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Notes for the Canadian Parents for French Round Table on Academically Challenged Students in French Second Language Programs

Graham Fraser – Commissioner of Official Languages

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Dear parents and friends,

Thank you for inviting me. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has always considered Canadian Parents for French one of its closest partners. As Commissioner, I hope to maintain and strengthen the ties between our two organizations.

Since 1977, your work encouraging Anglophone parents to consider French second-language education for their children, both in and out of the classroom, has shown impressive results. Canadians are becoming more and more bilingual, in large part thanks to improvements in core and immersion programs—exactly the approach you’ve been promoting for 30 years.

I have followed Fred Genesee’s work on students with learning disabilities in immersion with great interest—as I know you have.

Through multiculturalism, Canada recognizes the potential of all Canadians, encouraging them to integrate into their society and take an active part in its social, cultural, economic and political affairs. But “diversity” is not only a question of one’s country or language of origin—we must also reflect on what makes a society diverse. We should work strenuously to eradicate all forms of discrimination in our society—so we should not stay silent when Canadian students are subjected to discrimination in school because of how they learn. Transferring a learning-disabled student out of French immersion could take away that individual’s opportunity to become bilingual.

Every Canadian child should have the opportunity to become bilingual in order to participate fully in this country’s economy, governance and society. However, the reluctance of school boards and school authorities to adapt to the needs of students with learning disabilities in immersion has created an unfortunate dynamic.

Children who have any kind of learning disorder are often excluded from immersion programs for fear of compounding their problem. Yet learning disabilities are not more easily overcome by removing children from immersion.

For example, children with executive function disorder have difficulty expressing what they know, communicating details in an organized fashion, and telling a story in the right sequence. This has nothing to do with language in and of itself. Yet when a child is diagnosed with this disorder, the school’s response is to remove him or her from immersion—as if second-language learning were the cause of the difficulties. The result has been that children with any kind of problem have been systematically weeded out of the immersion stream and placed in the English stream.

Then the school, or the school board, or the ministry of education or the media complains that immersion is elitist.

Well—it is elite only because the system has generated this dynamic. Not only does this create an inappropriate process for students, it also creates a misleading impression about the nature of the challenges of learning in a second language—and ultimately it challenges the pertinence of immersion by reducing it to “an elitist process.”

This false perception exists because, so often, students who run into a problem are excluded from immersion. Children should not have to adapt to the needs of immersion programs; immersion programs should be inclusive and meet the needs of all students. When children in immersion struggle with learning difficulties, their parents should inquire about special educational support within the immersion program rather than simply transfer them out.

It would be healthier if provincial departments of education, school boards and schools provided the same level of behavioural- and learning-problem support in immersion programs that they currently provide in the English stream. This would solve the artificial restrictions we now have in the immersion population: no one but students without learning problems.

As an inclusive society in a bilingual country, we must understand the importance of inclusion in French immersion education.

This brings me to question the paradigm of our education system.

Teaching kids is not like assembling cars on a production line. Whether you teach math, science or art to children, and whether you teach it in their first or second language—there is no unique “method.” Teachers and parents agree: every child is different and learns in his or her own way, and at his or her own pace. But our education system is built like a factory—based on models of mass production and conformity. It puts aside children who don’t fit the mould and stigmatizes them as “challenged”—sometimes for the rest of their lives. It also imposes on those children a linear, restricted academic path, believing that they don’t have the capacity to succeed according to the plan the system imposes on them.

Every businessman or businesswoman, every politician, every person in this room would agree: our world is becoming more diverse. Because of immigration, of technology, of the environment—our world is changing at a pace that has never been experienced in all of human history. No one can anticipate what the world will be like in the next 50 years—in fact, we can barely anticipate what it will be like next week—so how can we educate our children for the 21st-century economy with a public education system that was created in the 19th century to meet 19th-century needs?

Sir Ken Robinson, author of The New York Times bestseller The Element,1 gave many speeches and interviews about how schools kill creativity and how our education systems should be not just reformed, but revolutionized. In his view, public education is not adapted to modern realities. It was built at a time when not everyone agreed that education should be given equally to all children—including to street kids and working-class children, whom many people thought incapable of learning and reading and writing.

So though the school system was driven by the economic imperative of the time, this intellectual model ran through it: in public education systems, there are only two types of people—academic and non‑academic, or, if you prefer, smart people and non-smart people. The consequence is that many brilliant people think they are not brilliant, because they have been judged according to this skewed view.

I agree with Ken Robinson: though this model has benefited some people, many people have suffered from it. It has caused chaos in many lives.

Immigrant children are also victims of this archaic way of thinking. When it comes to French immersion, they tend to be thrown in the same boat as the academically challenged students. School boards, principals, pedagogical advisors and teachers tend to advise immigrant parents to not put their children into immersion—even though the evidence shows that the immersion experience can be positive for immigrant children, who end up learning both official languages.

That channelling of immigrants into the English-only stream further creates an artificial environment within immersion: a predominance of students without learning problems and from a traditional background. Immersion students would have a more rounded educational experience if their classrooms had the same diversity that we see in English-stream classrooms.

Immersion is much more than academic courses; it goes beyond school walls. Why shouldn’t an “academically challenged” student benefit from such an exposure to a different, more challenging way of learning? “Challenging” doesn’t have to mean “impossible.” What academically challenged children need is exactly what immersion learning offers: an out-of-the-box way of learning. These kids are already out of the box. They already know they don’t fit in the “traditional” pathway. Maybe a different way of learning, immersed in a second language, could help them take pleasure in learning.

If a child is unhappy in immersion and experiencing difficulties in learning, then the success of that learning path may be uncertain. However, if a child is happy in immersion and making progress according to his or her own abilities—despite the difficulties—immersion should not be blamed for learning problems that would have been there regardless of the immersion program. The child’s well-being should come first. Immersion or not, children who are happy and challenged make better learners than those who are overwhelmed and unhappy.

If we want French immersion to survive in the 21st-century Canadian school system, we need to adapt it to the reality of our world. Inclusive practice needs to be the norm, not the exception.

I hope that today’s round table will allow us to better see and understand the dynamics of academically challenged students in language immersion. Together, perhaps we can find new ways of establishing strategies and techniques to support such students.

I believe all Canadian children should have the opportunity to become bilingual. As an inclusive society in a bilingual country, we must understand the importance of inclusion in French immersion education and leave no child out. We must establish a new paradigm. As parents and educators, that is our challenge—not our children’s.

Thank you.

1 Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Penguin Books, New York, 2009.