Puzzling Over French Immersion

This morning, I woke up to some brutal pregnancy-induced leg cramps. They are not one of the joys of pregnancy, and I find it difficult to fall asleep after having them.  So, I turned on Twitter to do some early morning reading.  I knew Doug Peterson would be up, tweeting out something interesting for me to read.  And sure enough I saw the following Tweet:

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I had read part of this Toronto Star article last week, but I stopped midway when I read that “French Immersion is considered something like a private system within the public system”.  This is a myth about French Immersion that drives me crazy.  I do not share the same belief.  It is a program choice that any parent should be able to choose for their child.  It is not only for the affluent.

However, this morning, prompted by the tweet, I read on.  The following are the important ideas that I gleamed from the article on the various responses by school boards about how to solve some of the issues that French Immersion programs are currently facing.

My beliefs about French Immersion are shaped by my experiences and I would like to share some of those as well.

1. Too many students.

I too am seeing places in my school board where English school populations are decreasing while French school populations are increasing.  Some FI schools are bulging at the seams.  Like the article, I’m seeing boundary changes and the headaches and heartaches that that causes as well.  More proactive, not reactive planning needs to be done.  But how?

2. Not enough qualified teachers.

I know from conversations that I’ve had with administrators that hiring qualified, fluent and proficient French speakers is also an issue.

This year, teacher education programs have moved from one to two years in Ontario.  I’m wondering if with this increase in time, there is also room for FSL candidates to work on improving their French skills?  I know there are exchange programs that can immerse teachers in French, but what can we do to encourage teachers to improve their French skills in their own local or school community?  I know that the learning coordinator for FSL in my board has started building bridges where this is concerned.

I went to teacher’s college in Ottawa.  I had an entry exam (which consisted of written and spoken answers) and based on the results, I had to take an additional French course that I had to pass by a certain percent twice in order to be given my teaching diploma.  It stressed me out.  But, I had to work hard and make intentional choices to improve my French.  I hired a tutor, I made most of my friendships with francophones, I read in French and listened to more French TV and radio than ever.  And it worked.

With the CEFR (Common European Framework – a rating system used in Europe that rates a person on their second language ability) at the center of our teaching and curriculum, could we not have teachers pass a test that would rate their level of French?

Can we expand our hiring to more francophone areas in Ontario, Quebec or even globally to recruit better French speakers?

How can we support and encourage these teachers in taking additional French courses through community colleges?  What about informal opportunities like creating a French “Improvisation night”, conversation spaces/buddies or other social opportunities for teachers?

My mom lived in Quebec until age 12 when she moved to London, Ontario.  Her French is still beautiful.  She maintains it by playing the card game “Bridge” with a French group and travels with some of the members now and then.  She is also learning how to speak Spanish at a community college with people in the same group.  Should teachers also have to do things to “maintain” their language abilities?

We need to find people that want to teach French that are passionate about learning language themselves.  I know it’s not easy, but I think we can do more to find them and train them.

3. Equal opportunities.

The article also mentions that “parents enroll their children in classes with few, if any, at-risk or special-needs students” by choosing FI schools.

I have heard this myth, and it’s also a mind frame that a few French Immersion teachers still have.  I would argue that this may have been the case fifteen years ago, when children with special needs at FI schools were told that because FI is a “specialized” program, that we did not have funding for Special Education.  However, this is not true today.  There are an increasing number of students attending FI schools that have various mental health issues, that are on the Autism spectrum or that have physical or learning disabilities that are finding success in French Immersion programs.  As such, teachers in French Immersion also differentiate, accommodate and modify their programming for children.  This has been a big shift in thinking.  Most French Second Language teachers operate with the belief that all students can learn a second language.

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4.  Caps on enrollment.

I don’t agree with caps on enrollment either.  It makes me sad to think of how many students are not being given the opportunity to learn this wonderful language.

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How can we rob them of this opportunity?

5. When to start FI and how much French?

In Ontario, each school board gets to decide when the student will begin in French Immersion.  In some boards, it is JK, SK, and/or Grade 1.  In others, such as New Brunswick, it is later on in Grade 4 or 5.  There are also “late entry” or “extended” programs starting in Grade 7 for instance.

The percentages of the amount of French instruction also varies from board to board.

In my school board, the child learns English 30% of the day and French 70% of the day from SK to Grade 8.  In other boards, they bump this percentage up to 100% in Grades 1-3.  I started my career in York Region, where JK/SK programs were offered in English, then students could start French Immersion in Grade 1.  I taught grade 1 for two years in a class where French was the language of instruction 100% of the time and it was amazing.  With French as my only concern, I was able to immerse students in the language.  By the holidays, students were understanding me and speaking relatively fluently and I could totally take credit for it.  It was empowering as a young teacher.

Now, my own kids are in a “French First Language” school board.  Again, in this school system, French is the language of instruction 100% of the time from JK to Grade 3.  In Grade 4, English is introduced daily for about 40 minutes per day.  My daughters both went into this school with very little French experience.  Their French abilities are amazing and what’s more is that without any “English” instruction, my daughter in Grade 3 is reading at a pretty exceptional level in English.  It makes you realize how much of the skill is independent of the actual language and more universal.

I really feel strongly that French Immersion schools should have 100% French in the early years.  It is our chance to build that French oral communication base that is the root of all the rest of the learning.

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Perhaps this should not be up to the individual school boards and should be researched more by the Ministry of Education and the best model should be consistent across Ontario?

So…

It truly is a puzzle.  All of the points above crossover and connect to each other.  For example, how do you insist on 100% French in Immersion in Grades 1-3 when you are finding it hard to find qualified and proficient French speakers?

Perhaps we need to get a bit more creative in solving these questions.

It’s not an easy problem, it’s complex, a puzzle really with lots of pieces.  And I don’t know what the magic solution is.  But I know that I have concerns with some of the solutions proposed by some of the boards in this article.

I have a lot of questions.  For instance, whose input are these boards taking into consideration?

I would love to know your experiences and thoughts on the points above too.  Please leave a comment in the area below.

2 Responses

  1. dougpete at |

    I’m glad to see that your “threat” to blog this morning came to fruition. I’m checking in this evening to see what answers you have to address this situation.

    “And I don’t know what the magic solution is”

    I don’t see the magic bullet here. (and I don’t have one in my mind either)

    Your community doesn’t seem to be checking in with solutions either.

    In a perfect world, the program should be available to any student who with their parents, have chosen to take the program. But, with the limitations, as you describe – too much demand, too few teachers – decisions about who gets in and who doesn’t can only lead to frustrations and bad feelings. Perhaps in that context, the term “private” isn’t necessarily incorrect. “Privileged”? “Lucky”? After all, there will be winners and losers.

    It seems to me that a solution can’t be found overnight. If the ability to go out and hire someone now to start tomorrow was possible, districts would be doing it.

    Perhaps that solution lies in school districts offering additional qualification courses in house with any teacher who wants, those who are low in seniority, or those who are struggling to get a position and are on the occasional teacher list. Make the program more attractive by waiving the tuition and tie a practicum to supporting current needs with an eye towards addressing future demand.

  2. Jen at |

    Thanks for the comment Doug. I especially liked the ideas in your last paragraph.

    I know a solution can’t be found overnight.

    I just feel like something has to be done differently so that there aren’t “winners and losers” or students who are more privileged than others because some have access to FI and others don’t. I know our board did a report on FI last year and have made goals for improvement based on the feedback of students, parents, admin and board data.

    That’s the best I can do as far as a reply goes for now (it’s just not my best time of day).

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