Readiness to Learn in Minority Francophone Communities
Fostering learning during the early years
The early years form the basis upon which children shape their place in the world. The environment in which a child grows up, at home and outside it, is crucial to its success when entering school. Recent data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth indicate the following:
- the knowledge and skills that children bring to school are strongly linked to academic achievement;
- children who have positive interactions with their parents, such as being read to daily, tend to score better than other children in their ability to communicate, to learn, and even to play in a cooperative manner;
- those who participate in organized sports and who take lessons in physical activities or the arts also show stronger abilities to learn.
Recent studies on the development of Francophone children living in minority communities have shown that an increasing percentage of these children face great challenges when they start French school because they lack the language skills needed to integrate the system properly. The development of French language and communication skills of these preschoolers is often hindered by an exposure to a predominantly English social environment outside the home. Challenges are even greater when one of the parents, especially the mother, communicates with the child mainly in English.
Is there a way to help Francophone children in minority situations overcome these challenges so that they are ready to learn when they start school?
Fostering the Readiness to Learn of Minority Francophone Children (formerly the Child Care Pilot Project) is assessing the effects of a new Francophone preschool program on children’s linguistic and cultural development, and their readiness to learn. SRDC is conducting the project in six minority Francophone communities across Canada: Edmonton, Alberta; Cornwall, Durham, and Orléans, Ontario; as well as Edmunston and Saint-John, New Brunswick. The project is part of the Government of Canada’s Action Plan for Official Languages and was launched in 2003. Results from the project will add to the collective knowledge of what works and will inform parents, service providers, and communities about the design and delivery of early childhood services targeting minority Francophone families. Research results will also help identify ways to preserve their Francophone identity and to optimize children’s overall development.
The project is testing a new preschool program, which comprises a child and a family component. The child component consists of services delivered in a daycare centre by educators who help children develop French linguistic and communication skills, encourage the development of their Francophone identity, instill a sense of pride by familiarizing them with French-Canadian culture (through songs, stories, and traditions, for instance), and enhance their overall readiness to learn. These services are based on the Programme d’études : Écoles fransaskoises – Prématernelle, developed in 2001 by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Education. Educators who deliver the program take regular and thorough training.
The family component consists of family literacy workshops offered to parents so that they can help their children develop their skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Through workshops, parents have access to French-language tools, such as toys, books, and audio-visual material.
More than 400 francophone preschoolers and their parents, from two cohorts, participate in the project. Children of the first cohort were born in 2004 or in January 2005. Those of the second cohort were born in 2005. Participants are Francophone right-holders, that is, they have at least one parent whose first language learned and still understood is French, one parent who has received primary school instruction in French in Canada, or one sibling who has received or is receiving school instruction in French in Canada (see article 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Childcare services and family literacy workshops were implemented in the fall of 2007 for the first cohort and in the fall of 2008 for the second cohort. Delivery arrangements are the same for both cohorts. Some communities will receive services in a year; others will receive them over two years.
The research design for the project does not use random assignment as a sampling technique. Due to insufficient infrastructure and daycare providers’ commitment to giving precedence to siblings of children already attending their facility when they accept a new child into their centre, the process of randomly assigning children and their parents to an experimental or control group proved impossible for the project. Instead, a quasi-experimental approach was taken, where families participating in the project have been divided into three groups:
- Families with children in the daycare centre offering the new preschool program comprise the program group.
- Families with children in daycare centres not offering the new preschool program comprise the first control group.
- Families with children who are not in a daycare centre comprise the second control group.
Family participation in the project is voluntary, even if their children are in a centre offering the new program. The program group, comprising the two cohorts, makes up about a third of the children enrolled in Francophone daycare centres offering the new preschool program. These children and their parents have attended the family literacy workshops. The rest of the children are spread out equally between the two control groups. The first group consists of children enrolled in Francophone daycare centres not offering the new preschool program, which allows to control the effects of attending a Francophone daycare centre. A second comparison group consists of children who are in informal daycare arrangements, for example, in a family setting.
Children’s development is measured using the Early Years Evaluation – Direct Assessment (EYE-DA). The tool assesses five domains of school readiness:
- awareness of self and environment,
- cognitive skills,
- language and communication,
- physical and motor skills, and
- awareness and engagement in Francophone culture.
Because preschoolers’ development is primarily influenced by their family and daycare environment, many of the evaluation measures of the program focus on parental and daycare characteristics. Community resources and services available to Francophone families are also taken into consideration to help explain children’s development.
Parents answer surveys at different stages of the project in order to collect information on the socio-demographic profile of the family, languages spoken at home and outside it, the way they interact with their children in different situations, and other factors related to school readiness.
Characteristics of program daycare centres are assessed by means of multiple on-site observations to monitor program implementation and quality of delivery. Family literacy workshops are also observed on site. Opinions of the program are also obtained from educators and family literacy practitioners involved in the delivery of services. Several on-site observations are planned at daycare centres not delivering the new preschool program to gather information of curriculum components that may be similar to those of the tested program.
In the fall of 2008, Human Resources and Social Development Canada found it important to extend for two more years the study of children taking part in the project in order to assess the long-term effects of the new preschool program. The decision to follow children during their first grades for an extended period to determine if they succeed in school necessitated the recruitment of a second cohort of children in the fall of 2008. About a hundred of them from the Orléans and Cornwall regions joined the project, which will allow us to obtain more reliable information on the effectiveness of the program and parents’ activities with their children. A series of periodic reports will be released on progress and lessons learned as the program is implemented. The first report is expected in the fall of 2009.
The Readiness to Learn in Minority Francophone Communities project is funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.
For more information on this SRDC project, please contact Louise Legault, SRDC project director, who leads a team of researchers, daycare providers, school board officials, health service providers, and community representatives.