“Time flies, doesn’t it?” my friend Katya exclaimed over coffee at Aroma Espresso Bar. I clutched my latte and nodded in agreement. Time does fly. She continued, “It seems that only yesterday school started, and already French Immersion (FI) enrollment is less than a month away. “I’m freaking out; we haven’t decided whether we will be enrolling Anastasia. Frechette is a great school with a strong immersion program, but neither of us speak French so we wouldn’t be able to help her with homework. Her English isn’t great either, yet, so I’m worried her development will lag.” I nodded empathetically at this all-too-familiar dilemma.
Katya is going through the same process we went through two years ago, when deciding whether to enroll our eldest son at Frechette or the amazing, highly-ranked English school next door. This was a particularly difficult decision, as Gregory had been going to a Russian private daycare and his English was an issue of some concern. Back then, I launched a mini research project on the subject—poring over studies, articles, blogs, and forums. I also spoke to parents whose children were already attending, had graduated from, or dropped out of, French Immersion. I conversed with mainstream and French immersion teachers, all the while slicing and dicing EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) reports. The answer was an unsurprising and anticlimactic—“it depends”.
The cognitive benefits of multilingualism are well established. For example, it has been shown that, compared to their monolingual peers, bilingual children are better able to focus their attention on relevant information and ignore irrelevant distractions. A 2013 study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that learning a new language — especially between the ages of five and seven — improves the working memory, which is responsible for tasks such as reading and math. Another 2013 study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, looked at elderly bilingual people and found that speaking more than one language from childhood increases cognitive flexibility — and the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected circumstances later in life. Other benefits include enhanced creativity and facility in learning other languages. Immersion program graduates enjoy career advantages and their earnings are on average 10 per cent higher than that of their peers.
Since immersion programs typically do not introduce any English until the third or fourth grade, there is an understandable concern that students’ English language development may suffer, especially for children whose English is weak to begin with. For many parents this worry is compounded during the first years of the immersion program as their child’s English literacy is visibly lagging. However, by Grade 6 they match and often surpass English program students’ performance in English and Math. A quick glance at EQAO results for three nearby French Immersion schools in York region confirms these findings. As the graph below demonstrates, all three FI had students who significantly exceeded provincial average results. What is particularly reassuring for me is that for almost half of these academically successful French immersion students’ first language learned at home was not English (48% and 43%, at Frechette and Julliard respectively).
There are many explanations for this phenomenon, one being a cognitive advantage of multilingual children that includes enhanced creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Other explanations are more pragmatic. “That’s just preposterous!” scorns my friend who happens to be an elementary school teacher. “It’s not like these schools are so much better but there are all those parents who use French immersion as a form of streaming. The program attracts the strongest students, the ones who would do well anywhere. Those who don’t fit the bill, trickle from French immersion to the English program. There are practically no special education needs students and they weed out kids with behavioral issues. This would explain these high EQAO scores!” On many accounts she happens to be right. For example, in 2008, 17 per cent of children in English-only programs received special education throughout the year, while the figure in French immersion programs was only 7 per cent. Further, this number is even lower for the local FI schools that I looked at with 3 per cent of special needs students at Frechette and only 1 per cent at Julliard and Adrienne Clarkson.
Although this is not something to be publicly disclosed, relative lack of “problem students” is one of the reasons some parents enroll their kids into French Immersion. I previously volunteered in regular public schools and saw firsthand how disruptive it is to have many kids with behavioral problems in one room. Students in French immersion are fortunate in that their teachers don’t have the same degree of problems with student management as in the regular stream. Teaching in a disruptive environment can make a teacher impatient and frazzled. It can also worsen student morale, thereby exacerbating the problem. As a parent, I would prefer my child’s learning environment to be positive, which would assure me that my child has the best chance to do well in school. I prefer to surround my children with higher-performing, bright, hard-working peers in hopes that it will rub off. Peer groups do matter and given choice, I would rather have my kids go to a school where working hard and being smart is valued over being disruptive and disobedient. Higher socio-economic backgrounds and significant percentage of involved parents with post-secondary education that are typical for FI schools are not a deterrence to me either.
According to a widely published 2007 study, the satisfaction of immigrant parents who placed their children in French immersion is very high with 95 per cent of parents reportedly happy about their choice. Parents who had not enrolled their children in immersion expressed regret: 50 per cent of those who had not enrolled their children in immersion would have, had they had information about the program. This is consistent with feedback I got. Even those who left the program usually claimed it was due to a specific teacher or a “poor fit” as opposed to the program itself. French immersion graduates are now having children and the vast majority are placing them in the program because it largely worked for them.
“If you enroll Gregory in Frechette, you better stick to it”, advises his SK teacher, Mrs. M. as I pester her about the program. “Every year we have students transferring back from French immersion and they are behind. There is quite a bit of catching up.” The attrition rate in FI program is high, with only 60 to 70 per cent of students making it to Grade 6. The biggest drop occurs in the first two grades when concerned parents realize that their child is not thriving. Many cite academic difficulties, emotional or behavioral problems and negative relationships with the teacher as their top reasons for pulling children out.
“My son was very anxious, he didn’t want to go to school and would frequently complain of tummy aches. He would not understand what was going on in class. The program was obviously not for him and pulling him out was the best decision,” one mother explains as she watches her boy cheerfully prancing in the school yard. I have heard the worst stories from Grade 3 immersion parents who are being ‘counselled out’ either by being taken aside by the teacher quietly or through a ‘team meeting’. Although, the latter approach is becoming politically incorrect, all of my research points out that the French immersion program, like any other program, is not suited to every child. There is no official screening process to determine whether French Immersion is a good fit for your child and it is up to you to determine this fit. Children with well-developed literacy skills (recommended to read at level 5 or higher by the end of SK) who are good at focusing and are motivated about learning new things typically do well in the program.
“I just felt that my daughter would always be an average student in that school and I wanted her to do better than that. I could not afford to pay $40/hour for a tutor and neither I nor my husband speak French”, a friend explained her reasoning for pulling her child out at third grade. While the program is targeted to families who don’t speak French, the reality is that frequently children need additional help. About a quarter of FI parents I spoke to hire tutors at the going rate of $20 to $45 per hour. This is not something that all families have the means or inclination to do–and many parents opt to take their children out of the system for fear of not being able to help them with homework as their children progress through grades.
The availability of high-quality French immersion teachers is also an issue. There is a much smaller pool of qualified French-immersion teachers to choose from and many Ontario school districts identify that it is “challenging” and “very challenging” to recruit qualified personnel. Since the quality of teaching is a key determinant of the schooling experience and attainment of academic success, this is an important factor to consider.
Unlike some school boards that offer a French immersion gifted program, neither the York Region District School Board nor Toronto District School Board offer combined French and gifted classes. Parents of gifted children are therefore forced to choose between a Gifted Intensive Support Placement (ISP) and French immersion for Grade 4. Some parents say that once the novelty of the second language wears off, it quickly becomes apparent that the French immersion program is not sufficiently challenging for many bright and gifted children. Not only is the math curriculum the same as in the regular stream, science and social studies are covered in less breadth and depth because of the children’s reduced proficiency in French.
There is a well-founded criticism that even upon completing FI high school, students do not become completely bilingual in French and the way in which they express themselves is clearly different from native speakers. While studying in France, I was surprised to hear the heavily-accented kind of “Frenglish” that former French Immersion students were employing. This is unsurprising as unless you are immersed in another language outside school, you may never become completely fluent. Also, many immersion students lose their French over time.
Today Gregory is halfway through his second grade at Frechette and so far it has been a relatively smooth ride. He is also enjoying the higher ratio of girls to boys (on average about 5 to 3) in the program (though particularly higher in his classes). The first year was focused on oral language acquisition and at times, we felt he was not sufficiently challenged. There was very little homework, he only had to read books on a daily basis. However, his second year is significantly more demanding and he spends about an hour studying and doing his homework (with my assistance) on a daily basis. At this point I am tempted to say that the degree of parental involvement is higher in French Immersion but, similarly to any other school, a lot depends on the teacher. I speak to parents of kids from other classes and their workload varies significantly from ours.
Of course, there have been a few glitches. One area of concern is limited resources. The lack of bilingual supply teachers is an issue-there were a few instances when Gregory’s teacher was on sick leave and kids were taught in English, thus diminishing the impact of the program. Educational materials are also scarce (teachers resort to photocopying pages from various sources which are often confusing, unconnected and lack continuity, not to mention get lost physically). A lot of supplementary resources, especially in math and science, are in English.
While kids are encouraged to speak French at recess, English is still dominant in the halls, on the playgrounds and at lunch. My son’s oral English proficiency has improved (the same can’t be said for his written English but it was to be expected). Nevertheless, his French is already pretty solid. Recently, I reached my parental nirvana when Greg confidently conversed in French with a native-speaking nurse. Within a few minutes her attitude shifted from outright hostile to “Fine, I will help this obnoxious couple but only because their boy is so cute”.
Overall, Gregory is thriving in the current system and indeed most of his friends are thriving as well. From personal observation, their classmates who have departed from French Immersion, largely have done so with good reason. However, the program was the right fit for us and many others. It is largely personal, and I’m glad it worked out for Gregory. Within a few weeks I will be enrolling his younger brother and I am hoping it will work out for him as well.
Author P.S: Another interesting point which I didn’t include in the article is that some parents use FI as an alternative to gifted because Gifted commences only at grade 4 and FI at Grade 1 or SK (Toronto). The things you learn!