What is the learning process in French Immersion?
The immersion approach is based on understandings of how children learn their first, second or third languages, that is, through interaction with meaningful contexts and the desire to use language to communicate ideas. Throughout a French Immersion program, students acquire French while they develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes included in the provincial curricula.
Because students enter immersion with little or no knowledge of French, the program begins with a concentration on oral language development to give students a sufficient understanding of the language to learn to read and write in French and learn subject area content in French.
French Language Listening and Speaking Skills
Children acquire listening and speaking skills in a second language in much the same way as their first, initially by observing and listening, then by association of sounds with gestures and objects and finally by imitation and repetition. This approach is often called a “gentle” introduction to second language learning.
In the classroom, the teacher:
- uses French all the time, except if the students’ security is at risk (e.g., health or safety concerns);
- employs gestures, mime, objects and pictures to help students understand
- includes songs, rhymes, stories and routines to help familiarize students with words and concepts and to create a safe and predictable environment for using the language;
- constantly listens and observes to verify what information the students understand, adapting speech and activities as necessary to convey meaning;
- encourages the students to speak French and corrects errors through repetition and role modelling;
- constantly seeks opportunities for language development and takes advantage of situations in which language development can occur naturally and effectively; and
- seeks opportunities for students to use their French language skills outside the classroom and in real-life situations.
- learn to be very good listeners because they have to pay close attention in order to understand what is happening in the classroom;
- are encouraged to speak French all the time, but for the first couple of years may use English to express a complex thought for which they have not yet learned the necessary French words;
- may not speak French outside of the classroom; and
- may use French sounds and words at play and sing French songs learned during class.
Developing and enriching oral expression is very important in immersion and generally precedes the development of written communication skills.
Students require opportunities to:
- listen to French being spoken by the teacher, before they are expected to fully comprehend it;
- listen and understand before speaking; and
- speak French before reading and writing in French.
The formal study of grammar may begin once students have sufficient experience in listening to, comprehending and speaking French. Active listening, spontaneous speaking and oral feedback underlie language development throughout an immersion program from Kindergarten to Grade 12.
French Language Reading and Writing Skills
By the time formal instruction in reading and writing is introduced, students have a good basic knowledge of French. The teacher continues to use oral expression as the basis for reading activities by first introducing texts orally (with the help of cues, props and gestures) and by encouraging lots of discussion to ensure a high level of comprehension. Texts are chosen to suit the students’ interests and level of comprehension.
Because students need to develop prerequisite skills in French, the Grade 1 French Immersion teacher may introduce formal French reading instruction more gradually than the teacher in the English program. This delay means that immersion students may appear to be slightly behind their English program counterparts in learning to read.
Parents often raise concerns at this stage. Consequently, it is very important that parents receive clear explanations regarding language and literacy development in immersion and their role in the process. For further information, please refer to the section in this document [Handbook for Leaders of French as a Second Language (FSL) Programs] entitled French Immersion: Frequently Asked Questions. The teacher integrates the teaching of writing into the context of academic learning (social studies, science, mathematics, etc.) to help students transfer these concepts and skills in meaningful situations.
The Content Areas: Subjects Taught in French
Language development, both oral and written, continues and broadens with the introduction of subject content:
- Early math and science concepts are very concrete and can be easily taught with the use of visual aids and hands-on activities.
- Arts education, especially music and drama, as well as physical education, provide an abundance of meaningful language learning opportunities.
- Teaching strategies and materials are used to encourage teacher-student and student-student interaction.
- Task-oriented learning continues throughout all grades to allow for daily use of the language by students and thus continued oral development.
For effective use of instructional and learning time, interdisciplinary teaching and inquiry learning in subject areas are to be encouraged at all levels. Not only is time saved and repetition avoided, but research also affirms that these instructional practices are among the most effective for student achievement.
At the secondary level, French language arts teachers and those teaching other subjects in French are encouraged to work collaboratively on their instructional units, since all teachers in a French Immersion program are responsible for language development. Integration of subject areas is to be encouraged and facilitated where possible, as this practice is a well-established means of increasing academic achievement.
English Language Arts for French Immersion Students
Once students have developed a solid foundation in French, formal instruction of English is introduced. In Saskatchewan, the introduction of English language arts in the French Immersion program is recommended at the Grade 3 level. Reading skills acquired in French are easily transferred by most children to the English reading process. By the end of Grade 4, most children will have achieved the English language levels of their non-immersion peers, with the exception of spelling.
Most immersion students come from English home environments and all are exposed to English in the community. Thus, in English language arts, the teacher helps students to build on what they already know through their experiences with English and the skills they have gained while learning to read and write in French. For example, because of the number of French words that are similar to English words (up to 40%), it is easy for students to make transfers from English to French and vice versa. The teacher helps students to sort out the differences between French and English that can cause confusion during the transition from French to English reading and writing.
At the middle and secondary levels, French language arts and English language arts teachers (where these subjects are taught by two different people) require time for collaborative planning and frequent communication to avoid overlap of content in the two language classes. Collaborative planning will maximize the opportunities to learn for immersion students.
Saskatchewan Ministry of Education. (2015). Handbook for Leaders of French as a Second Language (FSL) Programs. Retrieved from https://www.edonline.sk.ca/bbcswebdav/library/Curriculum%20Website/Footer%20Resources/Handbook_for_Leaders_of_FSL.docx Used with permission from Saskatchewan Ministry of Education.