Education

Flunking French

Francophone students are struggling with their mother tongue

Brenda Branswell April 16 2001
Education

Flunking French

Francophone students are struggling with their mother tongue

Brenda Branswell April 16 2001

Flunking French

Education

Francophone students are struggling with their mother tongue

The corrected exams, lying on a desk at the front of the class, create an instant buzz with the 29 students filing into Grade 11 French at Ecole sécondaire St-Maxime in Laval, Que. One by one, the students in Francine Gauvreaus class pounce on the tests. A girl with sunglasses perched on her head grins and lets out a whoop. A boy with short, neady gelled hair mutters câlisse!, a ubiquitous curse word, when he spots his failing grade. Gauvreau has administered the test to prepare for next months French writing exam, mandatory for Grade 11 students in Quebec’s francophone school system. Today, it is back to basics. Sitting at the rear of the class, Keven Savard pores over his grammar workbook, confounded by past participles. In Grades 9 and 10, with “no effort at all,” he earned good marks. But this year Savard, 17, a hockey player with his heart set on the National Hockey League, is falling short of the 60-per-cent passing mark. French is his weakest subject. “I make a lot of errors,” says Savard. “I write like I speak.”

He is not the only struggling student. Gauvreau estimates that a third of her students arrive in Grade 11 without the necessary knowledge for the course

level. And across the province, there is continuing concern about the quality of French, both spoken and written. “How can the Quebec state dream of achieving independence when threequarters of our compatriots speak a language barely understood by the rest of the Francophonie?” grumbled Le Devoir columnist Odile Tremblay in a blunt piece last fall. During recent hearings by a provincial commission on the future of the French language, several

briefs made reference to the troubles that francophone students have with their mother tongue. These are not baseless fears: Figures released last month showed that 20 per cent of 8,055 prospective francophone teachers last year failed a written French test, the passing of which is a condition of hiring by most francophone school boards. In the CEGEP system, one in four college students fails the compulsory first-year French literature course.

By comparison, the results from the Grade 11 writing exam appear impressive. Last year, 90.4 per cent of students passed the exam, up sharply from 62.1 per cent in 1990. But what concerns parents and educators, says Lise Ouellet, head of French programs at Quebec’s education ministry, are the spelling and grammar results. Last year, only 58 per cent of students passed that aspect of the test. The provincial association of French teachers wants the grading system changed so that students must pass both the grammar and essay content portions of the test to obtain their diplomas. The ministry recognizes the problem, according to Ouellet, and is exploring solutions.

With 27 years of teaching experience, Gauvreau has noticed an improvement in written French over the past decade. But she laments that students who receive a final grade of 45 per cent in her class can still end up with a 60-per-cent passing mark from the ministry of education. She contends that the ministry adjusts marks. “It’s that illusion that we want to give,” says Gauvreau, “that the school must make all children in the province succeed.” Not surprisingly, Ouellet maintains that is not the case. The ministry contends that it only adjusts grades when there is a significant discrepancy between class marks and those on provincial exams.

Regardless of who is right, there is plenty of evidence showing that many students continue to stmggle at CEGEP and university. The province’s new high-school curriculum, to be launched in 2003, will require teachers of other subjects to also monitor students’ written French. Meanwhile, Gauvreau prepares her students as best she can. They read four books a year, and prepare a literary analysis of each. Every year, Gauvreau sighs at the prospect of marathon correction sessions. But, she concedes, “They need it. Why is there so much failure at CEGEPs? It’s because they don’t have the knowledge.” In a province where language is an obsession, it’s an issue that’s unlikely to disappear soon.

Brenda Branswell in Laval, Que.