The following article is by Sonia Houle, who began teaching in French immersion in 1986, primarily at the grade 1 level for Edmonton Public Schools. Special thanks also to Cynthia Pharis for her assistance. The article first appeared in the CPF Alberta News.
With a strong language-based kindergarten experience, your child will be prepared to venture into literacy with confidence. Having been “immersed” in the French language in kindergarten will give him what is needed to learn to read in a second language.
The “gentle approach” to learning French
It’s your child’s first day in French immersion kindergarten. He enters the classroom, is greeted by a smiling teacher who says enthusiastically, “Bonjour!” and shakes his hand, directing him into the classroom. Your child might not have known what “bonjour” meant before he came to his class, but he will have figured it out quickly.
Nothing was explained in English but the situation was meaningful and had a purpose, and the use of nonverbal communication supported the comprehension. That is the kind of approach to language learning that you will encounter if you spend some time in an immersion kindergarten.
Your child will not understand everything the teacher says, but will find ways to understand by watching his teacher’s and his peers’ reactions. He might also simply accept the fact that he sometimes does not understand and probably won’t be bothered by it at all.
Your child should not become anxious in a French immersion class since the approach used to teach an understanding of French vocabulary is done through activities pleasant to the young learner.
For example, the French language is used in different ways. The teacher will read numerous French books that should be easy to comprehend. They will sometimes read books that most children have seen before, like The three little pigs (Les trois cochons). Using such books exposes the children to the new language but makes it easier for them to follow since they already know the stories.
Songs also play an important role in learning the new language. Young children love to sing, and teachers use that tool since it is such a powerful way to reach them. You will also notice games with the language, like repetitions, drama, and nursery rhymes. And you will probably see a large number of French labels on objects and pictures throughout the room.
A French immersion class will not be quiet. All language learning involves communication, and at the kindergarten level spoken language is the most accessible way to interact. The children should be speaking with their teacher as well as with their peers.
Initially the children will speak in English, but soon will begin using some of their new French vocabulary. You could hear something like, “Matthew and Leah, let’s go play in the maison and pretend we are the trois petits cochons.” That is how children start integrating their new language.
The importance of “immersion”
In most kindergartens, children attend school only 2½ to 3 hours a day, for a total of about 475 hours throughout the year. To make the most of such a short period of time in which to learn the new language, it’s very important that French be used at all times (although there will be exceptions when the health or safety of the children is concerned).
It’s also necessary that the teacher not translate for the children when they don’t understand. A good language teacher will find ways to explain without using English — exactly as you have always done when teaching your child his first language. The teacher might use acting, drawing, visual aids, or a different explanation to make himself understood.
Learning to read
When a child learns to read, he will use different strategies to decode and understand the text. One of those strategies involves anticipating what comes next. Without a good grasp of the language, this will not be possible. When children hear French often, they gradually learn the correct structures and the rules of that particular language, even without formal instruction. Learning to read is facilitated in this way.
Learning to read should be a gentle experience. A kindergarten year filled with many meaningful language activities will enable your child to have a positive experience as a beginning reader.
You can help!
You can help your child by exposing him to French outside of school. Providing French audio and video tapes will help develop his “French ear.” French books should be available to browse, in your company or on his own. Look into community activities. Perhaps an older immersion student could babysit en français!
And remember to ask your child to say something specific in French, instead of just asking him to speak French (“How would your teacher say, ‘three pigs’?”). Support his efforts, to encourage risk taking.
Show interest in learning French yourself. Your example will inspire your child. Enjoy learning with him!
For more information
- French Immersion Kindergarten: A handbook for parents
- Yes, You Can Help! Information and inspiration for French immersion parents