Curriculum, Diversity, Leadership

Multiple Pathways to Second Language Competence

Creating more opportunities for more students

Since the early 1970s, public schools in Anglophone boards across Canada have responded to the demand for programs leading to functional levels of bilingualism by, in large part, implementing variations of French Immersion, a program where non-French-speaking students learn through experiencing French as the language of instruction. Increasing numbers of parents continue to ask for access to French Immersion programs as a choice within public schooling.

Currently, approximately 10 percent of Canadian students are registered in French Immersion (FI).[i] However, over half of FI students leave the program before the end of Grade 12. Studies have demonstrated that some students find the program too confining or difficult as the school years progress, and some value the French they have learned but wish to pursue other interests.[ii] An additional 40 percent of Canadian students are registered in other forms of French as a Second Language (FSL) programs, with a wide range of program designs. We have little idea of the comparative effectiveness of any of these programs, and no information on other international language programs.

This article examines the situation regarding second-language programs in the Canadian school system today, questioning if our propensity to consider French Immersion as the only viable model is the most equitable approach to preparing the most students possible as global citizens equipped with second-language and intercultural competence.

French Immersion does produce students with a high level of functional bilingualism – provided these students remain in the program as designed until the end of Grade 12, which the majority do not. But there are challenges in continuing to expand FI programs. The ability of school boards to continue to respond to parental demand for the expansion of French Immersion is confined by context and circumstances around available space, student enrolments, budget, personnel and competing demands from neighbourhood schools and other programs of choice. Finding and keeping teachers with the necessary linguistic, cultural and pedagogical competence to teach in FI is a continued challenge for pre-service and in-service programs.

Finally, there are concerns that the FI pedagogical model mitigates against equity. The FI program is sometimes perceived as providing “a private school within the public system” and a more homogeneous class composition. French immersion has continued to be challenging around inclusionary practices. Students cannot join Early FI after Grade 1. Many newly arrived English Language Learners (ELL) would choose FI or another effective FSL program if they could have neighbourhood access at later points than Grade 1. In addition, despite increased efforts to promote differentiation of instruction and inclusionary practices, French Immersion does not historically retain anywhere near the same percentages of special education students as the rest of the system, especially at the intermediate and secondary grades.

The question becomes, are there additional pathways to French competence that could improve access and ease some of the strain on the system?

Creating multiple pathways

Rather than continue to communicate to parents that French Immersion is the only pathway to acceptable levels of second-language (L2) competence, we need to expand our viable pedagogical pathways and make space for more students to learn French, or additional languages, in meaningful and effective ways. In the global village of today, and in the bilingual, plurilingual, pluricultural, forward-thinking country of Canada, it is the role of the Canadian school system to seek out more pathways to develop students’ competencies in multiple languages. 

Curriculum reform is currently moving towards personalization of curriculum, interdisciplinary competencies and multiple pathways to success. Second-language education has much to contribute to this 21st century learning. Intercultural competence is a lifelong skill that accompanies second-language learning experiences. This goal is for all learners and is particularly pertinent in light of the core competencies that are key features of “deeper learning.”[iii] Researchers and policymakers underline the intercultural dimension of second language education:

“… the ‘intercultural dimension’ in language teaching aims to develop learners as intercultural speakers or mediators who are able to engage with complexity and multiple identities and to avoid the stereotyping which accompanies perceiving someone through a single identity… Intercultural communication is communication on the basis of respect for individuals and equality of human rights as the democratic basis for social interaction.”[iv]

So how can school boards expand the options to include more opportunities for more students?

The Intensive French model

A companion to the Immersion model is found in the Intensive model, which has been expanding across Canada since its introduction by Canadian second-language researchers Joan Netten and Claude Germain in 1997. Intensive French is defined as “an enrichment of the Core French program consisting of offering from three to four times the number of hours regularly scheduled for FSL in a concentrated period of time (five months) at the end of the elementary school cycle (in Grade 5 or 6).”[v] This model is enacted in the neighbourhood school setting. Essentially, students experience a mini-immersion into the language for half a year, and the other subjects are compressed to accommodate this in the rest of the year.  

Because of its intensity, this increased time is effective in giving students a significant boost in oral language and literacy. An important consideration in developing the program is ensuring an immersion-like experience, wherein authentic use of the language is emphasized – that is, language used for real communication rather than as an object of study. School boards that introduce the Intensive model in Grade 5 or 6 must ensure appropriate staffing and in-service training. Follow-up courses (upper intermediate and secondary) that respect the emergent oral fluency of the students are also essential in order to reap the benefits of such a model. This model is being used for other additional languages, including Aboriginal languages, and is currently being introduced internationally.

In a 2015 presentation to the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages, Germain called for federal funding categories for school boards to be altered to reflect the proficiency levels reached by students, rather than funding on the basis of participation rates only.[vi] Students who begin with Intensive French in Grades 5 or 6 and follow through in Post-Intensive French until at least Grade 10 arrive at an Intermediate level of competence, able to communicate comfortably and continue learning in a Francophone milieu. Moreover, the Intensive model is a neighbourhood school option with much less pressure on staffing and the de facto inclusion of all students. Yet Germain reports that in 2013-2014 in Canada, there were still only 34,000 students enrolled in Intensive or Post-Intensive French, about 4 percent of Canadian students in Grades 5-10. This model deserves federal funding equivalent to Immersion funding to provide incentives to boards to implement more programs.

Multiple options to meet local needs

Other models in existence across Canada that emphasize time, intensity and action-oriented language use include:

  • Extended French models, where, in addition to the language course itself, some additional content-based courses are offered in French at the secondary level. This affords students opportunities to use the language in practical and meaningful ways.
  • Intensive French followed by the option of enrolling in Late Immersion in Grade 6 or 7.
  • “Late late” Intensive models, where students spend an entire semester immersed in the language at the Grade 9 or 10 level.

As a means of illustrating the complexities faced by school boards and the value of alternative program models offered in conjunction with French Immersion, I will briefly describe some examples from Western Canada.

In Surrey, the largest school district in B.C., Wendy Carr worked as a participant researcher alongside the teachers, principals and school district staff to describe the successes and challenges of Intensive French program implementation in five elementary schools. Careful attention was also paid to the follow-up at the secondary school level. Since Intensive French in Grade 5 or 6 does not involve teaching content through the language, is viewed as low risk by parents, and is a “neighbourhood school” program, it proved a very popular choice with ELL families in Surrey.[vii]

A second case study was conducted by the Centre for the Study of Educational Policy and Leadership at Simon Fraser University in the region of Golden, B.C. This small town and surrounding area is projected to suffer from declining enrollment over the next ten years. The manner in which the Early Immersion enrollment was affecting the demographics of the one and only primary school in town was a matter of serious concern to the Board. The percentage of special-needs students was very much higher in the English classes at the school and the differences in clientele were pronounced. The recommendations of the report included modifying the Immersion program to start in Grade 4 instead of Kindergarten (a model common in some provinces), so that all students in the region could attend.[viii]

A recent review of French programs offered in the Yukon Territory, found a mix of Immersion and Intensive programs, an impressive set of choices given the diversity of population, a significant commitment to multiple Aboriginal languages and cultures, and a combination of urban and rural schools. Recommendations of the review suggest strengthening options and pathways for students of both Immersion and Intensive programs at the secondary level, by offering experiential programs such as an integrated semester in French focusing on outdoor education, work experience, and language-through-content options such as cooking and arts in French, as well as intensifying the use of technology-based action-oriented projects to reach out to and connect with speakers of the language around the world.[ix]

GIVEN CANADA’S COMMITMENT to a pluralistic society, and that we live in a global community where intercultural competence is highly valued, school boards have important choices to make in evaluating the effectiveness and equity of their current options and in meeting the second-language needs of the most students possible.

Measuring second-language proficiency

The caveat in this call for expanded pathways to functional fluency in second languages is that there is little or no useful information available to school boards, provinces or the federal government as to the achievement levels of students who have experienced these programs. 

To deepen the commitment to effective second-language education for the most students possible, federal and provincial jurisdictions need to continue their work with the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) in the Canadian context.[x] Canada is involved in several initiatives supported by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) and the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers (CASLT) to implement the vast array of tools available for assessment and credentialing through the CEFR.[xi] Clear expectations based on globally accepted descriptions of competency levels will help students, parents and boards understand their language proficiency and learning pathways.

In jurisdictions in Europe, for example, it is common to see job postings with levels of required second-language fluency attached. A fine example of efforts in this regard is the Edmonton Public School Board, which has implemented bilingual programs in six languages, and has been working for years with the CEFR-inspired “student language passport”: a digital portfolio of language experiences, and related benchmarks and credentials. Efforts to encourage students to follow through at the secondary level are further enhanced by concrete goals and internationally recognized attainable credentials for achievement. 


[i] Canadian Parents for French, Enrollment Statistics for FSL Programs 2009 to 2014http://cpf.ca/en/research-advocacy/research/enrolmenttrends

[ii] C. Lewis and S. Shapson, “Secondary French Immersion: A Study of students who leave the program, Canadian Modern Language Review 45, no. 3 (1989). 

[iii] Michael Fullan, Great to Excellent: Launching the next stage of Ontario’s education agenda (2013). www.michaelfullan.ca/media/13599974110.pdf

[iv] M. Byram, B. Gribkova and H. Starkey, Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching: A practical introduction for teachers (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 2002). http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/source/guide_dimintercult_en.pdf

[v] W. Carr, “Intensive French in British Columbia: Student and parent perspectives and ESL student performance, The Canadian Modern Language Review 65,no. 5 (2010): 787-815.

[vi] Claude Germain, Presentation to the Senate Committee on Official Languages (2015). http://www.francaisintensif.ca/media/gen-02-eng-senate-committ-lng-c-germain-march-2015.pdf

[vii] W. Carr, “Intensive French in British Columbia.”

[viii] Centre for the Study of Educational Policy and Leadership, External Review of the Golden Zone: Rocky Mountain School District (Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University: 2010).

[ix] C. Lewis and R. Swansborough, FSL Programs in the Yukon Focus Group Report: More French for more students, follow the learner (2016). 

[x] Council of Ministers of Education of Canada, Working with the Common. European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in the Canadian Context (2010). www.cmec.ca/docs/assessment/CEFR-canadian-context.pdf

[xi] L. Hermans-Nymark, “The Path to Bilingualism: The Common European Framework for languages in Canada,” Education Canada 53, no. 1 (2015). www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/path-bilingualism

Meet the Expert(s)

Cynthia Lewis

Cynthia Lewis

Dr. Cynthia Lewis is a retired Director of Instruction and Assistant Superintendent from the Surrey School District, B.C. Cynthia has served as a board member for the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers and currently works as an independent researcher and Adjunct Faculty member in the Educational Leadership Program at SFU Surrey.

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network