• By: Jennifer Hartley

Education/Reaching higher series: Leading the Way in French Language Education

Nineteenth Century American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that “language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.” Learning a new language opens the door to new cultures, new experiences and new ways of viewing the world. In the National Capital Region, to offer students the chance to graduate bilingual can be one of the best tools the education system can provide. The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) recognizes the value of this and offers many programs to get there. The methodology and instruction it has chosen to achieve the goal is innovative and has proven to be widely successful.

In September 2006, the OCDSB began a comprehensive review of all French as a Second Language (FSL) programs within the District. One of the primary objectives of the review was to improve the effectiveness of FSL delivery and instruction at both the elementary and secondary levels. The review made recommendations to improve second language pro-ficiency amongst all students regardless of their program, be it Core French, Extended French or French Immersion.

All students within the OCDSB are engaged in some form of French language learning beginning in Kindergarten. This is actually a unique opportunity for OCDSB students, as many districts across the province only begin to offer Core French in Grade 4. At the OCDSB, the entry point for Early French Immersion is Senior Kindergarten and for Middle French Immersion it is Grade 4. The goal of this instruction is to develop students’ linguistic competence, enabling them to communicate pro-ficiently in French in a wide range of situations. But one of the issues is evaluating or identifying what is the standard. What exactly does it mean to be functionally proficient in a language?

Studies have shown that there is a need for a common framework of reference for describing it. Researchers from the Second Language Institute at the University of Ottawa concluded that the Common European Framework (CEFR) was one of the best-suited approaches for Canada because of its flexibility, allowing all provinces and territories to apply and adapt it to their unique situations and needs.

These important features led the OCDSB to examine the merits of the tool. To this end, the OCDSB became the lead board in the Ontario Ministry of Education’s current province-wide research initiative, designed to determine the feasibility of using the CEFR as a frame of reference for FSL programs across the province. In doing so, the OCDSB has been a trailblazer, forward-thinking and innovative in looking for new approaches to language training for students and teachers alike.

The CEFR was devised by the Council of Europe and after decades of research and consultations, it finally came to fruition early in 2001, the European Year of Languages. It delineates the competencies, knowledge and skills that language learners must develop in order to communicate effectively. In the European Union’s plurilingual reality, creating a uniform system was particularly important.

The CEFR contains more than 50 scales for describing and assessing language abilities with levels such as A1 (basic user, someone who can achieve just a few simple tasks in the language) to C2 (a proficient user). It has been successful in Europe. In fact, a 2007 survey of Council of Europe members, 90 per cent of EU member states found the framework to be most useful for the planning and the development of curricula/syllabi.

The success of the CEFR bodes very well for the Canadian context and the pilot project conducted at the OCDSB has been very positive. Barry Bickerton, System Principal of Curriculum Services at the OCDSB, who has been involved with the pilot project since the early days, says “seeing the energy unfold across the District with educators and students has been incredible.”  Teachers say it has strengthened their abilities. The CEFR provides a framework for creating engaging lessons. Bickerton explains that the framework provides teachers of Core French, French Immersion and Extended French with opportunities to deepen their best instructional strategies.

For students, the results have already been very encouraging. Student engagement and achievement have increased. Bickerton explains that the CEFR is based on a “can do” approach, focusing on the student’s strengths. It provides them with ongoing, descriptive feedback through the learning cycle, focusing on and identifying their strengths while determining next steps to improve learning. Bickerton says the CEFR emphasizes problem-solving and provides students and teachers with opportunities for authentic conversation and critical thinking instead of merely complying with less challenging tasks such as memorizing words and language rules. With these authentic conversations based on real-world issues and situations, students become active participants in their language learning. Furthermore, the OCDSB experience with CEFR has been that by emphasizing this more spontaneous mode of communication, students end up sharing more with their teachers, improving their mutual understanding all the while developing long-term language acquisition. It is challenging for students but it works, and it is an exciting way to learn.

The OCDSB has also experienced another benefit in its pilot project. The CEFR affirms all FSL students in the District. Elementary French teacher Carrie Learned from Henry Larsen Elementary School says that “The CEFR uses meaningful descriptors to describe second language acquisition and they apply to both Core and Immersion program classes, finally placing these two programs on the same continuum of language learning, with common goals and strategies.”

Director of Education, Jennifer Adams, adds that the OCDSB is the first District in the province to pilot a voluntary grade 12 French Proficiency Test, le Diplôme d’études en langue française (DELF). Grade 12 students in Core French, Extended French, and French Immersion can challenge this examination that is based on the four competencies of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Adams states, “This is just one more way that the OCDSB is preparing students for their future in our community and beyond.

Clearly, given student engagement, student achievement, and teacher satisfaction, the OCDSB has been a catalyst for positive change in the educational system in Ontario.