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A redesigned, competence-based teaching model

Denis Cousineau
Ottawa-Carleton District School Board
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers (in French only)


I would like to address the most recent approach to immersion from the perspective of transformation and transition. This new vision of immersion is one in which second language learning will occur on different levels and from which a new teaching model will emerge.

The older, content-based model

Traditionally, in planning tasks and learning activities, teachers would start with content and work toward competences. For example, here is how the former model might be applied at the elementary school level. We have arrived at the month of October, so we cover a theme called Halloween. We plan 10 days of activities related to this theme. Typically, students learn new vocabulary and verbs related to the theme, and if all goes well, we wrap up the unit with a good old-fashioned written test on the theme of Halloween. When we talk to parents, we discuss the work accomplished and the results achieved. Parents go home thinking that learning French mainly involves content and coursework and that success is based on grades and on handing in assignments by specific dates. In my view, this is a content-based model. Competence development is not planned and occurs without structure or follow-up.

The newer, competence-based model

Under the new educational model, the planning of tasks and learning activities takes an entirely different turn. An action plan must now begin by identifying the needs of the social agent, who has six competence levels to develop, divided into three sub categories: comprehension, production and interaction.

A new learning activity must be based on a specific competence. For example, the purpose of the activity might be to listen (oral comprehension competence [OC]) to a short documentary on child labour in a given country and then share some thoughts on the matter (oral production competence [OP]). This task could potentially lead to a round table on the topic, during which learners could be observed as they engage in discussion (oral interaction competence [OI]).

The activity could also start with a written text. For example, learners could read a newspaper article. However, the planning logic would remain the same: reading for pleasure and reading for an assessment of learners' understanding of the information presented in a text (written comprehension competence [WC]). Learners can then discuss and compare the views presented in the texts with their peers (OI). They can use a blog to indicate which of the readings they preferred (written production competence [WP]).

In this model, the content plays a secondary role, and its value depends on how well it serves the needs of competence development. This content can and should be completely flexible. It can and should be adapted to the learners' needs and language development. I am referring here to progress based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) scale.

In the classroom

Teachers must also take a step back from their traditional roles and become masters of learning design. They will need to create new action-oriented learning activities. They will become masters of the learning environment. In this environment, rows of desks will give way to discussion tables, because for students to build confidence when interacting, a physical environment that is naturally conducive to discussion is required.

Teachers must also reduce their speaking time. Speaking time is essential, but it should be used primarily for giving clear instructions to initiate learning and build on progress. Teachers will limit their speaking time to 30% of the total time; students will spend the rest of their time interacting. Learners can then spend 70% of every minute developing their competences and building their confidence each day.

Teachers will adhere to the following teaching logic: OC, OI and OP first and WC, WI and WP second. Oral competence must be the foundation. If we want to build lasting confidence, we have to start with oral communication. Written communication should be given an important but realistic place. It is better to write shorter, well-structured texts than longer ones that are full of mistakes. For future learners, therefore, writing activities should be well targeted. When they write creatively, the focus will be on creativity, and a little less attention will be given to language structure. When we require targeted, precise texts, we will ask for short, well-written ones that have gone through a writing process. In the course of this process, learners will receive feedback, rewrite the text, receive more feedback and then submit a final version that is predictable, because we have watched it progress in quality. To follow this process, we have to limit the text length.


We cannot have a discussion on teaching methods without a discussion on assessment. Here are the basic principles of success:

  • Ongoing self-assessment based on CEFR descriptors. Students must be able to position themselves at all stages of the learning process.
  • Formative assessment and more formative assessment and more formative assessment before any summative assessment.
  • Development of a feedback model based on specific criteria, e.g. vocabulary (extent and precision).
  • A predictable summative assessment based on specific criteria and intended to assess quality, not quantity. Quality is assessed on the basis of a predetermined, preconstructed degree of effectiveness. This summative assessment will take language development into account. Therefore, the degree of effectiveness could be high in level A2, just as it could be low in level B2. To be fair to learners, effectiveness should be measured in terms of the development level. This way, the summative assessment will be used to measure progress and should no longer be seen as an end in itself.

Why adopt this approach?

First, it is our responsibility to establish consistent teaching and assessment methods. The CEFR allows us to better define second language acquisition and development, while the Diplôme d'études en langue française (DELF) test allows us to better identify our criteria for success. Therefore, it is our responsibility to read or reread our French Second Language programs, find a competence-based model and create a new environment that will have a lasting effect for all our immersion and second language learners.

When we adopt teaching methods founded on competence-based principles and tasks, we establish a foundation for building greater confidence in learners. When learners use their "GPS" (the CEFR) to position themselves every day, this foundation and this confidence are strengthened. Finally, when we relate assessment directly to this competence, we create autonomous learners. In terms of the CEFR, this allows us to say that we will develop good B1- and B2-level students and can expect to have thousands of good students at levels C1 and C2.