As an specialist teacher English language learners (ELLs), I often hear a lot of comments and questions about newcomer students who are learning French for the first time – especially in grades 6-8.

Many teachers think that ELLs should be using that time to learn English, or that the students have already missed too much French instruction for them to be successful in their grade level. There also exists a belief that French learning for older elementary students is pointless, especially in grade 8: why should ELLs learn French if they can opt out of the course in grade 9?

Such comments and perspectives may negatively impact newcomer students on their French learning journeys. I remember arriving in a grade 8 classroom as a newcomer from the United States, and taking French for the first time.

While I wasn’t an English language learner, I found it nearly impossible to follow the class. Grade 9 French was so incomprehensible to me: I recall barely passing and doing the bare minimum to get the credit. While it’s hard to recall all the details of French class in grade 8, I do recall plunging into French work and lessons without any program adaptation different from my peers.

By contrast, welcoming newcomer students in French can lead to radically different outcomes, such as a deep and long-lasting interest in French language learning. I have a colleague who was a newcomer ELL to Canada in the intermediate grades, and she enjoyed French so much she went on to become a French teacher. I have also taught newcomer ELLs that excelled in French; one student even won a French language speaking competitions against his French Immersion peers.

Understanding why some newcomer ELLs excel in French and others do not can be complicated. Recently, I informally asked groups of multilingual learners how they felt about French class. Some students shared that they loved learning languages and trying out new French words, while others found French to be confusing and frustrating.

Let’s take a closer look at some research covering educator perspectives about French language learning. In part 2 of this blog, we will then consider how we can reframe French learning for ELLs to make it more inclusive and accessible.

Teacher Attitudes Toward ELLs in French Language Programs

A 2018 study on novice teacher attitudes toward exemption and exclusion from FSL programs in Canada provides interesting insight on why French teachers may think some students are better suited for French language instruction than others.

In this study, Katy Arnett and Callie Mady explore pervasive beliefs around FSL programs, including the perception that FSL study is for “academically elite” students in need of enrichment. Their research revealed an array of commonly held educator perspectives about ELLs: that French instruction was an “unnecessary burden” for ELLs who arrived in Canada at an advanced age, and that there was a need for ELLs to  “focus on English.”

Arnett and Mady’s research strongly indicate that FSL educators support the idea of exemption from French learning when there is a concern for the emotional well-being of the student, concern for grade-level achievement in English, and limited supports are offered. As one French Immersion teacher stated, “if it’s too much of a challenge and the student experiences a lack of self-confidence and it becomes to be like a barrier or like a psychological barrier for the student, then I think it will be better for him to go be in the English program. (Agnès, Year 3)” In the specific context of ELLs, the rationale for exemption typically centred on concerns about the student “navigating too much language learning, experiencing minimal success, and/or having additional challenges such as learning difficulties”.

What does Research and Policy say About ELLs in FSL Programs?

The Ministry of Education published a well-written (though often overlooked document) in 2016 called “Welcoming English Language Learners into French as a Second Language Programs. The document shares research about ELLs in FSL programs, pointing out how multilingual learners are uniquely positioned to be successful in French classrooms.

According to the document, “English language learners do as well as, or outperform, English-speaking students in FSL”, and are often more motivated to learn French than their English speaking Canadian born peers. And yet, studies in Ontario show that newcomers were often excluded from enrolling in FSL classes in secondary school.

The document also states that French educators are well suited to teach ELLs, since they are highly familiar with language acquisition processes. Language acquisition is a process that is relatively similar across different languages, with beginner learners typically starting their journey by acquiring vocabulary through oral communication practice. Because most students in English speaking schools would be relatively new to French, the pedagogy used in an FSL classroom is extremely adaptable for emergent English speakers.

Perhaps most importantly, the ministry document emphasizes that French instruction is for all students. When ELLs feel that they do not belong in a French classroom, or are excluded from French learning, a barrier is created between the student and what should be a highly accessible learning pathway. In other words, equity is at stake when ELLs are discouraged from French.

Reflecting on the Research

Having worked in ESL/ELD support for many years, these perspectives are rather familiar to me. I have no doubt that educators are trying to do what they feel is best for the student. It is also worth noting that in most schools French speaking or FSL qualified support teachers are the exception rather than the rule.

I think it is also worth noting that educators generally don’t consider exemptions from any other subject, which makes me wonder why we view French so differently from other subjects like Social Studies, Art, or Physical Education. As Arnett and Mady suggest, such perspectives may be grounded in a “monolingual bias supported by the English dominant Canadian context in which language learning apart from English is viewed as a luxury rather than commonplace”. In other words, it may be useful to challenge the assumption that French is learning pursuit designed solely for English speakers that already experience success in schools.

In my own conversations with other educators, I have found that what helps are practical strategies for teaching ELLs and examples of program modifications for emergent language speakers. In part 2 of this blog, we will take a deeper dive into what such program adaptations might look like.


Transforming FSL:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.