Language learning for at-risk students: Reviewing and repurposing the French immersion research

Word Art 7

Guest contributor: Stephen Davis

Stephen is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Second Language Education program at McGill University and a French immersion primary school teacher from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His research interests include the experiencesLanguage learning for at-risk students: Reviewing and repurposing the French immersion research of Allophone students and at-risk learners in French immersion, language education for refugee students, and critical sociolinguistics. 

Throughout the history of French immersion, the suitability of the program for learners with special needs has concerned parents, educators, and researchers alike. Indeed, teachers and families have long wrestled with whether immersion is an appropriate instructional stream for students with diverse learning needs in the hopes of making thoughtful, evidence-based decisions. Notwithstanding the prevalence of this question, however, studies documenting the experiences of at-risk learners in French immersion are few and far between. Additionally, French immersion teacher candidates often lament the lack of attention given to students with special needs in their training (Mady & Arnett, 2016). In this blog post, I will provide an overview of some of the research examining at-risk students in French immersion; reflect on the suitability of the program for such learners; and invite discussion from educators in diverse contexts, such as ESL/EAL programs.

In the early years of French immersion, researchers observed the language learning abilities of students with special needs through a variety of methodological approaches and reached vastly divergent conclusions. Trites (1976, 1978) argued that early French immersion was unsuitable for students with learning difficulties due to a ‘maturational lag’ and purported that late immersion programs would better mitigate the supposed developmental delay of such learners. Similarly, Wiss (1989, p. 527) believed that the content-driven approach of immersion was cognitively overwhelming for many students, stating that “developmentally immature children cannot handle the interactive effect of the linguistic and academic demands.” Bruck (1978, 1982), conversely, found that at-risk students made significant progress in their learning and therefore advocated for their full inclusion in French immersion. Evidently, the suitability of French immersion for at-risk learners has been a contentious issue since the inception of the program, and the notion that immersion exists to serve gifted students has long permeated the discourse.

Whereas the early research exploring this subject employed a variety of labels – such as ‘language-disabled children’ (Bruck, 1978), ‘language-impaired children’ (Bruck, 1982), and ‘children with learning difficulties’ (Trites, 1978) – several recent studies have used the more global term, ‘at-risk learners,’ defined by Genesee (2007, p. 656) as “those with language, literacy, and academic difficulties or who are likely to experience such difficulties, whether they stem from what might be considered clinical factors… or from non-clinical factors.” Bourgoin and Dicks (2013) studied the reading abilities of eight at-risk Grade 3 students in French immersion and demonstrated a connection between reading proficiency in English and French. The researchers recommended that French immersion educators teach diverse reading strategies to such learners, such as instructing students to visualize the events they are reading and make predictions. Additionally, Le Bouthillier (2015) documented the writing abilities of four at-risk learners in French immersion and found that the students became more proficient writers throughout the year but tended to concentrate on surface-level elements of the text, such as spelling. In order to counterbalance this propensity, the researcher recommends emphasizing deeper components of writing, including structure and ideas. In summary, is encouraging that the tone of recent studies has largely shifted from whether to include or exclude at-risk students to a discussion of how to best support them in their learning.

While decades of French immersion research have offered many insights about the benefits of the program, several questions regarding the suitability of immersion for at-risk learners remain unanswered. For instance, Genesee (2007, p. 656) critically analyzed numerous studies pertaining to students with ‘low academic ability,’ ‘language impairment,’ and ‘reading impairment,’ but also noted the following: “No research on students with other kinds of learning disabilities… or special needs, such as those resulting from hearing and visual impairments or severe cognitive impairments, was identified in the literature search.”

These gaps in the research are disconcerting to me not only as a French immersion teacher and aspiring researcher, but also on a personal level, having completed my education in French immersion with a hearing impairment. My parents were cautioned about enrolling me in primary French immersion once my disability was discovered, but with the support of many brilliant and dedicated teachers, I was successful in my studies and my life was forever enriched as a result of the program. It is my hope that further attention is given to the lived experiences of at-risk learners in French immersion by researchers, educators, and policy developers alike in order to offer the program for all. Indeed, by focusing on the specific needs of at-risk students, we might contribute to a deeper understanding of the reality of such learners in French immersion and discover the pedagogical practices most conducive to their success, both in immersion and beyond.

Although this reflection draws from my experiences learning and teaching in French immersion programs, I believe there are implications for readers, language instructors, and researchers in diverse educational contexts. For instance, are some instructional programs more suitable for at-risk learners than others? Have you ever taught an additional language to a student with a learning disability? Have you ever learned an additional language with a disability? What interventions and adaptations have you found most beneficial for at-risk students, and what further ideas did you have while reading this post? What recommendations would you make for families and educators with at-risk learners in their classrooms?


Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and December 31, 2017, any comments made on posts to this site may be used for research purposes. The identity of the person who posted the comment will be kept anonymous. For more information about the study, please see the About page. By commenting, you consent to participate.



Bourgoin, R., & Dicks, J. (2013). Reading without borders: At risk students transitioning from L1 to L2 in French immersion. Minority populations in Canadian second language education, 118-134.

Bruck, M. (1978). The suitability of early French immersion programs for the language disabled child. Canadian Journal of Education, 3, 51–72.

Bruck, M. (1982). Language impaired children’s performance in an additive bilingual education program. Applied Psycholinguistics, 3(1), 45-60.

Genesee, F. (2007). French immersion and at-risk students: A review of research evidence. Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(5), 655-687.

Le Bouthillier, J. (2015). Writing progress and processes of grade 7 at-risk French immersion students.  International Journal of Technology and Inclusive Education, 2(1), 690-697.

Mady, C., & Arnett, K. (2016). French as a second language teacher candidates’ conceptions of allophone students and students with learning difficulties. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée, 18(2), 78-95.

Trites, R. (1976). Children with learning difficulties in primary French immersion. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 33, 193-207.

Trites, R. (1978). Learning disabilities in immersion. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 34, 888–889.

Wiss, C. (1989). Early French immersion may not be suitable for every child. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 45, 517–529.

2 thoughts on “Language learning for at-risk students: Reviewing and repurposing the French immersion research

  1. C

    I enrolled my autistic severe ADHD and ODD child in French immersion he was thriving in English but to the point of boredom becoming destructive so I opted to challenge him by learning a second language
    The first year was brutal but we persevered and no I do not speak French
    I employed at home French tutors six days per week eventually reducing that to two days per week
    Second year flourishing fluent in conversation needs to catch up slightly in composition a whizz at math
    Had we given up at the first hurdle and to the teachers request I believe we would have taught him to abandon anything difficult in life
    It comes down to attitude and support from wonderful teachers our first year the teachers were not equipt for such special needs the second year however the teachers were and what a difference a year makes
    I’m so proud of my boy and so grateful to the support I received from a new school

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, thank you for sharing this encouraging experience! It really highlights the potential for French immersion to be of great benefit to a diverse range of students. I’m very glad to hear it has been worth the effort.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s