French Immersion

May 7, 2022

Novaread has been working with students with diverse learning needs for close to 40 years. This has provided the opportunity to experience many situations and something we see quite often is an English student who is enrolled in French Immersion or into what would be considered a fully French school. Given we work with children who are experiencing difficulty with developing fundamental literacy skills, this becomes more of a concern.

Unstable Foundations

We see students struggling with reading, writing, comprehension and math, while in French Immersion. Let’s look at literacy as an example. If you look at this post, you will see how literacy develops in a bit more detail than we will get into here. The short version of literacy development is that proficiency comes from a balanced set of skills functioning in unison after having been developed and honed through practice over time.

Some skills, such as certain parts of Phonological Awareness, are not language specific. The ability to sound out a word, create words that rhyme, isolate sounds within words, is not an English or French specific skill.

Once you move beyond skills that are at such a fundamental level you start to see more language specific areas of development, language as in English vs. French. You may have the phonemic awareness needed to sound out or take apart a word with four sounds in it, however knowing what to write when you hear those sounds in French, is going to be very different than if you hear those same sounds in English.

So once you arrive at the need to associate sounds to the letters you see or letters to the sounds you hear, you will have different associations across English and French. Again, if everything is moving along as it should then this is not an issue.

The other possibility is what we often see. Two, three, maybe more years go by with the student in French Immersion and not having the fundamentals required to make sense of or organize these two languages. This is what we were seeing when we started the intake process with the student in this profile. They were in grade 3, having spent grade primary, one, two and half of 3 in a classroom setting where she, “Had no idea what anyone was saying or what anything written on the walls or on paper said.”

3.5 years of schooling with no idea how to read or write in either English or French. The challenge at this point is you can’t easily remediate in two languages simultaneously. Luckily, as mentioned above, you are looking at one set of fundamentals, to a certain degree, that support both languages. That said, you need to remediate in the language the child is most familiar with. So for Anglophones that will be English. You begin at whatever point intake testing dictates and move up through the levels of development needed to be proficient with reading and writing in English. The work at early levels of a program will pay out in French as well but you aren’t building a student who is literate in French. If you want that, you will definitely need to repeat a percentage of the process following the same steps but with content intended for proficiency in French.

An analogy that seems to work well is picturing the building of a house. Preparation of the lot and the building of the foundation is quite similar regardless of the house that will follow. Language is like that. Phonological Awareness is like the site prep and foundation. It is more or less a structure that subsequent language development is built on. If that foundation is intact, the structure it supports will be stable. If it is not intact you will see problems. The house example begins to fail a bit at this point because French and English are two separate houses and you are, to some extent, trying to build them on one foundation. Doing so requires that foundation to be very strong. When it isn’t, you can’t organize the different languages and they become mixed together. Whatever struggles you were going to see in English, now appear more serious due to the lack of specific instruction in that language while simultaneously trying to acquire the new language.

To be very clear, French Immersion or French schooling will not create the problems we see. For English students they can, however, exacerbate existing problems and seriously delay the recognition of the need for intervention in students with language based learning disorders.

When families are interested in their children becoming proficient in French or being educated in French, we do everything we possibly can to position those students for success.