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Sounds of letters are key to learning new languages

New Brunswick Times & Transcript | Technology - As published on page C2 on April 30, 2021

UdeM researcher says support from parents important for children in French Immersion who are learning two languages at once

Times & Transcript Staff

Pierre Cormier sits at a table in a classroom at Lou MacNarin School in Dieppe, jokingly referring to the room as his "lab."

"A real lab would, of course, be perfectly quiet," the professor of psychology at the Université de Moncton says as the voices of children in nearby classrooms float into the room from down the hallway. "This room does the job though."

Across from Pierre sits third grade student Elizabeth Weller. Elizabeth looks at the page in front of her where blocks in red, yellow, green, blue and black are arranged in neat rows, the colours alternating, never forming a pattern.

"Elizabeth, can you tell me the colours of these blocks in order, as quickly as you can, in French?" Pierre asks. Elizabeth nods and begins reading, getting to the end of the page in just over 30 seconds.

"Very good," says Pierre, making a note on his clipboard.

Elizabeth is just one of the students in French Immersion at Lou MacNarin who is participating in a study being conducted by Pierre.

"These students are in a special learning situation," Pierre explains. "They are learning two languages at once."

Learning to read, Pierre notes, is based on a series of skills, including verbal memory and knowledge of letters, that are developed before schooling occurs that are then reinforced through formal education.

"Children in French Immersion come to school with this set of skills," Pierre says. "But these skills are developed in a language different, in this case English, than the one of instruction."

In a previous study, the findings of which were published in an article in The Journal Of Educational Psychology, Pierre discovered a number of interesting things.

"The skill that allows a child to handle the auditory parts of words is known as phonological awareness," explains Pierre. "Phonological awareness is the ability to analyze and connect the smallest units of discernible sounds with their graphic symbol, letters, and then learn how to combine each individual sound in a variety of ways. It includes recognizing syllables, like 'cow' from 'cowboy', for example, and phonemes, the 'k' sound from 'cat', for example, that can be transferred from the home language of English to the curriculum language of French. It is one of the skills that is most critical in the process of learning to read."

But a question that continued to nag at Pierre's mind was that of whether there was more than one reason why some students learn to read than more quickly than others.

"I wondered whether skills other than phonological awareness could be related to learning to read," he says. "To test these other skills related to reading, my research team and I decided to expand the test we were currently giving the students to one that was a one-year longitudinal study, meaning that children would be tested, and then tested again one year later. The skills we were testing for included the ability to name pictures and characters quickly, the ability to recall words over a short time and the ability to detect which sentences respect the rules of language. All these skills develop before schooling occurs just like phonological awareness. All these skills receive a boost from schooling, but do they when you learn in a different language?"

Pierre was drawn into this field of study 12 years ago after developing an interest in the brain and the brain's ability to read letters while pursuing a post-doctorate degree in the field of clinical neuropyschology, something that lead him to work at the Isaac Walton Killam Hospital in Halifax. He had previously been educated in Montreal and California, and came to the Université de Moncton after spending three years at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

"Lots of work had been done on the study of phonological awareness," he says. "It was accepted that it was an important factor in learning to read. What I wanted to learn was how phonological awareness affected learning another language."

To find children to participate in the study, Pierre approached a number of schools in the Moncton area that offer French Immersion to its students beginning in Kindergarten.

"Letters were sent home to the children in Kindergarten to Grade Two last year, and parents could choose whether or not they wanted their children to take part," Pierre says. "With studies like this, you really rely on the kindness of the schools you approach, and the parents of the students who attend these schools, to help you with your research.

In the first part of the study, the participating students were tested in both English and French in three sessions lasting 30 minutes each. The tests were conducted by either Pierre or one of the members of his research team, and measured each student's ability to recognize and handle the auditory parts of words, to name quickly pictures and characters, to recall words over a short time, to detect whether or not sentences dictated to them respected the rules of language and to read single words.

"Parents of students involved in the study also filled out a questionnaire on home behaviours as they related to the promotion of literacy," adds Pierre. "This questionnaire was part of a secondary goal of the study: documenting how home activities support learning to read in immersion, the findings of which will be put forward by graduate student Suzie Francoeur in her thesis."

Thanks to the initial tests conducted last year, Pierre and his team of researchers discovered that all of the skills tested presented the same pattern of relations in both languages.

"Invariably, with students in Grades One and Two, the stronger a skill in one language, the stronger it was in another," Pierre says. "Because children in Kindergarten had not yet been exposed to French, though, with them the relations could only be tested for English, and these relations were similar to those observed in students from Grades One and Two."

The findings of last year's part of the study documented an important path of development for students in French Immersion.

"As soon as students start to learn French skills fundamental to learning word reading start to build up in French," says Pierre. "This complements the initial set of skills they already have in English and provides a base for their further progress in either language. Because French and English are both phonological languages, progress in one language is based on the same set of skills as progress in the other and, as this study sows, facilitates transfer of learning."

As well, Pierre adds, parents can help these skills along.

"These findings suggest a solution to a complaint some parents have about French Immersion. They feel they cannot help their child because their child is learning French while their own skills are English." Pierre says. "This study shows that home reading activities, even if they are done in English, support learning in French Immersion through vocabulary growth. Phonological skills, like vocabulary growth, transfer across languages and what is gained in one language will benefit the other language."

With the follow-up to last year's study, which is going on now, Pierre hopes to concretely determine that skills in either language complement each other.

"In these follow-up studies, students who were in Kindergarten during last year's tests and are now in Grade One will be tested in English and French. What was observed last year with students in Grade One and Two should be present with this age group. With students in the older grades who were tested in French and English last year and are now in Grades Two and Three, we will document how much individual progress in reading depends on the patterns of findings we had in the first year."

Pierre is also involved in a second study relating to phonological awareness, funded by the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. This study also seeks to understand how children in Kindergarten and Grade One who are enrolled in French Immersion programs learn.

"This study was conducted in six sessions of 20 minutes each," Pierre says. "Each child was tested in English to measures of his or her skill to complete visual patterns, to handle auditory parts of words, to name pictures and characters as quickly as possible, to recall words over a short time, to detect whether sentences respect the rules of the language, to name letters, to identify the sounds of letters, and to read single words as a measure of vocabulary. The last five measures were also done in French."

More than 200 children in schools in Moncton, Hamilton, London and Kingston participated in this study.

"This study is more long term, and will last four or five years," Pierre says. "Already, though, we've found that among all the skills tested, the one that seemed more important for word decoding and letter knowledge was their skill to handle parts of words. This was the case for English and French. With respect to French, that skill was even more important than other skills measured in French. The skill to detect sentence structure in English was also a strong link to word decoding and letter knowledge in French."

With the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network, Pierre is also working to establish a standardized literacy test for children in French Immersion.

"For the last 12 years there have been no such test that has been widely available or widely used," he says. "So I am part of a group of people working to bring a test of French reading skills into existence. The search to be able to do that goes on. And for my research assistants, Stéphanie Thibodeau, Nathalie Malenfant, Julie Latulippe and I, this means many more days in the lab, testing children at school figuring out how they learn language skills. It's a prospect we look forward to."

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