Today 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