I Am In The Current  ~  The stream is digital.

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


Language Learners in French Immersion

November 1, 2013 · No Comments · French Immersion

Kids in stairs“How proficient are our learners?” That was the question and I wasn’t sure how to answer it. At first it seemed necessary to gain clarity, so I asked: “Are you wondering about their ability to communicate in French?” “Yeah.” An expression popped into my head from an article I had recently read- “speak immersion”. I explained that our division had a K-8 assessment tool to determine students’ ability to communicate in French and that teachers were assessing students three times a year to support the reporting process. In the end, I shared that the data was available. During the conversation, my mind couldn’t help to wander to the article I had read recently by Sylvie Roy named: Qui décide du meilleur français?, published in 2012.

The article is worth reading as a whole but here are some of the major ideas that seem most relevant when thinking about French Immersion (FI) students’ ability to communicate orally:

  • students are satisfied by their successes in French but never feel that they speak French proficiently
  • in Ontario, students didn’t have the appropriate sociolinguistic competence to engage in natural interactions in French
  • students in FI are constantly trying to access a high-level of language proficiency, which is difficult to attain
  • after completing a FI program, students are often intimidation by other students’ oral French competency
  • In the article, Roy shares the that following applies for most students from student interviews:

  • are proud to have learned French and to be in FI
  • would like to practice and improve their ability to communicate in French
  • feel they don’t get the chance to practice because teachers are often the only ones to speak in class through direct instruction
  • feel uncomfortable to speak French in-front of others
  • fear speaking with a native French speaker
  • In Roy’s article, she relies on several sources and one research study from Ontario suggests that students need to be exposed to native French speakers’ variety of language. This exposure would allow them to increase their ability to communicate. Vivian Cook challenges students and teachers to view students as successful bilingual persons rather than failed native speakers. Fraser, in 2006, stated that regardless of any weaknesses, immersion is the solution to fulfilling Canadian bilingualism.

    In Saskatchewan, our curriculum is framed by the principles of French Immersion. They state that students learn the language best when it is considered to be a communication tool that is frequently used in interactive situations, in frequent contact with the francophone world and when students are exposed to excellent language models among others.

    In the end, this conversation and research is only the surface of a much larger conversation. I am left wondering what is the level of proficiency, self-identification and level of satisfaction of our students during and after their French Immersion experience?

    Photo credit: Clipart


    When Should I Be Concerned?

    October 2, 2013 · No Comments · Boys, French Immersion, Personal Reading, Professional Development Online Resources

    I was working in one of our French Immersion (FI) schools this week supporting a teacher who had concerns about one of her students. The student was a boy and was struggling to develop competence in oral French communication skills and struggled with reading. These two struggles combined were not surprising to me as with the natural process by which people acquire language, a problem speaking would almost surely lead to a problem reading.

    I have heard similar concerns before, from different teachers, in different schools, at different grade-levels. Teachers look at key components of their instructional program to determine whether or not students are successful. When students begin to develop delays that seem to be significant in several areas such as expressive language and the ability to read, their teachers become uneasy. Teachers begin to wonder if FI is a the “right” program for the student.

    After talking about the student with the classroom teacher, and having a follow-up conversation with the classroom teacher and the school teacher-librarian, I wanted to reread Fred Genesee’s 2007 article Literacy Outcomes in French Immersion (http://literacyencyclopedia.ca/index.php?fa=items.show&topicId=27). In the article, Genessee explores 5 research questions about FI literacy outcomes and quotes an extensive list of research articles to support his position.

    From the research, he determines that immersion students achieved the same levels of competence in English reading as similar students in English schools. His own personal research (although dated) found that immersion students with below average levels of academic ability demonstrated the same ability as similar students in English programs. Recent studies support that these findings are still accurate regardless of the significant changes in immersion programming and the student who are enrolled in the program. Towards the end of the article, he determines that decoding skills are fundamentally the same in FI as with the student’s first language, there are strong links between reading profiles and reading components in a first and second language and the reading profiles of poor readers tend to be the same in their first and second language.

    This article didn’t offer any research-based advice on which interventions would be effective supporting students with difficulties learning to read. In the past, it was not uncommon for students who left the program to do so because of difficulties in learning to read in French. We still struggle to know which students would benefit from staying in the program if given additional supports in reading and which would make the most significant impact.

    Ultimately, we know that learning an additional language is demanding and creates significant cognitive strain for learners. I was very pleased to see this embedded in the critical learnings of our new provincial curricula for Kindergarten to grade 2. Genessee’s article underlines the fact that individual students’ ability to cope with learning challenges could be a significant reason why students choose to leave or stay in FI. In my past experiences, perseverance in learning plays a significant role in student success in FI.

    In the end, after reviewing the research and thinking about this week’s conversations, there is no easy answer for the teacher, the student or the parent. When a student struggles in FI there are many difficult conversations to be had. Ultimately, if the student is to continue in the program, perseverance is needed from all to overcome the difficulties and to allow the student to build confidence in themselves, competence in the language and the belief that they can successfully learn another language. In my humble opinion, and drawing from Genessee’s research, what is needed most is for a student to develop a positive attitude as a reader, to rapidly acquire reading decoding skills and to believe that they can be successful in school. That’s why it was logical for me to have a conversation with the classroom teacher and the school’s teacher librarian to ensure that this students finds high-interest reading materials as quickly as possible and that he refreshes these as necessary.