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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 6, April 2007

Intensive French…a BC perspective

by Wendy Carr

Intensive French is a French as a Second Language program option that is garnering attention in British Columbia. Intensive French is an innovative approach to teaching and learning French that was introduced in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1998 as a boost to core French. It has produced such good results that all Grade 6 students in that province now take it instead of core French.

There are 10,000 students taking intensive French across Canada in almost every province and territory including British Columbia and the Yukon. Surrey implemented it in 2004, and its first group of four classes is entering secondary schools in September. Vancouver is implementing the program in September 2007, and other districts in the province are interested as well.

How does intensive French compare to other FSL programs such as core and immersion? The three approaches share some common goals, such as instilling in children a love of the language and culture and achieving varying degrees of bilingualism, but there are also some significant differences and challenges.

French immersion is offered as a program of choice in Kindergarten (Early) or Grade 6 (Late). Students are taught the regular curriculum—from Math to PE—using French as the language of instruction. Students who graduate from Grade 12 immersion receive a "Double Dogwood Diploma," are functionally bilingual and can pursue post-secondary studies or work in either official language. About 30% of students complete Grade 12 immersion; there are often competing demands for coursework at the secondary level, and many high schools cannot offer a wide variety of courses in French.

Core French is an introductory course usually offered in two 40-minute blocks per week in Grades 5 to 7 and for about three hours per week in Grade 8. Its focus on basic communication, cultivating cultural understandings, and acquiring/presenting information in the early grades is developed in the secondary grades. The problem with core French in BC, apart from its limited time allocation, is that during the mandated Grades (5 to 8) it is delivered mainly by generalist teachers with very little language background or specific methodological training. Under these conditions, students do not make a great deal of progress (not surprisingly after only about 260 contact hours spread over four years) and, by the time they can receive specialized instruction in high school, many have already dropped out. Many university programs no longer require French 11 or 12: an introductory language at Grade 11 or equivalent often suffices. For all of these reasons, only about 10% of students who start core French in Grade 5 complete French 12.

Intensive French (IF) is a program of choice in BC in which Grade 6 students have five months, in which everything except Math, takes place in French. It is basically a French language arts program for four hours a day for half the year; students do language-rich projects and activities, and read and write in French. For the second half of the year, they take a compacted version of the regular science, socials, and language arts curriculum in English plus one hour of French per day. In Grade 7 and beyond, they continue an enriched French program along with the regular curriculum. In intensive French, students stay in their neighbourhood schools, do the regular English curriculum and acquire 600 hours of French instruction. They enter secondary school speaking French and take Intensive French 8, a differentiated course using IF pedagogy but treating regular French 10 themes and linguistic concepts.

What are the challenges to implementing intensive French on a wider scale? The two major ones are similar to those faced by French immersion, that is, finding fully bilingual teachers and starting a new program within an existing school organization. IF normally starts at Grade 6 and continues with a daily hour follow-up in Grade 7, thus requiring only one teacher per school. In theory, if there is enough community interest in a school’s catchment, a program should be able to run without too much disruption. The exception to this theory is if a teacher needs to be displaced, as is likely if there is not a potential IF teacher on staff. The lack of methodologically trained, bilingual teachers is a problem affecting all FSL programs in this province. A concerted effort is needed to recruit new French teachers, enhance existing teachers’ training, and ensure that all pre-service teachers take at least one basic course in second language methodology.

Some ask if intensive French should replace core French. A better question, I believe, is: What lessons can we learn from IF to improve other FSL programs? The winning combination of time and intensity produces results in immersion and intensive programs and the lack of both is part of why core French doesn’t yield better outcomes. IF focusses on literacy (a language-arts approach) and uses interactive teaching strategies that enable students to develop fluency and accuracy. Students use and re-use language in real situations while teachers model and redirect what they say, helping them to internalize that language. This, in turn, leads to the intuitive use of French in a very short time.

The inclusion of intensive French pedagogy into teacher training and professional development would serve all FSL educators well. A summer institute for IF teachers—and open to all FSL educators—is offered August 20 to 24 at the University of British Columbia. Sessions run in French, and elementary and secondary FSL teachers are welcome. See details at www.mmecarr.ca.

Intensive French offers great potential for children to achieve functional bilingualism while remaining in their neighbourhood school. The addition of this program to a district’s offerings can bring renewed attention to French as a desirable addition to a child’s education and could open up programming possibilities at the secondary level. In other provinces, for example, IF students join their late and early immersion counterparts in secondary elective courses offered in French. And, rather than drawing students away from immersion programs, overall enrolment in those programs has increased in districts and provinces where IF has been implemented.

Intensive French has arrived in British Columbia! It has much to contribute not only to how we teach and learn French but also to Canada’s goal of doubling the number of bilingual graduates by 2013. Stay tuned!

A similar article was published in the Canadian Parents for French Winter 2006 bulletin.

Wendy Carr has been a core French teacher for 31 years in Coquitlam. She is now a part-time Intensive French helping teacher in Surrey and co-ordinates the French teacher education program at UBC. For information about intensive French: www.mmecarr.ca/ICF/ICF.html.

Comparison of elementary FSL programs in British Columbia  

Core French Intensive French French Immersion
220,000 students in BC, 1,600,000 in Canada 250 students in BC, 10,000 in Canada 38,500 students in BC, 300,000 in Canada
150 hours (Gr. 5, 6, 7) 600 hours (Gr. 6 & 7) 5,000 hours (K to Gr. 7)
Students learn French using a communicative approach wherever possible. Students use French to do activities and projects. Regular school subjects are compressed into second half of the intensive year. After Grade 6, a student can engage in a general conversation.
Core French is provincially mandated in Grades 5 to 8, usually delivered in two 40-minute lessons per week. Intensive French is a program of choice that starts in Grade 6 with an intensive half-year (80% French) followed by one hour/day in French for second half of year and all of Grade 7. French immersion is a program of choice that starts in Kindergarten or Grade 6 with 100% French instruction.
By Grade 12, a student can communicate in a variety of real-life situations. After Grade 6, a student can engage in a general conversation. By Grade 12, a student is functionally bilingual.

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