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“Learning to read in English and French” Review Essay

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Updated: Jun 17th, 2022

In Canada, bilingual education is common, especially due to the popularity and success of French immersion (FI). Dicks and Genesee (2017) argue that bilingual education in Canada “is directly linked to historical developments related to Canada’s official polcicies on bilingualism and multiculturalism” (p. 455). In the 1960s, the concept of bilingualism was popularized with French and English being used extensively in the country. Specifically, the quiet revolution, also known as révolution tranquille, in Quebec strengthened the status and role of the French language and culture in the region. In 1963, under the directive of the then Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, a royal commission was formed to assess the state of bilingualism in the country and recommend ways through which the country would be developed based on equal partnership between the English and the French.

Currently, Canadian schools use immersion programs, which have played a key role in the spread of bilingualism in the country. The introduction of the federal policy of multiculturalism (the Multiculturalism Act of 1988) facilitated the development of new curricula that covers minority-language schools. According to Mukan, Shyika, and Shyika (2017), the common immersion programs in Canadian schools include “Early immersion program (starts in kindergarten or Grade 1); Middle immersion program (starts in Grades 4-5); late immersion program (starts in Grade 7)” (p. 38). Bilingual education in early childhood prepares learners for later developments and improved education outcomes. Learning a second language plays a central role in the brain development of children, which ultimately affects their performance positively. As such, learning French will have a positive effect on reading and writing achievement in English-speaking 4th graders in Canada.

The study conducted by Chung et al. (2017) sought to investigate the predictors of word reading in English and French among upcoming bilingual readers, specifically targeting a French immersion early grade educational program. This longitudinal investigation was guided by three main research questions:

  1. Which Grade 1 reading subskills predict Grade 3-word reading achievement in English and French for children in French immersion? Do these predictors differ for English and French word reading achievement?
  2. Which Grade 1 reading subskills predict trajectories of word reading from Grade 1 to Grade 3 in English and French for children in French immersion? Do these predictors differ for English and French word reading trajectories?
  3. How do the trajectories of reading skills compare between typically developing and at-risk children in French immersion during the first 3 years of L2 schooling? (Chung et al., 2017, p. 140).

81 participants, 38 males, and 43 females were recruited from various French immersion programs in a city in Canada. Performance in both English and French was assessed based on the grade level of the learners (Grades 1, 2, and 3). The sample consisted of learners drawn from diverse language backgrounds with half of the participants speaking English only at home and the rest speaking various languages.

The study focused on five main measures including non-verbal reasoning, phonological awareness, orthographic processing, receptive vocabulary knowledge, and word reasoning. The first, non-verbal reasoning was measured using the Matrix Analogies Test (MAT) with four subsets each having 16 items. The second, phonological reasoning, was measured using the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP), specifically the Elision subset, which is a 20-item task. Orthographic processing in both languages was assessed with lexical and sublexical tasks, whereby learners would be presented with two different spellings of a word to determine the one that they thought reflected the target word. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) was used to measure English receptive vocabulary while the Echelle de Vocabulaire en´ Images Peabody was used to assess French receptive vocabulary. Finally, the Woodcock-Johnson III–Tests of Achievement (the Letter-Word Identification subtest) was used to assess English word reading, while for the French word reading, an experimental task was employed for the assessment.

The orthographic tasks in both English and French were administered in groups, while the other measures were administered individually with the supervision of trained research assistants. Descriptive statistics used in this study include means, standard deviation, and reliability coefficients. A composite score was used for orthographic processing and a log transformation process was used to correct the negative skew of distribution for the French language. The word reading measures for the three groups (grades 1, 2, and 3) for English were significantly correlated to one another (.54 ≤ r ≤.75). However, for French, word reading was not significantly correlated with non-verbal reasoning across the three grades. English phonological awareness in Grade 1 was directly correlated with English word reading in Grade 3. This means that a learner’s ability to manipulate sounds is central to the learning process of alphabetical languages. Using growth curves, it was established that children with lower orthographic processing scores in Grade 1 would have made more gains in Grade 3, perhaps due to the presence of room to grow.

Similarly, for the French language, phonological awareness and orthographic processing in Grade 1 were significant predictors of word reading in Grade 3. Therefore, the authors concluded that word reading at Grade 1 for both French and English is a strong indication that word reading development in both languages follows similar patterns, despite the word reading exercise being under different contexts. According to Chung et al. (2017), “it is not surprising that phonological awareness and orthographic processing emerged as significant predictors of word reading, given the substantial evidence of their role in early reading development in both monolingual and bilingual children” (p. 149). However, vocabulary is not significantly correlated with reading among Grade 1 learners.

Another major observation in this study is that children classified as at-risk in terms of reading challenges continue to lag behind their peers in all aspects of French immersion, including phonological awareness, vocabulary, word reading, and orthographic processing. This aspect applies to both French and English during the first 3 years of formal schooling. However, an interesting observation was made – at-risk children in French immersion programs continued to improve their English learning capabilities, even though they were not receiving formal instruction in English. However, despite this achievement, at-risk students in Grades 1, 2, and 3 had stagnated growth in French language development. The authors noted, with concern, that this trend is unique because growth is expected to increase with age. This unusual development could be attributed to the learning environment. Therefore, further research is needed in this area to conduct a study with controlled learning environments to investigate the aforementioned differences.

This study had several limitations such as a small sample size that was not heterogeneous enough for the generalization of the results. Additionally, the socio-economic status of the parents who responded to the interview questions is an area that would benefit from further research because the majority of the respondents did not have university degrees. Finally, vocabulary is multidimensional, and thus future research could include a wide range of vocabulary knowledge measures for more reliable and generalizable results.

References

Mukan, N., Shyika, J., & Shyika, O. (2017). The development of bilingual education in Canada. Advanced Education, 4(8), 35-40.

Dicks, J., & Genesee, F. (2017). Bilingual education in Canada. In G. Ofelia, Y. Lin, & S. May (Eds.), Bilingual and multilingual education (pp. 453-467). Springer.

Chung, S. C., Koh, P. W., Deacon, S. H., & Chen, X. (2017). Learning to read in English and French: Emergent readers in French immersion. Topics in Language Disorders, 37(2), 136-153.

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