A research team from the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC) followed over 350 children and their Francophone parents living in linguistic minority communities for four years in order to study the impact of a new preschool program. The study was conducted using an experimental framework that facilitated the comparison of results obtained by the group of children participating in the program with those of the non-participating comparison groups.
According to Dr. Louise Legault, SRDC associate researcher and project director, “Overall, the children experienced an accelerated growth averaging three to four months in French language skills relative to their peers in the comparison groups. These gains appeared early in the program and were still perceptible four years later when children entered Grade 2.” Dr. Legault adds, “parents exposed to the program participated more actively in their children’s education.” Compared to parents in the comparison groups, parents who identify themselves as their child’s primary educator engaged in more literacy activities in French with their children.
The project Readiness to Learn in Minority Francophone Communities was part of the 2003–2008 Action Plan for Official Languages and was continued under the 2008–2013 Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality. Funded by Employment and Social Development Canada, this demonstration project piloted a preschool program that combined a childcare component specifically developed to meet the needs of Francophone children in minority communities and a family literacy component targeting the parents of these children.
The preschool program complementary dual component — a daycare program and family workshops — was its distinguishing feature. Six communities across three provinces participated in the project: Edmonton (Alberta), Cornwall, Orléans and Durham (Ontario), as well as Saint John and Edmundston (New Brunswick). The childcare program was offered to children during the first two years of the project, while the series of 10 family literacy workshops was offered to the parents during the first year only. The children and their parents were followed over four years. This period corresponded to the time when the children were, on average, three to seven years old.
Overall, examination of children’s developmental trajectory suggests a sustained accelerated growth in language skills for children exposed to the program over the four years of the project relative to children in the comparison groups. However, the nature of children’s developmental gains depends on their level of exposure to French in the home at the project onset. Children in households where French dominates benefit from the program in terms of language skills, in addition to skills associated with academic performance such as reading and attention. Hence, children who live their preschool years in a predominantly Francophone environment (home and daycare) are better equipped to learn and fully benefit from the activities of the piloted program. Moreover, they continue to develop at an accelerated rate during their first years of school compared to children of the comparison groups. Similarly, gains are observed in the language skills of program group children coming from homes where English is mostly spoken. However, as opposed to the comparison groups, gains in language skills do not translate into an accelerated growth of skills associated with academic performance such as reading, numeracy, and attention skills.
The contribution of parents is fundamental in children’s development, especially in terms of exposing them to French. In fact, parents of the program group use French more frequently for home literacy activities during the first three years of the project relative to comparison group parents. This period extends from preschool to the time when the children enter Grade 1. The program’s impact on the parents’ linguistic behaviour coincides with the accelerated growth of language skills in children participating in the program. During the fourth year of the project, a decrease in the use of French at home is observed. Concurrently, a drop in performance is observed, particularly in children from households characterized by low exposure to French at the project onset. Taken together, these results suggest the need to continue encouraging parents to support the development of their child’s French language skills to ensure their mastery of the language, and ultimately, to foster academic performance.
The emerging picture of the results obtained by this project is encouraging when we consider that children’s language skills are the cornerstone of academic performance, which in turn influences social and professional success. Children exposed to the program are more likely to develop additive bilingualism than those in the comparison groups. This type of bilingualism refers to a level of development of the mother tongue that is sufficient to allow a second language to be acquired without delaying the development of complex cognitive abilities (e.g. numeracy) or skills in the mother tongue. The project results are also pertinent for Francophone minority communities that wish to safeguard their vitality.
Several objectives of the Roadmap and Action Plan were achieved with this project. Testimonies gathered throughout the project provide evidence of the enhanced capacity of participating Francophone minority communities to promote their children’s development. The communities emerge from the project with the resources, human and material, to continue their work in early childhood. Community representatives have pointed out a closer cooperation and new partnerships forged between organizations and service providers serving preschool children and their families. These same representatives have stated that the project has allowed them to further their understanding of child development in minority communities, and especially, the importance of exposing their children to French before they begin school.