I Am In The Current  ~  The stream is digital.

Long Term Language Difficulties for Immersion Learners

May 23, 2014 · No Comments · Cognitive Load Theory, French Immersion, Language Difficulties

Students who acquire a new language in an immersion program are engaging in an extremely challenging task. Their ability to accurately and effectively learn the target language is dependent on many factors, of which, the quality of the instruction, the range of the classroom and instruction discourse as well as the effectiveness of the feedback for learning are most significant.
Without these, persistent and long-term problems develop in students’ language use patterns.

In his 2007 book Learning and Teaching Languages Through Content, Roy Lyster warns that incidental attention drawn to language during the instruction of subject areas is insufficient and may even mislead student learners. He states on page 29:

“without having their attention drawn more systematically to the target language, the cognitive predispositions of second language learners interact with classroom input in ways that restrict the incidental assimilation of specific target features and grammatical subsystems, such as verbs, pronouns, and gender in the case of French immersion students.”

In French Second Language classrooms, According to Brigitte Harley’s research (1993), an explicit focus needs to be drawn on:
• Unexpected and non-obvious features that differ from students’ first language
• Irregular and infrequent features in the second language input
• Features that do not carry a heavy communicative load

Lyster explains that using Harley’s research explains persistent difficulties experienced by French Immersion students, specifically: verbal systems, pronominal reference and gender attributions. These difficulties, he explains, are due to incongruence with students’ first language, lack of prominence in instructional discourse and redundancy in communicative interactions.
Of significant note for teachers, students eliminate language forms that they perceive to be redundant which explains why immersion students prefer perfective verb forms, singular forms of pronouns and masculine gender forms. Immersion teachers therefore need to create opportunities, explicitly model, and offer useful feedback for immersion students so that they may build a clear understanding of the form and function of these language features. Other researchers have affirmed the belief that target language features that create a misleading similarity between the first and second language should be explicitly taught to students because these students demonstrate long-term difficulty acquiring these through communicative interactions and that these are most often infrequent in classroom discourse.


Building a French Immersion Vision Statement

May 19, 2014 · No Comments · Fred Genesee, French Immersion, Roy Lyster, Strategic Committee

This year, Saskatoon Public Schools has struck a strategic committee to review its highly successful French Immersion (FI) program after 30+ years of instruction. The committee includes diverse voices from throughout the program from K-12 including classroom teachers, a Teacher Librarian, a Resource Teacher, schools administrators, the French Immersion Instructional Consultant, a Coordinator of Curriculum and Instruction and is chaired by a superintendent of Education. One of the first tasks taken on by the committee has been drafting a vision statement for Saskatoon Public School’s French Immersion program.

While drafting the vision statement, several pertinent questions were uncovered by members of the committee. These questions lead to rich discussion and were not easily answered. Some of the most challenging questions were:
• What is the goal of a FI program?
• What does a FI program consistently accomplish?

One of the most immediate answers to the question of the goal of a FI program was to achieve bilingualism. Members of the committee debated the definition of bilingualism in Canada, Saskatchewan and in Saskatoon and the level of proficiency of French Immersion graduates. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines bilingual as: 1. having or expressed in two languages 2. Using or able to use two languages especially with equal fluency. The discussion continued to explore bilingualism until a group analysis of our past and present students was initiated by this question:
• Who were the historical FI students and who are the current students enrolled in French Immersion?

This last question was particularly interesting because historically FI students in Saskatoon were children born to families who spoke English exclusively. Currently, it is not uncommon to have a significant percentage of students in a FI classroom who speak more than one language. The goal of bilingualism doesn’t seem to accurately represent these students although they are enrolled in FI to learn French. Our committee started to explore the possibility of referring to students as language learners who are working towards the goal of being able to read, write and speak French, but to which extent?

I shared one of most recent pieces of research I had read on the subject of bilingualism to support the committee with the task of expanding the wording of the vision statement. Roy Lyster in his 2007 publication Learning and Teaching Languages Through Content – A counterbalanced approach quotes (Day & Shapson 1996:91) on page 22 stating: ”Functional bilingualism”-is a vague and relative notion and can mean anything from the ability to understand and make oneself understood and get by in everyday social situations to the ability to function like a well-educated native-speaker in demanding social and professional settings”. The members of the committee shared the same opinion that bilingualism seemed vague and was interpreted differently by all members of the committee. To counter this vagueness, Lyster later quotes Fred Genesee on the same page refining that bilingual competence is: ”the ability to use the target languages effectively and appropriately for authentic personal, education, social, and/or work-related purposes.” Because of the complexity of the program and the task of creating an all-encompassing vision statement, the committee concluded the meeting making a commitment to continue to reflect on the terms and language of the vision statement.

During our next meeting, we will continue our work drafting and committing to a vision statement that encompasses the unique elements of our K-12 French Immersion program and the diverse language learners it serves.

Lyster, R. (2007). Learning and Teaching Languages Through Content: A Counterbalanced Approach. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


Language Retraining for French Teachers

March 18, 2014 · No Comments · Core French, French Immersion, Online Resources, Professional Development Reading

Teacher and Apple

Teaching a second language in a minority context is a challenging task. The classroom teachers’ level of language proficiency is paramount since learners are often exposed to a limited number of language models and their ability to learn and acquire the language accurately is dependent on the quality of the language presented by the teacher. Those who speak multiple languages are often aware that the general improvement and maintenance of language skills is an unending process.

In 1995, the American Association of Teachers of French published Susan Colville-Hall’s article Regaining Language Loss: An Immersion Experience for French Language Teachers (See The French Review, Vol. 68 No. 6 (May, 1995) pp. 990-1002 also available from Jstor.org). The author explores language loss and states that it may stem from the following:
• Absence from the language classroom;
• Teaching another subject area or language;
• Teaching at a beginning or introductory level without the opportunity to fully use or interact with the language;
• Lack of experience travelling to a region where target language immersion is possible.

Teachers who experience language loss or feel that they have not acquired a suitable level of language, are at risk of experiencing low levels of professional confidence and may experience a decrease in enthusiasm for the job, according to Colville-Hall. These teachers may experience the following:
• Have inadequate preparation in the functional use of language (studying in a majority language context);
• Lack practical, functional vocabulary;
• Struggle to meet expectations to conduct class in target language and to interact with colleagues of higher language or native speakers;
• Experience varying levels of language attrition patterns depending on their ability. (The ability to speak a language is rapidly impacted by limited use whereas listening and skills related to auditory comprehension are not.)

Colville-Hall indicates that the last language learned is the first to be forgotten, especially when it is used in isolation and for limited amounts of time. Of significance, the level of language acquired during learning determines how easily it will be lost. The incomplete mastery of language structure or skills are most easily lost or forgotten- even by language teachers.

According to the research, teachers who themselves decide to retrain in language often experience unintended positive consequences. Those who do retrain report the following:
• Experience more resilient language gains that are less vulnerable to attrition;
• Often apply additional effort to maintain their language skills and are successful in doing so;
• Reacquire lost language skills or improve base skills thanks to language training exposure or doses of language immersion.

According to Colville-Hall, the intensity of the immersion experience is stressed to be as significant as the longevity. Nevertheless, short immersion exposure allows for rapid language recovery of a teacher’s original language competence.

In Colville-Hall’s research findings, language retraining results in the following:
• Increases the language proficiency of teachers;
• Exposes teachers to effective techniques for more effective use of culturally authentic materials;
• Creates a sense of capability to adapt diverse language instruction tools for personal teaching use;
• Demonstrates a positive attitude towards maintaining language proficiency.


February 24, 2014 · No Comments · French Immersion, Professional Development Reading

Clip art - Man and kidsAs a division, Saskatoon Public Schools believes that all students can achieve, given enough time and the appropriate supports. We strive to create a love of reading and to grow a culture of literacy in all our students. We are left with the following question: what are the research-proven supports that ensure that all students achieve in French Immersion?

In my previous post, I reviewed highlights from Fred Genessee’s research and 2013 presentation at the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers’ National Conference in Calgary. The information strongly supported the early identification of and activation of early interventions for at-risk readers in French Immersion. You may want to read the first entry here: http://tinyurl.com/stsii

In this post, I would like to continue exploring these topics but expand the research base. The April 2009 What Works? Research into Practice article from the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat of the Government of Ontario entitled Early Identification and Intervention for At-Risk Readers in French Immersion asks: How can early French Immersion teachers prevent struggling readers from experiencing persistent reading problems?

The Ontario research article emphasizes that learner confidence is key in taking risks and that ultimately that success begets success. Struggling students lack the confidence to overcome their difficulties and need support to be successful. Reading difficulties are said to be the most important factor influencing student transfer out of French Immersion. Students who do struggle in reading will most often transfer from French Immersion prior to the end of grade 3. Historically, assessments for potential reading problems occur late, often once students have acquired listening and speaking skills in French. Researchers refer to this as a wait to fail approach.

“[T]he more frustration these children experience, the more disinterested they become in reading.” (Wise N., Chen X., 2009)

In contrast to this past practice, Wise and Chen, researchers from OISE/University of Toronto suggest a new approach. Students should be given a phonological awareness test, which will help predict future reading ability. The challenge in administering a phonological test to French Immersion students is that they do not yet have the language ability to complete the assessment. Wise and Chen assert that an English phonological awareness test will identify potential weak readers in French and in English and should be administered at the beginning of the school year.

“Our young readers in French Immersion programs need early reading instruction as much as our young readers in English language programs.” (Wise N., Chen X., 2009)

As per the advice the researchers, once identified, interventions should be initiated while the gap in ability is small among students. Students identified will benefit from systematic and explicit phonological instruction and that a specific sequence should be taken:

  • Begin instruction at the word level and increase difficulty by targeting syllable and phoneme level
    • Increase awareness that:
    • sentences are made of words
    • words are made of a syllable or multiple syllables
    • syllables are made of phonemes
  • Target instruction on segmenting and blending to develop early reading skills

Improving our practice and process in supporting at-risk readers in French Immersion will decrease the gap between strong and weak students and will ultimately lead to the increase in the proportion of bilingual secondary school graduate—the goals of the federal government’s Action Plan for Official Languages.


Should They Stay In Immersion?

November 29, 2013 · No Comments · French Immersion, Professional Development Reading

Should They StayToday I saw an old friend from my days at Lakeview who used to support struggling learners in a specialized capacity. She was in the new staff development office taking a quick peek. In discussion, she shared her recent experience supporting a new colleague in the division who would be working in her past capacity. The new employee was unsure of what to recommend for programming when students struggled as French Immersion learners. During our conversation, we discussed academic programming needs, specifically in French Immersion, for students who are considered at-risk. It was a great conversation and it just so happened to be the theme of Fred Genesee’s presentation at the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers national conference in Calgary this past October. Fred is a professor at McGill University and the author of such recent publications as Literacy Instruction for English Learners.

From my presentation notes and my recollections of the conversation I wanted to create a brief questionnaire to test our assumptions of the academic programming needs of at-risk French Immersion students. For the sake of the questionnaire, assume you hold a specific role such as a classroom teacher, resource teacher, or a principal. You need to offer a suggestion about whether the given student should or should not continue in a French Immersion program. Please keep track of your responses so that you may review them later.

• A student with a disadvantaged socio-economic background Yes or No
• A student with a low academic ability Yes or No
• A student who is at-risk for language impairment Yes or No
• A student with a language impairment Yes or No
• A student with a reading impairment Yes or No

During his presentation, Genesee showcased a large body of evidence, from a range of research, including his own. He offered his answers to the above-listed questions. In his opinion, drawing from research, it turns out that the answer to each of the questions could be yes. He did caution that all children are different and each child’s performance should be considered individually.

According to Genesee, there is no evidence that students at-risk for academic performance are at greater risk in immersion than in English-only programs. Regardless of the measured impact of a disadvantaged socio-economic background or low academic ability, these Immersion students achieved as well as non-Immersion students in English-only programs. The same is true of students with language impairments- they learned within the limits of their impairments and in the end, because of their enrolment in French Immersion, they become bilingual.

If we believe that all students can learn given the right supports, and we know that to be successful, students with impairments need additional supports, then the focus needs to be on the quality of the support and how quickly it is applied. Genesee and others have stressed that the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome. Ultimately, waiting to apply supports intensifies the difficulties. He believes that at-risk students can become bilingual and achieve academic ability that is closely equivalent to their first language level within the impact of their learning challenge. This is a belief that I have heard challenged previously in my career and that for a long time I was unsure of. When offering suggestions to families about who should be in Immersion, the assumption that learning a second or an additional language is too great a challenge for some learners turns out to be false according to research.

Looking back on your answers, do your beliefs and answers match Genesee’s research summary?

Two books an interested person might read to find out more about this topic are:
Dual Language Development & Disorders by Paradis, Genesee and Crago
Struggling Learners & Language Immersion Education by Fortune and Menke