The Core of the Matter

Intensive Core French pilot program promises results

by Michael Salvatori


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 another model piloted last year in four district school boards, known as Intensive Core French (ICF), offers an enriched version of the Core French program during Grades 5 and 6.

Jodi Saunders is in her second year of teaching ICF in Grade 5 at St. Joseph Catholic School in Gananoque. Her students will have 200 minutes of French-language instruction every day, covering oral communication, reading and writing. That’s 70 per cent of each school day over a five-month period.

As the focus is always on oral participation, if students are reading or writing, she will ask them to describe what they are doing. At the beginning of the school year, Saunders starts by asking basic questions and modelling the answers, for example, “What do I look like? I have red hair and I’m short.” She gets the students to answer the questions, and then has them pair up to ask each other the questions and to answer them.

“I give them a lot of opportunities to talk in French and I make sure that there’s no English during that 200 minutes a day – which in and of itself is a huge challenge.” Students do speak English during recess and lunchtime, and math, religion and physical education classes are given in English.

After five months of ICF, students return to a concentrated form of the regular curriculum – studying social sciences, music, art and drama, plus one hour of French a day.
The focus of ICF is the use of purposeful oral language within an FSL program. In other words, it encourages communication that reflects students’ lives, is appropriate to their cognitive level and requires them to create messages that can be used in real situations and for real purposes.

A new teacher, Saunders was excited to participate in the intensive program. “I thought it would be interesting to take part in a pilot program and would be a huge learning curve for me.

“It’s a program that’s authentic to the students,” says Saunders. “Anything that I do has to relate to their lives. When we talk about sports, they learn to talk about their favourite sports. It’s all related to them. It’s easy because they have an entry point into the language, and it’s fun because who doesn’t like to talk about themselves.” Laughing, she adds that she gets to know her students very well over those five months because they talk about themselves so much!


Jodi Saunders at St. Joseph Catholic School in Gananoque




FSL educator and consultant Bev Anderson, who observed four Ontario teachers currently piloting the ICF program, found that teachers, students and school communities showed real enthusiasm about the intensive model. According to Anderson, three main factors contribute to a successful ICF program: time, intensity and teaching strategies.

“It’s important to block out the allocated time so that students have as intensive an experience as possible, and teaching strategies that include extensive interaction between teacher and students, as well as among students, are vital,” she says. She also stresses the importance of mentoring and support for the teacher throughout the program, in order to optimize the students’ experience.

Renée Théroux, FSL consultant in the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic DSB, agrees – attributing the pilot program’s success in her board to the role the teachers play and the investment the board made in their professional development as part of its implementation strategy. Teachers were able to participate in a five-day professional development program that allowed them to absorb and apply the theories that were presented.

“The board also regularly provides experts for classroom visits and, during the course of the year, organizes gatherings where ICF teachers can exchange and share ideas and experiences,” says Théroux.

Charlotte Rouleau, principal of curriculum in the Eastern Ontario Catholic DSB, reports that the pilot program was a success for the 48 Grade 5 students who participated at St. Francis Xavier School in Brockville and St. Joseph School in Gananoque.

“They learn to talk about their favourite sports. It’s all related to them.”

As students’ confidence improved, so did their French. The students who participated in the pilot were assessed for their oral communication and writing skills at the outset of the program in September, and again at the end. On the oral interview scale they made gains of 3.6, while their writing skills were comparable to those of francophone students completing Grade 2 in Québec.

“One Grade 5 class participated in a three-day French camp with students from an immersion class,” reports Rouleau. “The students had no difficulty conversing with their peers from the immersion class. They felt confident and were motivated to speak in French with counsellors, kitchen staff and others. Their self-esteem definitely rose throughout the ICF program.”

Saunders, in Gananoque, says that her students couldn’t answer a simple question like “How are you?” in French last September. But, she reports, “After five months they could ask questions and make complex sentences. They speak without thinking about it; they’re not conjugating verbs in their head or thinking about whether nouns are masculine or feminine.”
In fact, she doesn’t directly teach her students how to conjugate verbs or when to use the masculine or feminine article. Instead, they learn simply by hearing and speaking the language.

In light of the program’s success, the Grade 5 ICF pilot is being expanded to three more schools in the Eastern Ontario Catholic DSB, with the intent to eventually offer ICF at the Grade 5 level in all schools that have Core French in their curriculum.
“For this program to be approved by the Minister of Education, there must be a political will for change,” says Théroux.

It will require an investment – in both teachers’ professional development and the development of classroom strategies. “It will also require personnel at both the Ministry and school board levels who can support the classroom teachers,” says Théroux. And that presents a significant challenge for broad implementation of ICF in Ontario.

But ICF teachers, like Lucie Piché-Cantin at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Niagara Falls, are enthusiastic about the results. She describes what her Grade 6 class accomplished last year as fantastic.

“Their French is very advanced. They can express themselves in the present tense and in the past and future as well. Their ability to communicate is really authentic and holistic!”
After a 35-year career, as a teacher, school principal and superintendent with Ontario’s Ministry of Education, Piché-Cantin recently returned from retirement, wanting to spend more time in the classroom.

Like Saunders, Piché-Cantin uses a lot of modelling and a variety of approaches in the classroom – including drama, art and physical activities. Her students work in small groups, focusing on oral expression that reflects their interests and experience.

“For me, ICF is an authentic way to teach the language and transmit cultural values,” she says. “You can’t teach a language without transmitting cultural values. For the students, this is a unique opportunity to acquire the language in a context in which they are really at the heart of the learning experience.


Role play – providing tourist information at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Elementary School in Niagara Falls




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



A number of organizations at the provincial and national levels provide resources and support for FSL teachers.

The Ontario Modern Language Teachers’ Association (OMLTA) is a provincial organization with a membership of 975 teachers, most of whom are FSL teachers in Ontario. The association’s president, Pete Cecile, considers support of FSL teachers to be one of OMLTA’s primary objectives and mentions the success of its conference, Languages, Our Natural Legacy, held in Toronto last spring, with over 1,000 teachers participating. The theme of this year’s fall conference, which took place in Stratford on October 17 and 18, was Languages on Centre Stage. For FSL teachers with more than five years experience, OMLTA has created Projet à Québec, which provides funding for 20 teachers to spend 10 days in Québec during the summer to improve both their skills in French and their knowledge of francophone culture.

The Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers (CASLT) offers a range of resources, support and networking opportunities for teachers across Canada. CASLT serves English- and French-as-Second-Language teachers as well as those teaching other modern languages. For information visit


A. MacFarlane, An Examination of Intensive French: A Pedagogical Strategy for the Improvement of FSL Outcomes in Canada (Ottawa: CASLT/ACPLS, 2005).

S. Lapkin, A. MacFarlane and L. Vandergrift, Teaching French in Canada: FSL Teachers’ Perspectives (Ottawa: Canadian Teachers’ Federation, 2006).


For more information on French-as-Second-Language curriculum consultations or for a copy of the report, contact the Ministry of Education at 416-325-2929 or 1-800-387-5514.

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