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October 24, 2002 English struggles for class time in Quebec's French schools




by Barbara Black

When it looked as though École Jacques-Labrie was going to be closed recently, Joanna White was incensed, and she said as much to the National Post.

White is a professor in Concordia’s Education Department of TESL (teaching English as a second language), and Jacques-Labrie, an elementary school in suburban St. Eustache, represents the high-water mark of delivery of English institution in Quebec’s education system. She has done considerable research at the school, including her doctoral thesis and studies funded by Concordia internal grants and the TESOL International Research Foundation.

“Jacques-Labrie is a special school, entirely devoted to intensive English, yet it has always been under threat, for various reasons,” she said.

Quebec’s francophone schools introduce English as a second language at the Grade 3 level, and students get only one hour a week. Teachers are prohibited from using English to teach the curriculum, so it is entirely second-language instruction, with the emphasis on understanding rather than the accuracy of grammar and spelling.

However, parents may choose intensive English instead. In this option, Grade 5 or 6 students take five months of English; their actual curriculum is taught in French in the other five months.

Intensive programs are launched at the request of the parents in that school. It’s a popular option: between 10 and 15 per cent of Quebec schoolchildren are in an intensive program at a given time.

Most Quebec schools that now offer intensive ESL have a single intensive classroom, but École Jacques-Labrie is different, because the whole school is given over to intensive English. Instead of only hearing the second language in their classroom, the Jacques-Labrie children also hear English from the principal, other teachers and the custodian in the school corridors. Before long, previously unilingual children are using English in the schoolyard.

White says her studies show that this approach is much more effective than the one-hour-a-week method of teaching English, and the children’s first language doesn’t suffer, either.

The parents and teachers of Jacques-Labrie have had to fight for their school, because as school boards were rejigged, its special character had to be defended to successive bureaucrats. It’s slated for closure in June 2004, but parents and teachers hope that school board administrators will change their minds and maintain this landmark program.

Regardless of the outcome, their need for constant vigilance is an indication of how English as a second language has to fight for space in a crowded menu of pedagogical imperatives.

White pointed out that a minimum of 60 minutes a week of English is required, but it is by no means a priority subject. If parents want enriched English instruction, they have to weigh it against enriched physical education or the arts, and make a choice.

The current reform in Quebec schools is meant to encourage “teaching across the curriculum,” but the prohibition against teaching curriculum in the second language, as is done in French immersion programs in the English-language schools, makes things awkward for teachers.

“The challenge is for ESL and French teachers to find areas in which they can collaborate, finding subtle links between learning in both languages.” This is a subject of a research project White is carrying out in a different school with MEQ funding.

Many of Quebec’s ESL teachers graduated from Concordia’s TESL program, including an increasing number of francophones who are highly proficient in English. Qualified ESL teachers are so much in demand they are often hired before they have graduated, White said.

She continues to research aspects of second-language teaching and learning, and, with Laura Collins, a TESL Centre colleague, has just received a grant from the TESOL International Research Foundation to work with a team in Barcelona. They will investigate how an increase in metalinguistic awareness in early adolescence may lead to more efficient second-language learning.

The Barcelona researchers are looking at learning English as a third language, after Spanish and Catalan.