The Core of the Matter

Change is the constant for French as a Second Language in Ontario

by Michael Salvatori


If you recall a mischievous dog named Pitou and the members of la famille LeDuc who regularly scolded him, it’s very likely you once studied French as a Second Language (FSL). It has been many years since la famille LeDuc and their escapades reigned supreme in Ontario classrooms. French-language education has evolved considerably in recent decades, becoming compulsory in Grades 4 to 9 in Ontario’s public schools, while the LeDuc family and the irascible Pitou have been relegated to dusty supply rooms.
Over the past 30 years, teachers have seen the appearance – and disappearance – of various approaches to second-language acquisition. Remember the language labs of the 1970s, equipped with headphones and tape players, where students sat in booths parroting recorded voices?

Oral communication and interaction with an expert speaker are still essential components of second-language acquisition, but that stilted method is no longer advocated. Gone also is the translation method, in which students translated into French disconnected phrases and expressions, such as:

They got up covered with mud.
She gave her the dress made in Paris.
Who likes the cod caught on the banks of Newfoundland?

Cours moyen de français, 1968

FSL teaching methodology now advocates a communicative approach to language acquisition based on authentic language use – in other words, language that is meaningful and relevant to students’ real-life experiences and interests.

Delivering the goods
In Ontario’s English-language schools, Core French is the primary method used to teach French as a Second Language. Unlike French Immersion programs, in which French is the language of instruction for French and other subjects, for Core French the only subjects taught are French language and culture. Students accumulate 600 hours of instruction in French between Grades 4 and 8, and must also complete one FSL course in Grade 9. Many district school boards also offer FSL in Grades 1 to 3.

At the elementary level, school boards offer a variety of models for teaching FSL, the most common being 40 minutes of FSL instruction each day, but new approaches continue to be explored and assessed, including a pilot program in Intensive Core French (ICF) for Grades 5 and 6 (see Intensive Core French, page 45).

Like Special Education and English as a Second Language, FSL requires a specific qualification. Teachers who did not take French as a teaching option in their initial teacher education program may take FSL as an Additional Qualification (AQ).

“The greatest issue that surfaced was the lack of classrooms for Core French.”

Currently, over 24,000 members of the Ontario College of Teachers are qualified to teach FSL. As the employment market for FSL teachers in Ontario is a remarkably strong one, having an FSL qualification is almost a guarantee of a teaching position.

The College’s 2007 Transition to Teaching study revealed that new teachers with a qualification in FSL were very successful in finding regular teaching positions within their first year of teaching.

Ninety-four per cent of the participants in the survey who identified themselves as having obtained a qualification in French as a Second Language as part of their basic qualifications reported that they were teaching and had obtained regular teaching jobs. Eighty-two per cent of those who reported having earned FSL AQs found regular teaching jobs in the first year, compared to a 32 per cent regular-teaching-job rate for new graduates employed in the first year but not teaching French.


Grade 6 Intensive Core French at St.Vincent de Paul Catholic Elementary School in Niagara Falls.



However, the supply of qualified FSL teachers does not meet current demand. The College grants temporary letters of approval (TLAs) to Ontario district school boards, allowing them to assign teachers who don’t have the specific qualifications for a restricted assignment such as FSL, Special Education or English as a Second Language.

The TLA, valid for one school year, is granted when a district school board deems the appointment necessary and confirms that the teacher is competent to carry out the assignment. During the term of the TLA, the teacher is expected to earn the Additional Qualification. The College grants approximately 1,500 TLAs each year. During 2006–07, half the TLAs granted were for FSL assignments. For the 2007–08 school year to date, 708 TLAs for FSL have been granted.

Challenges and change
While, for those with appropriate qualifications, entry into the profession is relatively easy, FSL teachers do face significant challenges in the field. Maureen Smith has 30 years of experience teaching FSL, including the past 10 years spent working with the University of Western Ontario’s initial teacher education program. Smith recently co-authored a report, Teaching and Learning French as a Second Language: Core French in the Elementary Schools of Ontario, based on research conducted with Anthony Mollica and Gail Phillips of Brock University’s Faculty of Education.

According to Smith, there is evidence that the conditions necessary to foster excellent second-language learning experiences are hindered by the school environment and the provincial policies that influence it.

“The greatest issue that surfaced was the lack of classrooms for Core French. The Ministry of Education determines the use of classroom space through a formula that is based on square footage and doesn’t recognize the need for a dedicated Core French classroom.” She describes situations where Core French teachers give eight or more classes a day, working from a cart set up in the lunchroom, gym or multiple portables, even when there’s an empty classroom in the school.

She points out that a good FSL environment requires engaging visual aids and print resources, not to mention lots of time to practise the language, yet the majority of FSL teachers travel from class to class, and many travel from school to school, transporting all their materials with them.

Smith claims that, overall, there is significant federal and provincial funding for French-language instruction, though there is a shortage of funds for professional development for teachers working with special-needs students who are studying French as a Second Language.

“There is great concern that the Ontario Core French teacher is perceived as a prep teacher rather than a specialist teaching one of the core subject areas on the Ontario elementary curriculum,” says Smith. She concludes that the gap between the actual classroom environment and the policies that influence it requires careful study if Ontario is to offer its students the quality FSL education to which they are entitled.

The challenges FSL teachers face are not unique to Ontario. The report on a national research study on the status of Canadian FSL programs (Lapkin, MacFarlane and Vandergrift) suggests that FSL teachers across Canada face the same difficulties getting funding for professional development.

Nicole Thibault, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers (CASLT), emphasizes changes that have occurred during the past five years. As the report states, in 2003 an action plan for official languages was launched by the federal government, with a goal of doubling the number of bilingual graduates by 2013. The plan generated unprecedented discussion, including much debate on the definition of the term “bilingual” and how to measure bilingualism. Interested parties came together for consultations, networking events and activities that focused on the status of Canada’s FSL programs and their importance in society, in addition to encouraging a more strategic approach to bring about positive, long-term change. The report notes:

Many projects across the country are now beginning to focus on language learning in a broader context of internationalization, social cohesion, responsible citizenship and respecting diversity in a global marketplace – specifically revitalization of programs through updated resources and curriculum; focus on teacher training, PD and ongoing support; and tracking and recognizing student language proficiency.

As well as piloting innovative models of Core French, an imminent revision to Ontario’s FSL curriculum may contribute to improved Core French instruction across the province. The Ministry of Education has invited FSL educators to take part in consultations this fall about the current FSL curriculum document, which has been in use for a decade. Results of the consultation should be released in spring or summer 2009.

Louise Pharand, an education officer at the Ministry, says that it is too soon to predict anticipated changes, but that the revised FSL curriculum for the elementary level is to be announced in 2010 and implemented in 2011. The secondary-level curriculum is scheduled for release in 2011.

FSL teaching and learning has recently received additional funding. Since 2005–06 the Ministry has allocated $8.5 million per year of federal funding for projects related to official languages in education, in addition to the $210 to $220 million that the province provides in the form of grants for student needs.

Thibault says that district school boards have used the funds for a variety of innovative FSL projects. The Huron-Perth Catholic DSB received funding in three areas – Core French, French Immersion and French at the secondary level. Its goal during the first two years was to find synergies between French and English programs at the elementary level, for example complementary reading-comprehension strategies. In its third year, the project began to explore ways to promote Core French and French Immersion at the secondary level.

Dawn Boersen, the board’s co-ordinator of curriculum and media, says, “Kids are drawing on the skills they are developing in their first language to support their second-language acquisition.

The Core of the Matter

Change is the constant for French as a Second Language in Ontario

arrow Intensive Core French pilot program promises results

Top of Page