Language immersion in K-4: almost everything is taught in French

The cardboard frog taped on the wall of this first grade classroom is not green. It's vert. And when a child bumps her lip, she is comforted . . . in French.

Down the hall the second-graders are being told to get out their crayon de couleur.

Downstairs a fourth-grader is reading ''Le grand livre des questions et reponses de Charlie Brown.'' And while the teacher hands out paper, the students in the back of the room giggle and whisper - again in French.

This is the Miller School in the small town of Holliston, Mass., where about 12 percent of the school's 1,000 students (kindergarten through Grade 4) are enrolled in the French Early Immersion Program. But these children are learning French, not by being taught it, but by hearing it and using it all day every day , beginning with their first day of kindergarten.

Programs that teach young students a foreign language by ''immersing'' them in it began in Canada in the 1960s, and the technique was first used with Spanish in this country in Culver City, Calif., in 1971. There are about 20 such programs today.

The lessons the Holliston ''Immersion'' students learn are essentially the same as those being taught to their peers across the hall, but they are taught in French. The first-graders march their fingers along lignes de numero to learn simple arithmetic. The textbooks, the workbooks, the teachers' comments and directions - all are in French.

''Even when we pass notes, we use French,'' one student says with pride.

Kindergarten students may speak English to one another and to their teacher, but they will hear only French from her.

During the first and second grades, English is banned except when students are working with specialists in art, music, and physical education. And they may speak English to students not in the program during lunch and recess.

''But sometimes we use it to keep secrets, like from other kids,'' a fourth-grader says.

In the third and fourth grades, students do get instruction in English language skills, and about half of the day is spent using English.

The program works, according to Dr. Savino J. Placentino, superintendent of schools. The students in the program are learning everything their peers are learning in traditional classrooms, and they are fluent in French.

During the early grades, those in the French Immersion Program don't do as well on standardized English language skills tests, especially in spelling, he says. But they catch up quickly when instruction in English reading and writing begins.

Retention is less of a problem than in more traditional programs because the students are using the language constantly, not just studying it as a separate subject, Dr. Placentino says.

Plans are also being made to continue the students' use of French after they leave the program.

The language skills they acquire in French transfer easily to English, says Therese Caccavale, a teacher who has been with the program since it started in 1979.

''Reading is not really specific to any language,'' she says. ''When high school students learn a language they do the same things these kids are doing. They don't need to relearn reading in that language.''

But there is no special focus on French culture, she says. ''We want the kids to grow up to be American.''

During lessons, teachers point out differences between English and French, says James Palladino, principal in charge of the program. They might explain, for example, that although the months are not capitalized in French, they are in English. ''We know that the students need English,'' he says.

Holliston's middle school offers a similar program in Spanish. Students take an introductory course in the fifth grade and two subject courses in Spanish in the sixth and seventh grades.

''There are 100 reasons why we went for this program,'' Mr. Placentino says. Essentially, ''there are just so many advantages and so few disadvantages.'' American students need to learn foreign languages, he asserts, and the immersion programs are an effective and inexpensive means to make them fluent in another language.

The program has cost ''practically nothing,'' he remarks. Teachers who speak French are no more expensive than those who don't, and the books, most of which have come from Canada, have in some cases been less costly. The only extra expense has been for library books.

Classes in Holliston include students with a range of abilities and are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, Placentino says. There has never been any trouble filling a class. Some parents have put their children's names on the list two years in advance.

Very few students have left the program, Palladino notes. Of the 27 kindergarten students who were in the first class in 1979, only two have left; one of them moved.

Although there was some public opposition to the program when it was proposed (mostly because people feared additional costs), the town has been more and more supportive, Placentino says. Also, the program has been very popular with parents of students, and many of the kindergarten students this year have older siblings in the program.

It requires a little extra from parents, says Rita Suydam, a parent of two students in the program. Like most of the other parents, she does not speak French.

''What I speak I learned from the kids,'' she says. ''And I have a supply of French-English dictionaries around.'' Also, when she can't understand comments on her children's papers, she calls the teacher.

It is sometimes hard to help the children with homework, and it isn't easy to find French children's books for their use at home, but the program is worth the extra effort, she adds.

''We decided a second language would never hurt,'' she says, ''(and) we decided to try it. And it works.''

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