French Immersion and Learning Disabilities: When is it a good fit?
A student's ability to succeed in French Immersion depends on several different factors. Do they have an interest in the program? Are they motivated to learn another language and another culture? Do they have academic supports or friends in the program who can help them? A supportive relationship with their teacher can also be a big factor. Today's French Immersion classrooms are as diverse as those in a regular English program. When supports are in place, research shows that students with a variety of educational needs can be successful in a French Immersion program.
What is a Learning Disability?
So, what is a Learning Disability? Does it matter what kind of Learning Disability a student has to be a part of a French Immersion program? While we all have our own strengths and weaknesses in how we learn, a Learning Disability is a difference in the way that a person’s brain is “wired” which affects their ability to learn. Individuals with a Learning Disability have average or above average intelligence but have difficulty in their reading, writing, or math. This impacts roughly 5-10% of the Canadian population. With the correct supports, these individuals can go on to be successful in school, their careers, and other areas of their life. This means that a student with any type of Learning Disability can join a French Immersion program.
Underlying Reasons for Difficulty with Language or Reading
Students with a language- or reading-based disability experience the same challenges in both their first and second language. This is because of the underlying mechanisms of a Learning Disability, particularly in reading disabilities. There is a complex interaction between different parts of the brain that are used to sound out unfamiliar words, recognize familiar words by sight and also pronounce words. These brain regions and neural networks are not activated the same way as in students without Learning Disabilities. These brain regions are the same regardless of the language being learned. This is why reading disabilities can be seen across different languages and similar neurobiological features can be identified. The underlying cause of reading difficulties is a deficit in phonological awareness and phonetic decoding. Students have trouble with letter-sound associations, meaning connecting the sounds that make up words with the letters that represent those sounds and manipulating those sounds. They struggle with decoding new words, with their reading speed, their reading accuracy, and/or reading comprehension. This can also lead to challenges in spelling and written expression. Things such as our verbal memory and our retrieval of stored information can also affect academic performance.
The structure or sound-system (phonological component) is the same in different languages, and so difficulties will exist regardless of which language they are taught in. We should not assume that a student will struggle more in a French Immersion program than an English-only program. The basic skills and strategies that they use to overcome reading difficulties are transferable from one language to another. This means that interventions can benefit the student in learning both languages. Students in French Immersion may even be at an advantage because of the repetition and review of basic skills when they are taught in both languages. Overall, if appropriate supports are given to students with a Learning Disability, they can flourish in that setting.
How do I know if French Immersion is a good fit for my child?
Parents may worry that putting their child in a French Immersion program can be harmful to their learning if they have not fully developed their English language skills. However, that is not the case. Studies show that students will have the same levels of success in immersion or non-immersion classrooms. At-risk students are able to do just as well in this style of learning. They gain a number of transferable skills that can be used from acquiring their first language to their second language.
Are you wondering if your child will do well in this environment? Several characteristics of a successful French Immersion student have been identified:
- They have strong verbal skills
- They can imitate or echo words easily
- They have a good memory
- They are a confident learner, or willing to take risks in class
- They enjoy new challenges
- When is French Immersion not a good fit for my child?
French Immersion can be successful for most students with Learning Disabilities. But, there are still times where it may not be the best fit. If students have significant difficulty in their oral language skills, this program may not be appropriate. So, what are the early warning signs?
- They often have difficulty expressing themselves clearly (that is, getting his or her meaning across) in their first language
- They have trouble articulating sounds
- They have trouble recognizing rhyming words
- They have difficulty segmenting or breaking apart words
- They struggle to match letter groups with their sounds (i.e., ‘str’, ‘ch’ etc.)
- They are unable to imitate or echo words and phrases in French
- They have difficulty understanding or recalling the information from a story that they have heard or read.
- They often have difficulty giving information about something that they have just seen or experienced
- They have difficulty with phonetic analysis (identifying or separating the sounds of words) and this difficulty interferes with their comprehension skills
When a child in the French Immersion program has ongoing unhappiness at school, it could be time to consider other available options. If your child has a negative attitude toward the program or they are unmotivated to learn, you may see more challenges in your morning routines. These could be signs they are trying to avoid going to school. They will learn little if they don’t want to learn, whatever their level of ability is. Consider transferring out of the program if:
- There is a lack of interest in learning French
- They have an obvious lack of confidence
- There are sudden changes in behaviour
- There are ongoing behavioural or social problems related to their frustration
Social, Emotional and Behavioural Factors to Consider
There are many factors to consider when thinking about moving schools or programs. Try to evaluate the situation as a whole. Check in with your child’s teacher or educational assistant to see if they have observations around anxious behaviour, recent changes in mood or behaviour, or reports of appearing sad for extended periods of time. Ask the school if your child has a consistent group of friends that they hang out with or if they receive help from their friends in class. What is the student’s self-esteem as a learner? Do they have access to a supportive environment? Do they have trusted adults to help them (i.e., teachers or educational assistants)? These can be important factors in maintaining mental health. Consider your child’s opinion and come to a decision together to determine what is best for you as a family.
Switching out of an Immersion program could affect your child’s self-image or self-esteem if they can feel it is because they are unsuccessful. Students may show more behavioural problems because they had to abandon the school they were accustomed to or were separated from their friends. Being removed from friends and put into new social situations can be stressful. While some students may feel relieved by a switch to a new program, others may express a feeling of failure. If this happens, help them put this into perspective. There is nothing wrong with them, it was just not a good fit between their needs and the program! If they are disappointed about not learning another language, you can remind them that they will have the chance again as an elective in later graders, through summer programs or exchanges, or as part of a hobby or club.
Supports to Access in a French Immersion Setting to Support Success
If you are considering a French Immersion placement for your child with a Learning Disability, it is important to consider how much support that placement can offer. Ask about what supports are offered to students. For students with Learning Disabilities, whether in a French Immersion or English setting, it is important to develop an Individual Program Plan (IPP). This document outlines areas of strength and need, as well as the strategies required to support their learning. It is important that parents be actively involved in providing essential input to develop the individualized programing. Parents are encouraged to participate in regular meetings to review goals and objectives that the student is working towards through the school year. Home-school collaboration is important to provide students with a sense of being supported. The level of this collaboration can relate to the level of the student’s success. Other supports to include in the classroom include:
- Make sure to follow the student’s interests
- Allow students to use a multi-sensory approach (i.e., using audio tapes while reading)
- Allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in different ways (i.e., oral presentation rather than written essay)
- Use the same learning strategies for both languages. Teach explicit skills such as letter-sound associations, phonological awareness, decoding skills, and vocabulary. These transfer from the first to second language. Speak to a professional about specific recommendations that will be best for your child.
- Use assistive technology to help. Google Read and Write, which is a Google Chrome add-on, will read French text aloud for students to hear.
- Provide encouragement and praise
- In addition, Spanish can also be a good choice for kids with reading disabilities. It’s more predictable than many languages and it has fewer rules and exceptions. It shares many of the same root words as English. It also has only five vowel sounds to learn.
A student’s progress in French Immersion follows a similar pattern to their progress in English. Studies show that learning a second language does not negatively impact their development of English. French Immersion is not over-taxing for students with Learning Disabilities if they are properly supported. The challenge is in how to create a learning environment which supports the student and helps them achieve their full potential. Research supports the idea that when appropriate strategies are put in place for students with Learning Disabilities, they can thrive in a French Immersion program. However, if your child has significant difficulties in their oral language skills, or is uninterested in learning a second language, then it may be a frustrating experience for them. Talk with them, as well as professionals, and discuss your alternatives.