Why is a French Immersion Program Being Delivered in English?

Recent studies involving at-­risk readers in the French immersion (FI) context have shown that phonological awareness (PA) training, in combination with letter-­sound correspondence instruction, can effectively address students’ PA deficits and improve their reading skills (Wise & Chen, 2015; Wise, D’Angelo, & Chen, 2016). In these studies, English was used for both reading risk assessment and instructional purposes immediately following students’ entry into the immersion setting. Using English, a language in which most of the participants had conversational proficiency, allowed investigators to conduct reading risk assessment at the earliest possible opportunity. This language choice also made it possible for the PA training to be initiated as soon as at-­risk readers were identified, while they were developing proficiency in French, the target language. On a withdrawal basis, at-­risk readers were provided with English PA training, while simultaneously receiving French literacy instruction in the classroom setting.

A previous study involving at-­risk readers in the FI context examined the use of French for instructional purposes (MacCoubrey, 2003). The students made significant gains in PA; however, no significant improvements in reading were found. Although there have been no controlled FI studies that have been successful in demonstrating that French PA training is effective in facilitating the acquisition of early reading skills, investigations involving English PA training have shown significant reading gains in French and English. Moreover, these gains have been found to last well beyond the completion of the training program.

Importantly, investigations have provided compelling evidence that PA is a general, rather than a language-­specific, cognitive mechanism which, once established, can generalize to a second or additional language (Cisero & Royer, 1995; Comeau, Cormier, Grandmaison, & Lacroix, 1999; Durgunoğlu, Nagy, & Hancit-­Bhatt, 1993; Jared, Cormier, Levy, & Wade-­Woolley, 2011). These investigations suggest that it should be possible to address PA deficits in either English or French; however, instructional interventions should be based on evidence obtained from controlled studies conducted in the FI context. Thus, further FI research is needed examining:

  • the most efficient way to implement PA training for students who are exhibiting early signs of difficulty with the acquisition of reading skills
  • the most effective language of instruction for PA training (e.g., French or English, or a combination of the two)
  • the extent to which PA training for at-­risk readers is effective in reducing the number of children who require special education programs and services at a later date.

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