When to Transfer; When Not to Transfer?

Summary of an Article by Daniel Demers

We all wish for the magic formula or test that would provide us with an objective answer to the question of potential success in the French Immersion program.  The fact remains that each and every case has to be evaluated individually.  Although this evaluation can be quite subjective, there is a systematic way to look at available information and make an informed decision on the subject.

It is important to remember when making a decision that in many cases, a transfer out of the immersion program will not lead to elimination of the learning frustrations.  Furthermore, it may have negative effects on an already fragile self-image.  Our objective is to strive to serve all students in the second language.  We must, however, remember that in some cases, however few, a transfer to the English program would be beneficial and would reduce some of the debilitating frustrations felt by some learners.  The question here is who do we transfer, why and when?

Any decision to change the placement of a child must be in the interest of the child, not of the program, the parents, or the teachers.

To start with, I like to look at the child from a subjective perspective and go through a check list of what I have found to characterize successful and unsuccessful students in French Immersion.  By going down this list I can come up with a profile that can quite accurately predict how well the child will succeed in this fairly demanding program.  However, one must be cautioned that this by itself does not mean that a change of placement will give the desired results.

The Successful Student in French Immersion

  • is verbal, likes to talk
  • imitates easily
  • self-corrects
  • experiments without fear of making mistakes
  • readily accepts challenges
  • shows strengths in first language
  • trusts
  • is usually attentive
  • is willing
  • has good auditory discrimination
  • has good memory and good meta-cognitive awareness
  • determined, convinced parents

The Unsuccessful Student in French Immersion

  • is often a reluctant speaker
  • imitates with difficulty
  • doesn’t notice errors
  • often fears making mistakes
  • has a defeatist attitude
  • often has poor first language skills
  • mistrusts
  • often is inattentive
  • is often unwilling
  • has poor auditory discrimination
  • has poor memory and poor meta cognitive awareness
  • unconvinced, unprepared parents

Characteristics of Second Language Learning

First of all, we must identify the characteristics of the second language acquisition that affect the learning disabled student, to understand and appreciate the difficulties this learner must face and overcome.  This information can then be used to modify existing programs, design measuring tools that will identify, evaluate and assist in the early detection of the difficulties and develop the appropriate remediation programs to assist students.  Language acquisition is an ongoing process, and usually implies life-long refinements.  Any attempt at remediation must continue to emphasize the following strategies:  focus on the learner, anticipate deficiencies and promote meta-cognitive process of acquisition and memory organization for a more efficient recall of stored knowledge.

Although it is assumed that there are underlying deficient skills in students with learning disabilities, we must use caution in the testing of this population.  One thing is certain, the protocol for evaluation of a learning disabled child in the French Immersion program will differ from the evaluation of the regular program students or the Francophone student.  No one appears to have the magic answer as to what tool to use.  Each and every case warrants a different protocol of evaluation.  The wrong diagnosis will lead to inefficient remedial methods and become only a waste of precious time for both the teacher and student.  It remains that, to accurately test the French Immersion students, we need more research specific to the assessment of that bilingual population.

Some delays are expected in French Immersion programs, particularly in areas such as English spelling.  However, researchers such as Genese (1979) believe that the gap is narrowed by grade 5 or 6.  These delays show in the testing as deficiencies, not as delays.  When a model of evaluation becomes available, it will become much easier to set remedial instruction objectives and easier to attain them.  Meanwhile, strategy teaching can alleviate some of the difficulties experienced by learners in the French Immersion program, whether learning disabled or not.

Who Should Transfer?

Are there certain students that would benefit from a transfer to the regular English programs?  The answer to this question is certainly, Yes.  But who?  When? and Who decides?  Sometimes, the answer is No!  Now the BIG question:  which ones should remain and which ones should be transferred?  The preceding information has provided us with the profile of a learner that would experience incredible stress in French immersion:  an auditorily deficient student.

Prior to making such an important (and usually irreversible) decision, one must evaluate many facets of a child’s profile.  A good indicator of potential success of a child in second language acquisition has always been the level of competence in the child’s native language (L1).  The acquisition of a second language (L2) is facilitated by the systems established when language was originally developed by the learner, in L1.  These skills are then used to transfer and make generalizations in L2 acquisition and language development in general.  If L1 is weak to start with, the acquisition of L2 will be affected in so far as building on a weak base leads to a shaky structure.  This further highlights the importance of parental involvement in pre-school activities such as interactive reading and natural oral correction in the child’s first language.

A second measure, one often overlooked by the schools and the parents of LD children, is the actual level of frustration that a student exhibits in his or her learning environment.  A frustrated child is often an unmotivated learner.

The decision to transfer a child, based on the belief that he or she will do better in the alternative program, can be a grave error.  I have often seen the learning disabled child perform no better in the English program even after going through the trauma and personal embarrassment of the transfer.

Profile of the Frustrated Learner

As I mentioned earlier, there seems to be a student with a particular profile that tends to do poorly in French Immersion.  This learner tends to be less frustrated after a transfer in the English program.  It is therefore important to discuss this learner before making a final decision.

Strengths or weaknesses in certain abilities can be good predictors to identify potential stresses or facilities to be encountered in the acquisition of a second language.  When the difficulties have been identified as being mainly in the ‘performance’ tests, we find that the students with these profiles usually show no major improvements when transferred into the English Program if their school has a French learning remedial centre.  It is believed that students with a test profile showing verbal strengths, in areas such as short term memory, reasoning and auditory skills, and showing lower scaled scores on other measures such as visual comprehension, perception and other visual and performance focus, can usually work successfully in a modified French Immersion program with remediation sessions, in either a pull-out or in-class support service with an individualized educational program (IEP).  The candidate for transfer to the English program is a student with low scores in the area of verbal and auditory subtests of psychometric measures.  Although this is certainly no magic test, it appears to reduce the inappropriate transfer and gives some of our less gifted learners a chance to achieve functional bilingualism.  This method applies mainly to schools that provide learning assistance services (l’orthopédagogie) in French and in English.  Without the proper support services, the learning disabled student will be unable to remediate and circumvent some of his learning disabilities.

In conclusion, there appear to be three main indicators, to look at, or evaluate, before transferring or enrolling a student with learning disabilities in or out of a French Immersion Program.  First, a subjective review of the successful and non successful characteristics list, with the goal, amongst others, of establishing the level of success the student has achieved in his or her own native language.  Secondly, the personal dedication and motivation of the student, not the parents, to be in, or to remain in the program.  Finally, certain students with learning disabilities can still be successful in the French Immersion program, without undue frustrations, if their learning disabilities fit a certain profile.  This profile puts their learning disabilities, or their poor scores on testing mainly in the area of non verbal and non auditory subtests.  Testing for auditory discrimination is critical in second language assessments.  We can only imagine the stress one would experience when dealing with a program that relies, almost exclusively, for the first few years, on oral communication, sound discrimination and sound production when the child experiences auditory dysfunction.

Importance of Learning Style and Self-Image

Finally, we must remember that the remediation of learning disabled students must include the teaching of coping strategies and skills that they will need to deal with their learning disabilities and the unusual way they have to learn and memorize language concepts.  We all know, learning disabilities don’t go away, but when the appropriate training or reeducation is done, many learning disabled students can circumvent their problems, by using alternative learning strategies.  One more important thing to remember, is their memory and recall difficulties.  It varies greatly from child to child, from mild recall impairment to severe deficiencies.  This issue must be addressed in the design of each and every individualized educational program.  If our goal is to keep the students in the program, we must create remediation programs that address the learning process using curricula as a means to an end, not an end in itself.  Chances are that if we create success for them, they will remain in the programs.

The most important issue is, of course, the self-image of the child.  This must be addressed to ensure good motivation levels, and constant effort from the learner.  It is also important to discuss, in realistic terms, the actual concept of learning disabilities with the students.  We should also educate the students and the teachers of our schools about learning disabilities and the learning disabled learner.  I have seen the sigh of relief of so many students when they find out that having a learning disability does not mean they are stupid, thus clearing the way for successful remediation.  Self-evaluations and close scrutiny of individuals can often uncover underlying strengths, which in turn can be used to great advantage.  These strengths have a two-fold advantage, they perform great magic in building self-image, and, the strengths can often be used to deal with some of the weaknesses.

I would like to close with a last comment and a quote from Kathie Chernoff (see below).  We often believe that all our students should be performing at the same level.  This belief is certainly not limited to the French Immersion classes.  Let’s carefully consider the learner before making any far reaching decisions.

“Imagine how quiet the forest would be if only the best birds sang.”

Reprinted with permission from LDA of Manitoba