Written by Kim Lockhart, M.Ed., French Immersion teacher
In 2015, the Ontario Ministry of Education released a document, Including Students with Special Education Needs in French as a Second Language Programs as part of the Ministry’s ongoing commitment to ensure French Second Language (FSL) programs are more inclusive and welcoming of students with diverse learning abilities. The document aimed to promote discussion amongst educators, administrators, parents and caregivers related to the inclusion of students with learning differences and challenge current belief systems about which students are best suited for, and can benefit from, participation in FSL programs. Additionally, the document aimed to serve as a tool for educators to use to help support students with special education needs to succeed in FSL programs.
This resource aims to support the recommendations in the Including Students with Special Education Needs in French as a Second Language programs document. The intention is to provide FSL educators with specific instructional strategies that align with the recommendations but also connect them to the reading research on how students learn to read, write, and speak the language of instruction. Currently, many of the recommendations in the guide are general in nature, based on a belief system, and do not specifically address evidence-based instructional strategies to help students learn to read and write, which are skills necessary for the success of FSL students with special education needs. This resource aims to fill that gap by providing evidence-based strategies that are essential for students with learning differences, are effective for all students, and harmful to none.
Believing that students of all abilities can be successful in second language programs is the first step to inclusive education. But the magic is in the instruction. Students not only need to feel included in FSL programs but their learning needs must be met, too. Removing barriers that previously prevented students from accessing the French Immersion program is simply not enough; teachers need access to the research that shows how students learn to read and write as well as training from literacy experts in order to be equipped to educate a growing population of diverse learners in FSL programs. In other words, a cultural shift in the belief systems around FSL programs must also be met with a shift in general classroom teacher training so that teachers are effectively trained and feel confidently equipped to meet the growing diversity of student learning needs in FSL programs.
In the document Including Students with Special Education Needs in French as a Second Language Programs inclusive education is described as the acceptance and inclusion of all students. This aligns with other Ministry documents including Realizing the Promise of Diversity: Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy which states:
“Inclusive education is based on the principles of acceptance and inclusion of all students. Students see themselves reflected in their curriculum, their physical surroundings, and the broader environment, in which diversity is honoured and all individuals are respected.” (p. 4)
An inclusive FSL program may include students with communication disabilities (ex. autism), behaviour disabilities (ex. Oppositional Defiance Disorder), intellectual disabilities (ex. mild intellectual disorder, MID), physical disabilities (ex. Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis), and comorbid or multiple disabilities (ex. ADHD and learning disabilities; ADHD and gifted). As a result of a more inclusive belief system, FSL programs across Ontario have grown significantly over the last 8 years and now reflect this mandate to be more inclusive of learning differences.
Part of this belief system is rooted in the idea that students learn to speak, understand, read and write in a second language through exposure alone or when immersed in a language-rich environment. The idea is students will learn to read when read to and will learn to write by observing how others write. Research indicates otherwise. According to reading expert Dr. Louisa Moats (2020), the human brain is wired for spoken language but is not wired for written language. Regardless of the language of instruction, students need explicit, systematic, code-based instruction that teaches sound/symbol correspondences. Code-based instruction requires students to learn the letter-sound associations and be able to apply those letter-sound associations when decoding and when encoding (ex. spelling) words phonetically. It is also important to note that not all students learn the letter-sound associations at the same rate nor require the same level of intensity of code-based instruction: some students will learn the code with minimal instruction while other students may require more intensive instruction of the sound symbol correspondence, requiring more repetitions and multiple opportunities for practice. This code-based instruction is one aspect of a comprehensive approach to evidence-based reading instruction.
In 2001, the International Dyslexia Association of Ontario defined Structured Literacy as a comprehensive approach to literacy instruction that is effective for all students and essential for students with reading disabilities, such as dyslexia. This approach may alternately be called “the science of reading” or evidence-based literacy instruction. It is characterized by the provision of systematic, explicit instruction that integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing. It teaches the structure of language across the speech sound system (phonology), the writing system (orthography), the structure of sentences (syntax), the meaningful parts of words (morphology), the relationships among words (semantics), and the organization of spoken and written discourse (IDA Ontario, 2001). All of these elements are equally important when teaching students to read and write in French. It is important for second language teachers to recognize that an evidence-based approach to literacy instruction is as effective and essential in the French Immersion setting as in the English language stream. In other words, a comprehensive approach to reading and writing can, and should be, used in the French Immersion classroom setting as well as in the English classroom setting, in order to reach more learners.
Source: Carolyn Cowen, 2016. https://dyslexiaida.org/what-is-structured-literacy/
The following list is intended to complement the document “Including Students with Special Education Needs in French as a Second Language Programs” by providing high-yield, evidence-based strategies that are essential for students with learning disabilities but also effective for all students who are learning French as a second language.
At the core of a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to literacy instruction is oral language. Research indicates that oral language skills are a predictor of how well a child will read in the future (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005). Oral language skills are critical because they promote phonemic awareness (the understanding that spoken language can be manipulated), help build a robust vocabulary in the language of instruction and develop listening skills that help with comprehension of spoken language.
In the French as a Second Language classroom, hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language are important instructional strategies that support the development of FSL students’ French oral language skills. Gestures and facial expressions help students attach meaning to spoken language. Research suggests that students understand and remember more of what teachers say when hand movement accompanies words, with representational gestures leading to deeper comprehension (Hostetter, A. B., 2011). For example, a French Immersion Kindergarten teacher may want to point to the door when they say “vas-y a la porte” and walk to the door themselves to indicate what action they expect of the students. When teaching a lesson on emotions to a Core French class of Grade 3 students, the teacher should use facial expressions to teach the range of emotions so that students can match the spoken word to the facial expression and the associated feeling (ex. Frown means someone is unhappy or sad= triste). Additionally, all students in FSL programs can benefit from the use of visuals, such as photos or drawings, to help them understand spoken language. In a study of second language learners (Haber, 1970), pictures helped students to strengthen and organize their verbal recall. The study found that children when taught words with visuals, had significantly improved recall than the control group that did not have visuals. In the classroom setting, for example, when the FSL teacher is describing the roles of community members for a Grade 1 social studies lesson, visuals of police officers in uniform, postal workers, doctors and teachers should be used, while taking into consideration culturally diverse community members. Furthermore, students should be provided with multiple opportunities to use these new vocabulary words, through carefully scaffolded discussions, open-ended questions, and small group activities (ex. Le pompier….).
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in spoken language. Phonemic awareness is essential for learning to read and write because students must be able to blend sounds together to decode words (read) and identify individual spoken sounds to encode words (spell) by mapping the grapheme (letter) to each phoneme (sound) in a word. Difficulties with phonemic awareness is a hallmark of a struggling reader. However, with early identification and intensive, appropriate interventions, children can learn this skill and prevent reading difficulties from worsening over time.
Blending individual sounds together to produce a word is a prerequisite skill required to decode words. For example, a teacher may use the strategy “tap-tap-glisse” on their extended arm, saying the first sound of a word and tapping their shoulder, then saying the middle sound of a word and tapping the inside of their arm, and finally saying the last sound of a word and tapping their wrist. Students repeat each of the three sounds and then “slide” the sounds together or their arm to make a word! This activity can be differentiated by increasing the complexity of the words from words with 2 phonemes (sounds) to words with 5 or more phonemes!
For an example of the tap-tap-glisse strategy in English, view the YouTube video below, created by Teach for Life:
A second essential phonemic awareness skill is learning to segment words into their individual sounds. An abacus is a helpful tool that the teacher can use to demonstrate how words can be separated, or segmented, into individual sounds. Using the “I do, We do, You do model” the teacher segments a word, moving a bead for each sound in the word. Students then segment the word together with the teacher, and finally, the teacher calls on individual students to segment the word on their own!
Phonics instruction teaches the relationship between letters (or letter combinations) and sounds. French Immersion students need to learn the specific sound-symbol correspondences of the French language to be proficient readers and writers. A comprehensive, evidence-based approach to literacy instruction includes teacher-directed, explicit instruction of phonics, ensuring that students are not left to guess letter sounds within words and texts. Students are taught the letter/sound associations in isolation and provided with opportunities to apply and practice these letter-sound associations in decodable text. Explicit phonics instruction benefits all students but is essential for students with learning disabilities to ensure they develop strong decoding skills which cannot be done through rote memorization alone of whole words.
One of the most effective, evidence-based instructional tools to teach phonics are code packs: index cards with letters on them. This multisensory approach to phonics instruction is a tool that can be used to teach phonics to a whole class of students (Tier 1), in small remediation groups (Tier 2), or used 1:1 with students who need very intensive phonics support, with frequent opportunities to practice (Tier 3). Used within a comprehensive French phonics program that follows a logical scope and sequence, code packs are inexpensive yet high-impact instructional tools that are accessible to all teachers.
The cards are organized into three sets of differently coloured cards: consonants are written on white cards, vowels are written on yellow cards, and complex sounds (ex. oi, eau, euille) are written on pink cards. The scope and sequence should progress from simple to more complex letter/sound associations. Additionally, it is important to note that the instructional approach is just as important, if not more important, than the resource itself and the code pack will only be beneficial if used effectively. First, the teacher shows the index card with a grapheme to the students. She then pronounces the sound and asks the students to repeat the sound. After repeating the letter’s sound, the teacher then asks students to name a word beginning with that sound, activating students’ phonological systems. Throughout the year, the teacher systematically works through the scope and sequence, integrating new pieces of the code pack once other pieces of code have been consolidated, and reviewing code previously taught on a daily basis.
Decoding is the ability to apply knowledge of letter-sound relationships to read words accurately and fluently. French Immersion students must be able to decode French words, a skill that can be very challenging for students with learning disabilities in reading and Dyslexia. An evidence-based approach to literacy instruction provides explicit instruction of decoding strategies, teaching students how to decompose words into their individual units of sound, or phonemes, and then blend them together. This systematic approach helps students with learning disabilities improve their decoding skills in French. Decodable books are a valuable resource in an evidence-based French phonics program. Unlike levelled books that are often directly translated from English, decodable books have controlled the letter/sound correspondences in the text and follow a scope and sequence of letter-sound associations. Used within a comprehensive literacy program, decodable books enable early readers to access French text in a way they are not able to with French levelled readers because of the complex letter-sound correspondences (ex. Oiseau or feuille) they contain. Furthermore, decodable books are designed to foster good reading habits, such as looking at the words and encouraging students to sound out unfamiliar words rather than guess unknown words using picture clues, a strategy that is seldom effective for second language learners who do not have the vocabulary to guess words they do not know!
Vocabulary is knowing words and word meanings. It includes expressive vocabulary (words said or produced) and receptive vocabulary (words heard and understood). Vocabulary knowledge is vital for French as a second language learners because it supports comprehension, communication, reading, writing, speaking, listening, fluency, and cultural understanding. A broad vocabulary enhances overall language proficiency and enables learners to engage more effectively with the second language and its speakers. Vocabulary must be explicitly taught to FSL students because, unlike their English peers, they do not have a basic level of vocabulary when they come to school, therefore, this bank of words must be explicitly taught to them.
There are many evidence-based instructional strategies that are effective for teaching vocabulary to second language learners. One of the most effective strategies for helping students with learning disabilities know and remember new words, is asking students to associate the new vocabulary with things that are already familiar to them or to words that are similar in their native language. For example, educators can draw students’ attention to French words that are similar in pronunciation or spelling in English. These are called cognates. Many words in English originate from old French and this connection between the vocabulary can help enhance students’ knowledge of French words (ex. Musique and music; salade and salad; couleur and color, etc.)
Graphic organizers are a second, effective strategy for teaching vocabulary to students with learning disabilities in FSL. Graphic organizers are visual representations that show arrangements of concepts and/or vocabulary words. These organizers are effective when coupled with direct instruction. Because they use visual images, graphic organizers are particularly appropriate for FSL students with reading difficulties. Examples of graphic organizers include word trees, concept maps, and relational charts. After students read, teachers can use word play to reinforce the understanding of new words and create enthusiasm for learning those new words.
Spelling is an essential component of a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to French literacy instruction. Students must learn the rules and patterns of spelling to become proficient spellers, and French educators must also know the rules and patterns to teach spelling! Spelling instruction supports students with learning disabilities, as well as all other students, by providing explicit teaching of French spelling patterns and rules. This helps students develop their spelling skills in French, improving their overall writing abilities. Furthermore, knowledge of spelling patterns and spelling proficiency supports students’ decoding and word recognition skills, too.
One of the most effective strategies for teaching spelling to students with learning disabilities in the French Immersion classroom is using a multisensory strategy, such as Simultaneous Oral Spelling (S.O.S.) created by Orton-Gillingham. This strategy builds students’ phonological awareness by breaking down word sounds for students to practice spelling certain words. Although initially used for students learning how to spell words in English, this approach to spelling instruction is equally effective for students with learning disabilities in the FSL setting.
In the classroom setting, the teacher first says a word clearly (ex. sac) while showing students what their mouth, teeth, lips and tongue are doing when the word is articulated. Next, the students repeat the word back. Then, the teacher models how to separate each phoneme in the word, counting on fingers, using blocks, or an abacus when saying each sound (ex. s…a…c). Next, the students repeat back the phonemes in the words, lifting a finger or moving a block for each phoneme said. Then, the teacher orally says the names of each letter for each sound said (ex. “S”...”A”...”C”...). Next, the students repeat back the letter names. Finally, the teacher prints on a whiteboard each letter, using correct letter formation in a top-down, left-right direction. Students then do the same, writing each letter for the word. The lesson ends with the students reading back the word and checking for meaning. If a student incorrectly spells a word (ex. Writes the letter “c” instead of “s”, the teacher immediately corrects the child and explains why the “s” is used instead of the “c” (because the letter “c” is a hard sound when it precedes the short a sound).
This routine should continue daily until all students are able to isolate sounds and match the sounds to the correct letters independently (sound/letter mapping). Students with learning disabilities will require more intensive support of this explicit, systematic spelling instruction, and more repetitions before they reach mastery. This can be done in small groups of 3-5 students, with the teacher, while the rest of the class is working independently.
In conclusion, a comprehensive, evidence-based approach to French reading and writing instruction supports students with learning disabilities by providing explicit and systematic instruction in the foundational skills of reading and writing. By focusing on phonological awareness, phonics, decoding, vocabulary and spelling, this approach equips students with the tools they need to become proficient readers and writers in French despite their learning challenges.
Cown, Carolyn. (2016). https://dyslexiaida.org/what-is-structured-literacy/
Including Students with Special Education Needs in French as a Second Language Programs, A Guide for Ontario Schools. (2015). https://files.ontario.ca/edu-1_3/edu-including-students-special-needs-fsl-en-2021-11-18.pdf
International Dyslexia Association of Ontario. (2021). https://www.idaontario.com/effective-reading-instruction/
Haber, R. N. (1970). Perception and memory for pictures: Single-trial learning of 2500 visual stimuli. Psychonomic Science, 19(2), 73–74. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03337426
HD early child care research network. (2000). The relation of child care to cognitive and language development. Child Development, 71, 960-980.
Hostetter, A. B. (2011). When do gestures communicate? A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 137(2), 297–315. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022128
Moats, Louisa Cook. (2020). Teaching reading is rocket science : What expert teachers of reading should know and be able to do. Washington, DC :American Federation of Teachers.
About the Author:
Kim Lockhart is a French Immersion, public school educator in Kingston, Ontario. She teaches literacy in the Kindergarten classroom and is the French Reading Remediation teacher for students in grades 1-6. Kim has a Master of Education (M.Ed) degree from Queen’s University, has her Orton-Gillingham classroom educator certificate, and has adopted an evidence-based literacy approach to reading and writing in her French Immersion program. This past year, Kim worked as a content contributor with a team of reading experts to help align the Ministry of Ontario’s new Language Arts curriculum to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Right to Read recommendations. Kim is an active board member of the International Dyslexia Association of Ontario, a Literacy Coach for the Introduction to Structured Literacy course, and frequently offers literacy workshops for parents, caregivers and educators across Canada. In 2019, Kim was recognized as “One of 50 Most Influential Alumni in 50 Years” at Queen’s University’s Faculty of Education.