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Canadian French immersion began in 1965 in St. Lambert, Quebec with the explicit goal of enabling children to become bilingual in French and English without sacrificing their academic achievement (Canadian Council on Learning, 2007). Since then, immersion education has spread rapidly throughout Canada as well as in other parts of the world. There are several types of immersion programs that differ in terms of (1) when students are introduced to French instruction and (2) the amount of instruction given in French. “Early immersion” begins in kindergarten or grade 1, while “delayed immersion” does not begin until the middle elementary years, and “late immersion” in middle school. In “total French immersion,” all classes are taught in French, usually for the first three years of the program. English language arts classes are introduced around the third or fourth grade, followed by a gradual increase in English instruction for other subjects. In “partial French immersion,” around 50% of classes are taught in French throughout the program. In French immersion programs, the same academic content is taught as in the regular English program.

A substantial body of research shows that French immersion programs are effective in meeting students’ language and academic achievement goals. In terms of French language proficiency, immersion students outperform English-speaking students enrolled in basic French programs, where French is taught as a subject for about 20 to 40 minutes a day (Cummins & Swain, 1986; Genesee, 1987). The level of French proficiency attained by immersion students depends on the age of introduction to French and on the extent of French instruction. Total-immersion students tend to outperform partial-immersion students (Genesee, 1987; Swain & Lapkin, 1982), and early-immersion students generally do better than delayed-immersion and late-immersion students (Wesche et al., 1996).

However, immersion students often do not develop native-like proficiency in French despite many years of participation in the program (Genesee, 2006). This has led some researchers to question the effectiveness of a mainly communicative approach to language teaching used in these programs, and turn to focus-on-form, a teaching method that highlights specific linguistic structures and forms within the context of communicative language instruction (Swain, 1998; see also Chapter 7). It is important to remember, however, that while French immersion students do not often develop native-like proficiency in French, they are still far more proficient in French than students who take French as a foreign language subject.

In terms of English language proficiency, early total-immersion students (those who receive no instruction in English for the first few years of their programs) initially do worse than non-immersion students on English language tests. However, their English skills generally improve after the first year of English language arts instruction introduced in grade 3 or 4. Turnbull, Lapkin, & Hart (2001) found that early-immersion students in grades 3 and 6 performed as well as their non-immersion peers on English reading and writing tests. In addition, 15-year-old French immersion students do better on reading assessments than non-immersion students, even when tested in English (Statistics Canada, 2004).

In terms of academic achievement in the content areas, immersion students perform as well as (and in some cases better than) non-immersion students on tests of science and mathematics (Turnbull et al., 2001). Bournot-Trites & Reeder (2001) examined the effect of teaching math in French on math assessments given in English. They compared the math achievement scores of students enrolled in different types of French immersion programs in Vancouver. In one immersion program, math classes were taught in French up to grade 3, after which the students were taught math in English. In another immersion program, math classes continued to be taught in French in grades 4 through 7. The study found that students who continued learning math in French performed better on math tests (administered in English) than those who stopped receiving math instruction in French after grade 3. These results support the linguistic interdependence principle, which states that instruction in French not only develops French skills, but also improves a deeper conceptual and linguistic proficiency that is related to the development of English literacy (Cummins, 1996).

Statistics Canada (2004) reports that students in French immersion programs generally come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than nonimmersion students, and there are more girls than boys. Since socioeconomic status is widely known to be strongly related to academic achievement, one might suspect that the positive student outcomes are an effect of immersion students’ higher socioeconomic status. However, even after controlling for socioeconomic background, the Statistics Canada report found a substantial lead in the achievement of immersion students over non-immersion students in many Canadian provinces. The report also found that the average reading performance of immersion students was significantly higher than for nonimmersion students even when boys and girls were considered separately.

One of the challenges facing French immersion programs is student attrition—many students drop out of the program especially after grade 8 (Canadian Council on Learning, 2007). Among the reasons for the attrition are a shortage of qualified teachers with content area expertise to teach advanced courses in French and a lack of appropriate learning materials at the advanced levels. Despite these difficulties, French immersion has been an educational program of remarkable success and growth. Today, immersion education can be found all over the world, with the original model adapted in various ways to suit the needs of local populations (see also Johnson & Swain, 1997).

Next, I discuss the European Schools, another strong form of bilingual education.

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