The following article first appeared in the CPF Alberta News.

Yes, You Can Help!

Following are some practical tips for parents, whether they know French or not. You can find much more on literacy development and helping your child in Alberta Education’s handbook for parents, Yes, You Can Help!

Contact your local CPF chapter to ask whether it is offering CPF Alberta’s “French for Immersion Parents” program.

Beginning readers

You’ve made that big decision to enrol your child in an early French immersion program even though you know absolutely no French yourself! Now you’re wondering how you can possibly help when it comes to literacy. Here are a few hints:

Be a good role model – Let your child see you reading: novels, magazines, cookbooks, reference books, the newspaper. Talk about reading and how you learned to read. Discuss what you read with the family. Spend family time at the public library.

Read to your child often – Expose him to your own culture. Read books that expand his knowledge and that help explain events in his life. Include books with repetitive words and phrases that he’ll begin to “read” along with you. Find materials that are just plain fun, like riddles and silly rhymes. Make reading interesting and enjoyable.

Encourage him to be an active listener – Talk about the pictures. Ask for his opinion of something you’ve just read to him. Talk about any words he doesn’t understand. Encourage him to retell stories to someone else in the house.

Tune up his ear – Discriminating between sounds is basic to reading. Play games like “Can you think of a word starting with the sound __?” and “What rhymes with __?” As he gets better and better, graduate from beginning and ending sounds to middle sounds.

Work on readiness for writing – Encourage play with pens, crayons, and scissors. Have him sign his name with simple messages like “Love from…”

Support his efforts to read in French – Show that you are sincerely interested in listening to him reading. Using the pictures as a guide, ask him simple questions about the text: “What does the teacher call this animal?” or “Name the colour of the house in this picture” or “Can you count the number of birds on this page?”

Emerging readers

“Some time between the ages of 5 and 7 most children learn to recognize what many words say, make useful connections between sounds and letters, realize that words on the page fit together to make meaning, and begin to read stories and books. These are the traditional signs of ‘starting to read.’ Learning to become a more competent reader continues on through the elementary school years, and beyond.” *

Find opportunities for her to experience French – Find ways to develop her French “recognition vocabulary.” Encourage listening to music, watching French children’s television programs or videos. Enrol her in a French summer camp. Find an older immersion student to babysit en français.

Ask others to encourage literacy – Letters from Grandma, even if you have to read them to your child at first, will promote an interest in reading. Let relatives know what French books or music would make good birthday and Christmas gifts.

Encourage writing – Have her write postcards or short notes to friends and family. Ask her to help you write the grocery list by copying names from labels.

Listen to her read – Ask her to talk to you about the French stories that she’s reading. Help her learn how to summarize (“It’s about a boy who goes to a farm.”) Have a good French/English dictionary available to look up words she doesn’t know.

Be a coach – Students are taught various strategies for understanding what they are reading. You can reinforce that process at home:

  1. look at the illustration
  2. think, “What word makes sense?”
  3. look at the beginning of the word
  4. reread the sentence
  5. skip the word (for now) and continue reading
  6. read it out loud
  7. use the dictionary

Acknowledge every small improvement – Ooze praise as the sounds gradually become words, the words become sentences, and the stories get longer.

* “Parents Ask About Language Learning,” 1991. Alberta Education and the University of Alberta. (page 2)

Active readers

Now she devours Beverly Cleary books and he’s already read the entire Redwall series. Problem is, there isn’t quite the same enthusiasm when it comes to reading French books!

This is not unusual. By the time French immersion students reach the upper elementary grades, their French vocabulary has not kept up with their interest level in reading, as opportunities to learn French are most often limited to the classroom. There can also be difficulties in relating to stories from other parts of the world and from other cultures.

There are things you can do!

Provide references – Your child will need a French dictionary and a book of verbs. Encourage him to use an agenda to keep track of homework and personal activities.

Continue to read to your child – Take the opportunity to expose him to literature that’s a bit beyond his own ability.

Seek extracurricular opportunities – Experience with French outside the classroom both motivates students and expands their language repertoire. Listen to Radio Canada (French CBC) in the car. Watch some of the hockey game on the French station. Find him a French penpal. Incorporate French into your summer vacation.

Here are more great ideas from an experienced immersion parent:

The “one for two” rule – “After buying a good collection of French novels for Christmas one year, I suggested (okay, it was more of a ’new rule’) that one French book had to be read after every two English books. It actually worked!”

Find something familiar – “My latest coup has been to get translations of many of the favourite English authors from the public library. Harry Potter is just as good in French. The language is advanced (just as it is in English), but the kids already knew the stories and were planning to read them again in any case. After the first few pages they were hooked. They don’t put up nearly the fight about reading in French when it’s a book that they know in advance will interest them.”