Group of people holding Welsh flags in school classroom
Pupils and teachers at Central Senior School, Canada  ©

Anna Vivian Jones

We proudly present a blog written by a group of language experts from Wales, as they embark on a week-long visit to Ontario, Canada to learn more about the French as a Second Language programme. 

The group are representatives from the lead schools for modern foreign languages (MFL) in ERW (Education through Regional Working), which is an alliance of six local authorities in mid and west Wales that work together to deliver school improvement services. 

The group comprises of Anna Vivian Jones, the Regional Co-ordinator for MFL Angharad Evans, Cwmtawe Community School, Neath Port Talbot, Kelly Gipson, Pentrehafod School, Swansea, Jessie Newbold, Penglais School, Ceredigion, France Le Huquet, Ysgol Bro Dinefwr, Carmarthenshire, and Janette Davies, Ysgol Gyfun Gŵyr, Swansea .

Ontario, Canada.  4 – 11 February 2017

Day 1

Our arrival in Toronto the previous evening had left us in no doubt as to the pride of the city’s inhabitants in its cultural diversity. Our taxi driver from the airport was from India and told us proudly that we were going to hear hundreds of different languages on the streets during our stay and that Toronto was a truly integrated society, welcoming people from all nations and cultures. 

This remarkable first impression lasted the whole week, as we learned more about Ontario’s complex linguistic landscape and its implications for the education system. The students are a mix of English first language speakers, French first language speakers, indigenous language speakers, such as Ojibwe, Mohawk, and finally other first language speakers, such as Somali, Portuguese, Polish and Cantonese. 

Whereas Ontario is officially a bilingual province, one in four of their students speaks neither English nor French at home. 

We were looking forward, therefore, to discovering during the following days how these challenges were faced within schools. 

Our first day was spent at Ontario’s Ministry of Education, where key individuals responsible for the Ontario curriculum gave us an overview of the education system in the province. 

Ontario has over one million square kilometres of land (yes, even bigger than ERW! ), with over 40% of Canada’s 33.6 million people. There are 72 school boards, which are equivalent perhaps to our local authorities in Wales.

We learned that each province in Canada is responsible for the development and revision of its curriculum and that Ontario has improved its outcomes significantly over the last 13 years, helped by a stable political situation and policies driven and created by educators seconded or employed by the ministry. 

The renewed vision for Ontario is shared by all school boards, and comprises the following four aims:

  • Achieving excellence
  • Ensuring equity
  • Enhancing public confidence
  • Promoting well-being

Following this comprehensive overview of the Ontario curriculum, we then moved on to the focus of our visit, which is to learn about the framework for French as a Second Language in schools from kindergarten to grade 12 (the equivalent of our year 13) 

Their vision is that Students in English-language school boards have the confidence and ability to use French effectively in their daily lives.

The three provincial goals for French as a Second Language are to:

1.Increase student confidence, proficiency and achievement

2.Increase the number of students studying French until graduation (at 18 years old)

3.Increase engagement of stakeholders in the study of French (students, educators, parents, the wider community – in the belief that this will support the students in their learning)

The similarities between these goals and the three strategic actions of Global Futures - a plan to improve and promote modern foreign languages in Wales - were striking. We were surprised to learn that Ontario – being a largely Anglophone province - also faced a decline in the numbers of students opting to continue to study French after the compulsory study of French up to the age of 14.

We noticed that the challenges of French as a Second Language encountered in Ontario were similar to those of Welsh as a second language in Wales. These challenges include the need to promote the value of learning these languages in a largely Anglophone environment.

In order to achieve the above goals, the ministry wrote a framework for French as a Second Language (FSL) in 2013 which includes three programmes:

French as a Second Language in Ontario – Vive la différence!

Core French

Extended French

Immersion French

French is taught as a subject

Includes the study of French and at least another subject taught in French

Includes the study of French and at least two other subjects are  taught in French

Over 1 million students in total

The framework is a ten-year plan, where each school has to set a measurable target every three years, and is supported by a curriculum which includes overall and specific expectations, teacher prompts and instructional tips. 

The documents supporting the framework include comprehensive guidance and support for parents of French as a Second Language learners, again highly pertinent to the Welsh second language issue, where the cognitive, social and economic benefits of bilingualism could be highlighted even further among all stakeholders. 

With the three goals in mind, there has also been a change in approach to  the pedagogy of French language learning at all levels, particularly in relation to grammar, which is taking a step backwards in favour of a clear purpose for communication. A module of work, for example, can be built around a key verb such as ‘negotiate’, instead of leading with a particular theme. This is an approach that we as a professional learning community are all keen to explore upon our return to our classrooms in Wales.  

As Ontario schools serve a student population from a rich array of cultural backgrounds, great importance is attached to their provision for the English language learner. 26.6% of the students in the province come from homes where neither English or French are spoken, and bespoke programmes have been developed to address very different learning needs. 

We discussed the relevance of this approach to first language Welsh learning where linguistic background and competence vary widely. The message that the English language learner is the responsibility of all educators echoes our own message that literacy and numeracy are the responsibility of all subject teachers.

Finally, we were fascinated to learn that the improvements have been achieved without a national inspection system, and that the way the curriculum is delivered is not prescribed but left to individual school Boards and schools to deliver for both core French and immersion systems. The ministry was proud to admit that Ontario is recognized as having one of best curricula in the world and scored 3rd in the PISA literacy rankings in 2015.

Since arriving in Canada we have enjoyed seeing bilingual signage on roads and public buildings. Today we saw a bilingual plaque in 900 Bay Street where the French was written in the past historic tense! 

Our lunchtime companion told us a little about Canadian French and the conscious avoidance of Anglicisms, unlike the French used in Belgium where according to France, the Belgian in our midst, anything goes. The thorny question arose: to what extent should languages be allowed to evolve in a rapidly changing technological world? An issue also pertinent to the Welsh language…..

Day 2

An early wake up call saw us leaving Toronto ready for an action packed day with Trillium Lakelands District School Board, which is two hours to the north of the city.

Today was our opportunity to see how a district school board interpreted and implemented the policies put in place by the ministry. Our visit had clearly been given significant thought and preparation with relevant key personnel present. Despite the extreme Canadian weather conditions, everyone attended be it in person or via video conferencing link.

Larry Hope, Director of Education at Trillium Lakelands District School Board, opened the proceedings with a warm welcome to the Welsh visitors. It was apparent from the outset that he was equally as excited to take away ideas and experience from the Welsh delegation as he was about sharing the excellent practice taking place within his own schools.

Andrea Gillespie, the Superintendent of Learning, then gave an overview of the board’s improvement plan and stressed that their underlying ideology towards professional learning is that they are a board who inquires and questions the way forward.

Jennifer Murphy, Curriculum Consultant for French Second Language and (English Language Learning (ELL)) from kindergarten to grade 12, outlined the two main models of French learning which occur throughout the province of Ontario.

Students either receive their French instruction via Core French or Immersion French.

Core French starts in grade 4 (age 9/10) and is mandatory until grade 8 (age 13/14), these students have a daily lesson of French.

Alternatively, students are able to follow the Immersion French model whereby all of their subjects are taught through the medium of French from Senior Kindergarten until grade 8 (age 13/14). From Senior Kindergarten until grade 3 (age 8/9), 100% of instruction is delivered in French. This is gradually reduced to 50% of instruction delivered in French in grade 7-8, which are their final two years of elementary school.

The latter model is growing in popularity due to the increased employability opportunities that is associated with the skill of being bilingual. It is also widely regarded as an inbuilt enhancement opportunity.

To address the first provincial goal of increasing pupil confidence in French, Ontario schools are in the process of adopting the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) approach to language learning, which aims to develop learners’ oral competence and ability to use the language communicatively in a purposeful context.

To support the Common European Framework of Reference inspired language learning, some students are being offered the opportunity to have their learning formally accredited by the DELF examination, funded by the ministry. This can be taken at various levels according to the level of the individual student’s ability.

After lunch, we visited Leslie Frost Elementary School. They offer both Core and Immersion French. It was a great opportunity to see the theory we learnt over the first couple of days being put into practice.  

Despite the inclement weather preventing many students getting to school, we were still able to observe some classes and see pupils work within inspiring classroom environments. We were impressed with the confidence of such young students to speak in French and it was clear that communication was emphasised above grammatical accuracy. 

We were also overwhelmingly struck by the positive working relations between the principal and all her staff. This was demonstrated by her trust to allow staff autonomy within every classroom, so that each individual teacher could maximise the potential of their own skill set and personality. 

Day 3

The third day offered the opportunity to visit high schools, our equivalent to year 10 – 13.  The morning started off with a visit to I E Weldon Secondary School where we were met by Principal Mark Cossarin. 

Unfortunately due to the treacherous roads caused by freezing rain, the school buses were unable to transport pupils to the school  and we were therefore unable to meet any pupils     (reassuring that it’s not only Welsh schools who come to a stop at the sight of snow!)  

However, we took the opportunity to have wide-ranging discussions with the Head of Languages, Stephanie Campbell, and some of her team of language teachers. We looked at how the classes were organised and what the different programmes involved. They explained to us their use of the DELF examinations and the International Baccalaureate to motivate and engage students. 

We also shared ideas and resources with each other. The Canadian teachers were particularly interested in our Multilingual Literacy project in ERW, as well as how technology can enhance learning and engage students. 

We also had the opportunity to listen to the views of a teacher of Japanese.  It was interesting to find out that culture is a substantial part of his lessons and that the explicit teaching of culture enhanced his pupils’ enthusiasm for language learning.  Making language relevant has been a running thread in our visits, be it in the teaching of French as a second language or other languages, in order to motivate pupils and show them that the languages have a context outside the classroom. Wherever we went, we kept hearing about bringing real-life experiences to the classroom as a motivator.

We then travelled across town to Central Senior Public School. Principal Jamie took us to meet with three grade 8 students (equivalent to year 9) and their language teachers Sarah and Robyn.

It was really interesting to talk to them and get their views on learning another language, including what motivates them to continue with French. The students were keen to tell us how feeling confident was key to their feelings of success. They explained that they enjoyed lessons as they felt it related to real life and understood that speaking another language enhanced their employability. 

The staff welcomed the ‘can do’ approach of the Common European Framework of Reference, saying that it helped to build confidence and engagement in students. The teachers were all referring to the new framework and curriculum for languages, and enjoyed developing this hands-on approach to language teaching. It transpired that the curriculum being skill based also allowed for teacher creativity and for them to involve their pupils in designing their curriculum -  another great motivator!

After lunch we headed off to Alexandra Public School, where we were warmly welcomed by Josette who teaches the French Core Programme to grades 4, 5 and 6. (years 5-7) It was amazing to listen to grade 4 students present their work on animals with such confidence, despite learning French for a very short time. 

Grade 5 introduced us to the town of Lindsay through their project work on their favourite activity and grade 6 were working on describing their dream job. 

They all loved learning languages and enjoyed the way art was incorporated into their projects. Class teacher Josette explained how she differentiates work for pupils within the projects and how she teaches them to use rich words to improve their work. 

Thanks must go to Katherine McIver, Superintendent of Learning, for organising the visits and rearranging things when the weather threw a spanner in the works. A special thank you to all staff and students for welcoming us with such kindness and enthusiasm, even at short notice.

Day 4

As temperatures plummeted in Toronto, our fourth day in Canada was spent in the cosy atmosphere of a boardroom in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, which provided a stunning panoramic view of the city. 

The programme for the day was organised by Evelyn Wilson, Associate Director of Learning Solutions. Having read our objectives for the visit, she had invited the honoured Dr Normand Labrie, to present the findings of research made at the university on plurilingualism in Ontario. 

The professor is a world renowned expert in his field and his discussions deepened our understanding of the complexities of the linguistic landscape in Canada. 

This was followed by a session led by two language advisers in the Toronto School Board, Liliana Martins and Genevieve Robinson. This conversation was particularly pertinent to us as a group, not only because the number of secondary and primary schools were similar to those in ERW, but there were also similarities in the way they supported their teachers and schools to improve. 

Professional learning, collaboration and partnerships are the ways in which both regions are seeing an improvement in uptake and outcomes. 

Liliana and Genevieve shared with us many online resources for professional development as well as teaching materials, which we look forward to researching and sharing with our teaching colleagues in Wales.

The afternoon was spent in the company of Judy Dennison, a former principal of a French immersion school, who talked of the implications of their increasing popularity in the province, the main one being a worrying shortage of teachers qualified to respond to the demand. The enrolment for French Immersion has risen 40% between 2005 and 2015, and this report appeared in the press during our stay

All our visits this week have displayed an enormous pride in the success of the Ontario school provision at all levels, from pupils to teachers, principals and administrators. 

The fourth day ended with Evelyn explaining how Canada has soared into the top of the PISA rankings over the past 10 years. The main reason, she said, was that the curriculum was stripped down and all focus directed towards improving literacy. It seemed to us also that the emphasis on well-being and the absence of both inspections and national testing after the age of 15 were other key factors in this success, enabling teacher autonomy and creativity to provide the individualised learning required for each pupil.

After a team meeting to gather our thoughts in preparation for the debriefing the following morning, some of us felt obliged to 'immerse' ourselves in the local culture by supporting the Toronto Maple LeAfs (N.B. not Leaves) in their match against St Louis. Although the home team lost, the game provided an authentic taste not only of the local sporting culture, but also of the Canadian dish ‘poutine’, which consists of chips and cheese topped with gravy!

Day 5

Today saw our week in Canada draw to a close. To share our findings, a meeting had been organised at our base, Holiday Inn Downton Toronto. In addition to our six Welsh delegates, we were joined by Beth Davies, External Affairs Manager for the Welsh Government, based in Washington DC, as well as Timmy Anand, National and International Liaison and Linda Kuehr, Education Officer from the Ministry of Education, and Odette Valero, Project Coordinator from British Council Canada.

After thanking our hosts for their superb programme and flexibility to change our schedule when mother nature intervened with our original plans, we outlined the similarities and differences within our respective educational systems that we had observed. We then discussed how Ontario had achieved the phenomenal success since 2003 with regards to their world rankings of PISA tests and which elements we could implement in Wales to further our own progress. We were particularly impressed with the incorporation of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to develop students' confidence in speaking.  

Each lead school then offered their findings with regards to their individual lines of enquiry. These included:

1. Using digital technology to enhance teaching and learning of  modern foreign language.

2. Developing links with parents and community to support language learners. 

3. Developing spontaneous talk in modern foreign language lessons to increase pupil confidence and motivation.

4. Ensuring that specific groups of learners (More Able and Talented (MAT), Additional Learning Needs (ALN)  boys and girls, and eligible for free School Meals (Efsm) versus non eFSM) achieve their potential.

5. Using multilingual language strategies to help the learning of all languages.

In order to maximise the impact of our research, we explained our plan to disseminate and mobilise our new found knowledge. Next term, the lead schools will meet to develop CEFR influenced resources, and in triad groups of schools within each local authority will pilot the new teaching strategies. The results of these activities will then be discussed at our summer networking meetings and subsequently disseminated to all 62 secondary schools in ERW.

In summary, Anna Vivian Jones, ERW Regional Co-ordinator for modern foreign language, explained how she intended to report her findings on a national strategic level, via the National Steering Group for Modern Languages and the group for Languages, Literacy and Communication as it develops a new curriculum for Wales. 

An enormous and heartfelt thanks to British Council, Welsh Government and all our hosts in Canada for this unique experience which will enrich our provision in language teaching in our schools on a local, regional and national level. The partnerships forged during this short trip will ensure that the impact of this project will be long lived and capacity to improve will be built on both sides of the Atlantic.  

And just in case some of you are concerned that we worked too hard, we DID find the time to go to the top of the CN Tower and a visit to Niagara Falls. Ontario is without doubt a diverse, welcoming and beautiful city to visit!

Thanks also Odette Valero at British Council Canada and to the following at the Ministry for their time before and during this excellent visit:

  • Timmy Anand, National and International Liaison, Corporate Coordination Branch
  • Maureen Callan, Manager
  • Dan Bowles, Education Officer, Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch
  • Elizabeth Hoerath, Manager, Field Services Branch
  • Gillian Hall, Education Officer, Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch
  • Naomi Silver, Senior Policy Advisor, Student Success Policy Branch