An Examination of French and English Reading Comprehension in Canadian French Immersion Programs: Q&A with Dr. Stefka H. Marinova-Todd

May 4, 2022

Parental level of education, instruction time, and amount of language practice that children receive have enhanced our understanding of how bilingual and multilingual children learn to comprehend text. Guided by the simple view of reading and the interdependence hypothesis, the study, 'A longitudinal examination of French and English reading comprehension in French immersion programs in Canada' examined the (a) within- and cross- language association between oral language skills and reading comprehension of bilingual English-French and multilingual children and (b) patterns of growth, while controlling for possible influences of parental level of education and methods of instruction on reading achievement.

In this Q&A with Language Sciences, Dr. Stefka H. Marinova-Todd, Associate Professor at the School of Audiology & Speech Sciences, discusses what variables may impact a child's English and French reading comprehension, how bilingualism and multilingualism impact listening comprehension and how parental level of education relates to literacy.



How does a child's oral language and reading skills in their first language correlate with their reading comprehension skills in a second language?

"Written language is a graphic representation of spoken or oral language. In other words, monolingual children who have strong language skills, such as know more words or are familiar with the general structure of a story, are able to learn to read quicker and more effortlessly. 

We now know that oral language skills developed in the first language can also influence the child’s reading abilities in a second language; in other words, there is a transfer of skills learned in the first language to the second language. This is especially true for languages that are closely related, both etymologically and orthographically, such as English and French.  

In terms of vocabulary, English and French share words that sound almost the same in the two languages and mean almost the same. For example, the word 'felicity' in English is 'félicité' in French. Therefore, if a child already knows the word in English, she would be able to quickly understand its meaning in French too. This would further help her with understanding a text she is reading in French, in other words, reading comprehension in French.

Similarly, for languages that share the same alphabet, skills that are acquired while learning to read in one language, such as phonological awareness and sound-to-letter correspondences, could be readily applied to learning to read in the other language. This process of transfer of knowledge and skills already acquired in one language to the other facilitates the learning process in both bilingual and multilingual children, as long as the languages they are learning are related. The situation is more complicated in languages that are not as closely related as English and French."

Does a child being bilingual or multilingual impact their listening comprehension skills, and if so, how can educators support better listening comprehension?

"We found that the multilingual students in our study, or those who spoke a language other than English or French at home, had lower listening comprehension skills in English relative to the bilingual group. It is not surprising, because these children by definition were exposed to smaller amount of English at home than the bilingual children, who came from English-speaking homes. The good news is that the multilingual children had listening skills in French that were equivalent to that of bilingual children. These results assured us that the children who spoke a language other than English at home were not disadvantaged in terms of their development of oral language skills in French, the primary language of instruction in FI schools. 

It should be noted that all children in our sample had oral language scores, including on listening comprehension, that were well above the mean for their ages. This indicates that, generally, they had strong oral language skills in English. We recommended that teachers provide more opportunities for students to use English in meaningful ways, especially past Grade 4, where some of the instruction is provided in English. For example, teachers could provide purposeful activities such as asking meaningful questions and reflecting on how to use English to construct more complex sentences."

Can parental levels of education impact a multilingual child's reading comprehension or educational achievements?

"Parental level of education is often used as a proxy for socio-economic status. The assumption is that parents who have received a greater amount of formal education would be more likely to have lucrative jobs that would provide them with the resources necessary to support their children in all spheres, including education.  Moreover, research has shown that parents with higher education levels tend to value education, in general, and literacy, in particular.  Therefore, they are more likely to support their children, directly by spending time reading to their children, or indirectly by sending their children to schools and extracurricular activities that further support their children’s academic performance."

What are some variables that may impact a child's English reading comprehension?

"Based on our study, we found that, as expected and explained above, English reading comprehension was influenced by the children’s vocabulary size and listening comprehension abilities in English. But since the children were attending French Immersion programs, their oral language knowledge in French, both in terms of vocabulary knowledge and listening comprehension, also influenced their reading comprehension in English. In other words, we found a cross-language transfer effects. We explained this transfer with the instructional approaches in early French immersion. In the first four years, the expectation is that school instruction is exclusively in French, which is designed to increase the children’s knowledge of spoken  French.  Therefore, the intense instruction in French is also reflected in the children’s abilities to learn to read in English, despite the fact that it is not the language of formal instruction. 

Notably, parent level of education was not a significant predictor of reading comprehension in English or in French. We explained this finding with the fact the children in our study mainly came from homes with equivalently high levels of parental education. Therefore, they did not differ on this variable."

What is something people may be surprised to learn about how bilingual and multilingual children learn to comprehend text?

"The most important, and possibly surprising, finding of our study was to highlight the role of the language of instruction (French) on the children’s ability to develop reading skills in both French and English - the societal language. Both the bilingual and multilingual students were using their stronger academic oral language skills in French to help them learn to read in the other language, English. In the context of French immersion, French functions as the equalizing language for all students who attend the program, regardless of how strong their language skills are in English."

Read the full study here.

Written by Kelsea Franzke

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We acknowledge that UBC’s campuses are situated within the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, and in the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation and their peoples.

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