather funny to see educators faking it. In the best schools, whatever comes across the teachers’ desks is evaluated for usefulness and integrated as appropriate. The report card comments may seem mechanical and awkward. They make anyone who likes good writing shudder, however parents were promised accountability and for some, that means report cards being the same while being individualized. There are times when doing a good job in education feels like being the old man and his donkey. Perhaps we listen too much to everyone’s opinion instead of trusting those experienced and well-educated professionals in the classrooms to pose the problems and propose the solutions. That’s a discussion for another day.

For More Information:

Getting Ready for the Teacher-Parent Interview: Part One of Three to understand how marks are derived. Getting Ready for the Teacher-Parent Interview: Part Three of Three to reflect on how each of the three parties involved can work on any issues brought up by the report card. R on the Report Card Does Not Mean F (Failure) to understand what an R on the report card means.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For further reading on these topics:

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


2. Studies Supporting Increased Academic Achievement, bibliography assembled by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages www.actfl.org/i4a/pages/Index.cfm?pageID=4525

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

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

2. The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

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




Does Choice in Education Divide our Children by Class?

            An opinion piece in Chatelaine by a young mother discussed choosing a good school for her child; she was talking about public school not a private, fee-charging school.  She acknowledged that the school board restricted children to their neighbourhood schools but she had found a loophole that would allow her to send her child to a better school – better as she defined it.  Better, by her definition was a school with 33% ESL students rather than 75% ESL (largely Chinese) students.  There was a spate of emails following the article from indignant women accusing her of racism, dotted with a few agreeing with her perspective. (School daze: The troublesome quest for the “better” school By Katrina Onstad  First published in Chatelaine’s April 2007 issue.

© Rogers Publishing Ltd.)

The truth is that the author is in the majority of parents in wanting to place her child in a school with a minimum of ESL and lower socio-economic status (formerly known as poor, now referred to as lower SES) students.  The difference between the author and her fellow parents is that she spoke her mind: middle and upper class parents feel entitled to have their children educated with their peers.  In order to do so, they study the rules of the game and find the loopholes.  There are three, but only two that are entirely in the parents’ hands.  The author planned to use the one of finding day care within the boundaries of the chosen school.  An expensive variation of this is either buying a small pied-a-terre or moving altogether into the right neighbourhood to provide the address in the school’s cachement area. Some neighbourhoods are actually overpriced because the popular opinion is that the local school is a good one.

 The second, where the program exists and the child qualifies, is placing the child in a class for the academically gifted.  This usually requires an intelligence level in the 98th percentile and high educational scores although the exact requirements may vary from school board to board.

The third is placing your child in French Immersion.  French Immersion is theoretically open and possible for every child but few ESL students end up in the program.  ESL stands for English as a Second Language; the Ontario Ministry of Education has changed that designation to ELL, English Language Learners.  This puzzles me as I thought all students are English language learners.  But I digress. The current belief is that ESL students will benefit from early French Immersion programs (programs staring in kindergarten or grade one) and this is supported to some extent by the literature. ESL students arriving in the middle or intermediate grades may have their hands full adjusting to a new country and new language.

Immersion is supposed to be accessible for students of all levels of ability, but the truth is that students with learning disabilities (students with learning disabilities have, by definition average to above average ability) or low ability usually find it too difficult and their parents are persuaded to move them into the regular English classes.  Teachers regularly recommend that some students not be placed in French Immersion because they can foresee the problems but the choice is the parents’.  Often a student having difficulty drops out to the English class later; he will be behind in English and, if he has a language disability, he is doubly hampered.  French Immersion may start out as a program for every child but it does not end up that way.  The result is a stream, as the author’s friend so aptly puts it, which is the equivalent of a private school in a public system and a stream for the rest of the world

That is not to say, however, that French Immersion is a better education.  First, there is always a shortage of materials in French.  Secondly, FI teachers are always the last to get workshops in the latest teaching techniques or ministry expectations, unless they attend them in English.

Thirdly, there is a shortage of French teachers due to French Immersion so non-native speakers are hired, often before completing their B. Ed.  They may have a good academic knowledge of French but their spoken French often lacks the idiom, accent and rhythms of any native speaker.  English teachers, on the other hand, often run the gauntlet of supply teaching for at least a year or longer before they are offered a job.  That is not to say that teachers in French Immersion are poorer – many are excellent – just that they are often hired untried, whereas most English teachers’ abilities are well known and tested before they are hired permanently.  At the end of the year when teachers may elect to change schools and programs, the list of open full time positions in our local board may run to about 80% French.  Sometimes, boards will put restrictions on teachers switching from French teaching positions to English because it is so difficult to fill the French positions.

Finally, students spend less time working on English language grammar, vocabulary, spelling and knowledge of literature.  In addition, there are some language transfers from French to English and a number from English to French.  These students do not have English teachers with particular training in identifying these transfers and correcting them.  They do, however, spend their day hanging out with middle and upper class children.

The regular English classes become the catchall for ESL students who did not enrol as primary students, students with learning disabilities, low ability, emotional problems, dislike of languages and low socio-economic status (poor).  By the intermediate years of grade seven and eight, these classes are more heavily weighted with children needing more attention at a time when they are least interested in school.  These classes are often large; one teacher reported a class of 34.  Teaching them is difficult and exhausting because of their varied needs.  Ordinary students slip between the cracks.

With good reason most administrations look the other way when it comes to regular English classes.  Should it be admitted that these classes are heavily loaded by students with extra educational needs, they would have to do something.  With a limited budget and the budget is admittedly limited it would mean, perhaps, cutting the French Immersion program and who wants to bell that political cat?  It would certainly mean insisting to their superiors that these children are underserved; if the truth was followed with an expectation of action, administrators at any level might find that there would be repercussions to their careers.

There is little political support for the students in the English classes.  Parents who have newly immigrated to this country and lower SES parents have less knowledge of how the system works and less political clout; unless a school board is more heavily swayed by what is pedagogically sound than what is politically expedient, these children will continue to wade in the leftovers from FI. Even under current circumstances of limited money, neither French Immersion nor the regular English stream are providing the best possible education for our students.

In the meantime we have effectively streamed our students according to class and then shut our eyes to it.  We have done what the Americans did through funding schools district by district, what the South Africans did by apartheid and what Britain did with its system of public (private) schools.  We have done it under the flag of biculturalism but with the covert intent of separating children from each other by class.  We know better and we should do better.

In other posts, I will address the question of the effectiveness of French Immersion in teaching French, whether it costs too much, what a program for gifted children should be and the politics of parents, teachers, school boards, children and public perception.  Your thoughts are welcome.

 As a postscript, I must commend our prime minister who sends his children to the local schools.  One of them is enrolled in a school I have heard referred to as an “inner city” school; parents have anxiously inquired if it was rough because it is a school of thoroughly mixed SES, races, faiths, cultures and abilities.  The answer is no.  It is a school where friendships are made across all these classes and violence is less than in some “better” schools.