Are Children with Learning Challenges at Greater Risk in French immersion?

** A guest post by Dr. Nancy Wise**

What is French immersion?

The French immersion (FI) program was developed more than 50 years ago in response to parental demands for an educational program that would encourage functional bilingualism in French and English, Canada’s two official languages. Most FI programs begin in Senior Kindergarten or Grade 1, but many school boards also offer later entry points. Classroom teachers communicate with their students solely in French, which is the language of instruction for all core subjects. English is usually introduced in Grade 3 or 4, and by Grade 7 or 8, students are receiving approximately 50% of their instruction in French and 50% in English.

Who should attend French immersion?

There is a widespread but unfounded belief that FI is only ‘suitable’ for some students. Many people share that belief, including school board officials, school principals & vice-principals, teachers, and parents; however, that belief is unsubstantiated by research evidence. The research evidence that is currently available does not indicate that FI is ‘suitable’ for some but not all students. It does not indicate that some students should be discouraged from participating in FI. What the research evidence does indicate is that when FI students are provided with appropriate supports to increase their opportunities for success, the vast majority are successful.

And yet, many people believe that FI is only ‘suitable’ for the academic elite – bright, high-achieving students from English-speaking, high socioeconomic backgrounds. That belief often results in barriers that restrict access to the FI program, access to what is viewed as the most effective educational means for attaining functional bilingualism in French and English. Students with learning challenges often face such barriers, as do students from diverse linguistic and disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. But restricting access to FI for certain groups of students not only creates equity issues, but it also perpetuates the elitist characterization of FI.

What do the experts have to say about who is and who is not ‘suitable’ for FI? In their book, How Languages are Learned (2013), leading second language acquisition researchers, Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada, report that in all of the investigations they have conducted over the years, they were unable to identify any specific attribute or characteristic that consistently predicted success in second language learning. Although some would have us believe that it is the risk takers, those who enjoy new challenges and are proficient in their first language who are most capable of acquiring an additional language, the research seems to indicate that anyone can learn a second language.

Should a child struggling in French immersion move to the English-only program?

Fred Genesee, who has done extensive research in second language acquisition, concludes that FI students with learning challenges are at no greater risk by remaining in the program (2012). He argues that students who are at risk for low achievement in FI would be at risk for low achievement in any school program. Switching to the English-only program rarely solves their academic problems because the problems tend to be ‘pervasive’ – unrelated to the language of instruction (Alberta Education, 2010). Importantly, research has shown that there is a notable improvement in the school performance of FI students with learning challenges when appropriate instructional and assessment practices are in place to meet their educational needs (Bourgoin, 2012; Bournot-Trites, 2008).

Parents are sometimes encouraged to withdraw their children from FI if they are struggling in the program. This process is often referred to as “counselling out.” Under these circumstances, parents have a hard time deciding whether or not to switch their children from FI to the English-only program. They want them to enjoy all the cognitive, cultural, economic, and employment benefits of a French-English bilingual education, but they worry that they are harming their children in some way by keeping them in FI. But the available evidence does not indicate that making the switch will result in improved academic achievement (Sauvé, 2007) or that the bilingual education experience will exacerbate a child’s school difficulties (Genesee, 2004). 

So, if your child is struggling in FI, make a commitment to work collaboratively with your School Team, often comprised of the school principal, your child’s teachers, and the special education teacher. Building a strong partnership between home and school is in your child’s best interests. You have the right to expect that your School Team will partner with you to address your child’s difficulties. You have the right to expect that, to the extent possible, everything will be done to increase your child’s opportunities for success in FI. You have the right to expect that any decisions regarding your child’s participation in the FI program will take into account his/her strengths, needs, and interests. At the end of the day, the decision to keep your child in FI or pull your child out is yours, and yours alone.

Dr. Nancy Wise is a Toronto-based educational consultant who specializes in French immersion. She has a Ph.D. in Second Language Education and an M.Ed. in Special Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. Nancy worked for 28 years as a special education teacher for the York Region District School Board in Ontario. She spent 20 of those years in the French immersion context, advocating for students with diverse learning needs. Nancy has presented for school boards, teacher organizations, and parent groups. Her research has been published by the Ontario Ministry of Education and in peer-reviewed educational journals.

Nancy Wise, Ph.D.

French Immersion Educational Consulting Inc.

Twitter: @FIEdConsulting



Alberta Education. (2010). Diversity in French immersion classrooms: A quick inclusion guide for teachers. Alberta, Canada: Government of Alberta. Retrieved from:


Bourgoin, R. (2012). Myths, policies, and research: The case of a New Brunswick Grade 3 French immersion entry point. In Proceedings of the Canadian Parents for French Roundtable on Academically Challenged Students in French Second Language Programs (pp. 16-21). Ottawa, ON: Canadian Parents for French. Retrieved from:


Bournot-Trites, M. (2008). Fostering reading acquisition in French immersion. Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development. (pp. 1-8). London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network.


Genesee, F. (2004). What do we know about bilingual education for majority language students? In T.K. Bhatia & W. Ritchie (Eds.), Handbook of Bilingualism, (pp. 547-576). Malden, MA: Blackwell.


Genesee, F. (2012). The suitability of immersion for all learners: What does the research say? In             Proceedings of the Canadian Parents for French Roundtable on Academically                         Challenged Students in French Second Language Programs (pp. 10-16). Ottawa, ON:                   Canadian Parents for French. Retrieved from:


Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (2013). How Languages are Learned (4th ed.) Oxford: Oxford                       University Press.


Sauvé, D. (2007). The suitability of French immersion education for students with reading disabilities. Unpublished doctoral thesis. McGill University, Montreal, Quebec.