Intensive French – A British Columbia Perspective
(published in Canadian Parents for French Bulletin Winter 2007)
Wendy Carr

Intensive French has been on the second language scene for a short time, but it is already commanding a lot of attention. Intensive French is an innovative approach that was introduced in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1998 as a boost to core French. It has produced such good results that all Grade 6 students in that province now take it instead of core French. Intensive French now has approximately 10,000 students across Canada in almost every province and territory including British Columbia and the Yukon.

How does intensive French compare to other FSL programs such as core and immersion? The three approaches share some common goals, such as instilling in children a love of the language and culture and achieving varying degrees of bilingualism, but there are also some significant differences.

French immersion is offered as a program of choice in kindergarten, Grade 1, or Grade 6. Students learn all the regular curriculum — from Math to P.E. — using French as the language of instruction. This is the big advantage to French immersion. Students who graduate from Grade 12 immersion are functionally bilingual, and can pursue post-secondary studies or work in either official language. The program’s only drawback is that it is not offered in all schools.

Core French is an introductory course usually offered in two 40-minute blocks per week in Grades 5 to 7 and for about three hours per week in high school totalling, at most, 260 hours spread over four years. Its focus on basic communication, cultivating cultural understandings, and acquiring/presenting information in the early grades is developed in the secondary grades. The problem with core French in BC, apart from its limited time, is that mainly generalist teachers with very little linguistic or methodological background teach it in the mandated grades. By the time students can receive specialized instruction in high school, many have already dropped out, unable to speak French.

Intensive French is a program of choice in BC in which Grade 6 students spend five months where everything except Math takes place in French. It is basically a French language arts program for 4 hours a day for half the year; students do projects, plan activities, and speak, read and write in French. For the second half of the year, they undertake a compacted version of the regular Science, Socials, and Language Arts in English, plus one hour of French per day. In Grade 7 and beyond, they continue an enriched French program along with the regular curriculum. The advantages are that students stay in their neighbourhood schools, do the regular English curriculum, participate in 600 hours of French instruction, and enter high school speaking French.

Surrey was BC’s first school district to implement intensive French in 2004. The results of the first two years of implementation have been very strong, with students speaking at a level equivalent to Grade 10 core French and writing at the level of Grade 3 Québecois students. This is consistent with the results across Canada. Word is starting to spread, other districts are expressing interest, and Vancouver is considering a pilot program in September 2007.

Why isn’t every district jumping on board with intensive French? The IF program faces some of the same challenges French immersion does: finding enough teachers and starting a new program within an existing school organization. IF normally starts at Grade 6 and continues with a daily hour follow-up in Grade 7, thus requiring only one teacher per school. In theory, if there is enough community interest in a school’s catchment, a program should be able to run. The lack of trained, bilingual teachers is a much bigger problem, however. A concerted effort is needed to recruit new French teachers, retrain existing ones, and ensure that all teachers in training take a basic course in second language methodology.

Should intensive French replace other FSL approaches? A better question, I believe is: What lessons can we learn from IF to improve core and immersion programs? The well-known combination of time and intensity produces results in immersion and intensive; the lack of both is part of why core French doesn’t yield better results. If the time dedicated to core programs were compressed into a shorter period, it could lead to better results, especially if teachers had basic levels of language and methdology. IF focuses on literacy (a language arts approach) and uses interactive teaching strategies that enable students to develop fluency and accuracy. Students use and re-use language in real situations while teachers model and redirect what they say, helping them to internalize that language. This, in turn, leads to intuitive use of French in a very short time.

The inclusion of intensive French pedagogy into teacher training and professional development would serve all FSL educators well. Steps in this direction are already underway at the University of British Columbia.

Intensive French offers great potential for children and parents who want a jump start to achieving functional bilingualism while remaining in their neighbourhood school. The addition of this program to a district’s offerings can bring renewed attention to French as a desirable addition to a child’s education and open up programming possibilities at the secondary level. In other provinces, for example, IF students join their late and early immersion counterparts in secondary elective courses offered in French. And, rather than drawing students away from immersion programs, overall enrollment in those programs has increased in Newfoundland and New Brunswick, provinces where IF has been implemented.

Intensive French has arrived in British Columbia! It has much to contribute not only to how we teach and learn French but also to Canada’s goal of doubling the number of bilingual graduates by 2013. Stay tuned!

Comparison of Elementary FSL Programs in British Columbia

Core French Intensive French French Immersion
220,000 students in BC
1,600,000 in Canada
250 students in BC
10,000 in Canada
38 500 students in BC
300,000 in Canada
150 hours (Grades 5, 6, 7) 600 hours (Grades 6 & 7) 5,000 hours (K to Grade 7)
Students learn French by doing
activities and projects as much
as possible in French.
Students use French to do activities
and projects. Regular school
subjects are compressed into
second half of the intensive year.
Students learn all school subjects
in French. French is the exclusive
language of the classroom.
Provincially mandated in Grades
5 to 8, usually delivered in two
40-minute lessons per week.
Program of choice that starts in
Grade 6 with an intensive half-year
(up to 80 % French) followed by
an ongoing hour per day in French.
Program of choice that starts in
K or Grade 6 with 100% French
By Grade 12, the student can
communicate in a variety of
real-life situations.
After Grade 6, the student can
engage in a simple conversation.
By Grade 12, the student is
functionally bilingual.