English and French language learners account for an important share of public school enrolments

By Richard Riel and Ronald Boudreau
October 4, 2012


Linguistic diversity is one of the defining characteristics of Canadian society. Although Canada’s official languages are English and French, many school-aged children have a non-official language as their mother tongue and/or their language most often spoken at home. Moreover, the level of proficiency in English and/or French, spoken and/or written, among them, can vary significantly. Additional language programs are offered to students who need additional instruction in the official language of instruction of the school in which they are enrolled, also referred to as English Language Learners (ELLs) and French Language Learners (FLLs). In some instances, children whose primary language is an official language still require such programs. This would be the case, for example, for many francophone children in minority settings. Highlights of a 2011 CTF survey of teachers on Classroom Diversity and Class Size pertaining to ELLs/FLLs will be examined to shed light on this issue.

Proportion of School-Age Children with a Non-Official Language as Their Primary Language

According to the 2006 Census, 14.4% of Canadian children 5 to 19 years of age were reported to have a non-official language as their mother tongue and 8.7% indicated the same with respect to their language spoken most often at home (Chart A). Among this group, some will need ELL/FLL programs depending on their level of proficiency in the official language of the school they attend. Mother tongue is defined as the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood by the individual at the time of the Census. (Note that 2011 Census data pertaining to language is expected to be released by Statistics Canada in the fall of 2012).

Chart A. Share of 5 to 19 Year Old Population in Canada by Primary Language, 2006 Census


* Includes English and French; English and a non-official language; French and a non-official language; English, French and a non-official language.

Significant Growth in Children with a Non-Official Language as Their Primary Language

In addition to the numerous languages spoken by Canadian immigrants, non-official languages encompass languages spoken by the Aboriginal, First Nations and Inuit communities.

As depicted in Chart B, the percentage increase in the 5 to 19 year old population in Canada with a non-official mother tongue was significant from 2001 to 2006 (16.6%) and among those reporting a non-official language as the one spoken most often at home (14.9%). In contrast, decreases in the number of children and youth in this age group were experienced for those with either French or English as their mother tongue or language spoken most often at home.

Chart B. Percentage Change in Number of 5 to 19 Year Olds by Primary Language, from 2001 to 2006 Census


Key Factors Impacting Prevalence of ELLs/FLLs


The rich diversity of non-official languages in Canada is impacted by Canada’s high level of immigration which totaled 248,660 permanent residents in 2011. According to Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney “Canada’s per-capita immigration rate remains one of the highest in the world”[1]. Many new immigrant children will require additional language programs.

According to the 2006 Census, two-thirds of immigrant children in Canada under 15 years of age had a non-official language mother tongue compared to just over 1 in 10 non-immigrant children (11.9%). Similarly, the language spoken most often at home was a non-official language for 44.4% of immigrant children in this age group compared to 7.3% of non-immigrant children (Chart C). It should be noted that the share of immigrant children who most often speak a non-official language at home decreases as they get older and, correspondingly, the longer they have resided in Canada. This share stood at over half of children under 15 years of age who immigrated to Canada between 2001 and 2006 (50.7%), compared to just over 1 in 4 among those who immigrated from 1991 to 1995 (26.1%).

Chart C. Children Under 15 Years of Age with a Non-Official Language as Their Primary Language, by Immigrant Status, 2006 Census


Knowledge of official languages is defined in the Census as having the ability to conduct a conversation in an official language. With respect to children less than 15 years of age, 9.1% of non-permanent residents and 4.7% of immigrants were indicated as having knowledge of neither English nor French, compared to 1.7% of non-immigrant children. The share among immigrants was 7.0% among those who immigrated to Canada within the five year period that preceded the Census (i.e.: 2001 to 2006), but was only 0.4% among those who arrived in the previous five year period between 1996 and 2000. Note that non-permanent residents are persons from another country who, at the time of the census, held a Work or Study Permit, or who were refugee claimants, as well as family members living with them in Canada.

The shares of children under 15 who were reported to have knowledge of English were comparable between immigrants (71.5%) and non-immigrants (69.6%); as were the shares reporting knowledge of both official languages (immigrants: 12.8% vs. non-immigrants: 10.8%); and somewhat less so with respect to French (immigrants: 11.1% vs. non-immigrants: 18.0%). It should be kept in mind however that this “knowledge” information does not indicate the level of proficiency with official languages and is based on the personal opinions of the respondents. Some of the children reported in the Census as having “knowledge” of official languages may still warrant the need for an ELL or FLL program.

Francophones Living in Minority Settings and Exogamous Families

Francophones living in minority settings is resulting in a large proportion of children more often speaking English than French at home, many of whom will need FLL programs. According to the Census, a significant proportion of Francophones in minority settings are more often speaking a language other than French at home (referring primarily to English). This rate among Francophones outside Quebec rose from 29.8%[2]in 1971 to 39.3%[2]in 2006.

In addition, children in families in which parents have different official languages as their mother tongue (also referred to as exogamous families) will also be more likely to need FLL programs. An increasing percentage of children eligible to attend a French-language school are born of exogamous couples (53% in 1986 to 64% in 2001)[2]. In these families where only one of the parents is Francophone, it is not uncommon for a child to enter school with needs similar to those of FLLs.

CTF Survey Examines ELLs/FLLs

A CTF survey on Classroom Diversity and Class Size was conducted from October 17th to October 31st, 2011. Teachers surveyed were asked how many ELLs/FLLs (English Language Learners and French Language Learners) they had in the classes they taught. The survey defined these students as being those whose first language differs from the school's primary language of instruction, and who may require focused educational supports to assist them in attaining proficiency in that language. The following analysis provides some relevant highlights based on information collected from this survey.

Almost 3,800 teachers responded to the CTF Survey, including 3,023 in English schools (including immersion) and 754 in French as first language schools. Survey results are based on almost 10,000 classes across Canada. Among the 9,894 classes reported, 8,237 classes were in English schools (including immersion) while 1,657 classes were in French as first language schools. The national survey results reported in this article exclude teachers in Quebec, Saskatchewan and Nunavut who did not participate in the survey.

Greater Need for ELL/FLL Programs in Lower Grades

According to the CTF survey, over 1 in 10 students per reported classroom (12.2%) were ELLs or FLLs. The prevalence of children in these programs varied significantly by grade level (Chart D) ranging from an average of 4.7 students per class in junior kindergarten or kindergarten, or 24.7% of all students at that level, to an average of 1.7 students per class in grades 9 and over, or 8.2% of all students in those grades (Chart E). As expected, the lower grades reported the largest proportion of these students. Children will gradually acquire linguistics skills as they get older given the education they will have received. Consequently, some students will attain linguistic proficiency and no longer need focused educational supports.

Other key findings of the CTF survey include:

  • Over 6 in 10 classes (62%) reported in grades 9 and over had no ELLs/FLLs compared to fewer than 4 in 10 classes (37%) in junior kindergarten or kindergarten.
  • Over 1 in 4 reported JK and K classes (27%) had 7 or more ELLs/FLLs per class while only 7% of grade 9 and over classes reported 7 or more ELLs/FLLs per class.
  • When examining these students in relative terms, at the JK-K level, one in four classes were reported to have at least 40% of students who were ELLs/FLLs, compared to 6% of reported grade 9+ classes that had ELLs/FLLs account for 40% or more of students.

Chart D. Average Number of ELLs/FLLs per Class, by Grade Level


Chart E. ELLs/FLLs as a Percentage of Total Number of Students, by Grade Level


Additional Language Learners (ALLs)[3]More Prominent in French Schools

CTF survey results revealed that the average number of Additional Language Learners were higher in French as a first language schools than in English schools (including immersion) for all grade levels examined (Chart F). On average there were 4.2 French Language Learners (FLLs) per class in French schools compared to an average of 2.3 English Language Learners (ELLs) per class in English schools.

The gap was most pronounced at the junior kindergarten or kindergarten level where there was an average of 8.8 FLLs per class in French schools compared to an average of 2.8 ELLs in English schools. The gap became marginal from grade 9 onward with FLLs in French schools averaging 2.0 per class compared to 1.7 ELLs in English schools.

The gap between ELLs and FLLs may be impacted by the challenges faced by French-language schools. (See previous section on Francophones in Minority Settings and Exogamous Families for more details.)

Chart F. Average Number of ELLs/FLLs per Reported Class, by Language of the School and Grade Level


As shares of all students in the classroom, Additional Language Learners represented a significantly larger share in French as a first language schools (Chart G). With respect to the overall elementary-secondary level, FLLs accounted for 22% of students in French schools, more than doubling the 10% share of ELLs in English schools.

Almost half of JK or K students in French as first language schools (46%) were FLLs, equivalent to more than three times the share of 15% of ELLs reported in English schools for that level. Respective shares of ELLs/FLLs declined gradually over successive grade levels, falling to respective lows of 11.6% in French schools and 7.7% in English schools for grades 9 and over.

Chart G. Percentage of ELLs/FLLs per Reported Class, by Language of the School and Grade Level


When examining the elementary-secondary level overall, over 1 in 5 French as a first language schools (22%) had 7 or more FLLs per classroom. In comparison, just under 1 in 10 English schools (9%) had 7 or more ELLs per classroom. Almost 6 in 10 English schools (58%) had no ELLs while about 4 in 10 French schools (42%) had no FLLs.

Urban Areas Have More ELL/FLL Students

Differences were also reported in the number of ELLs/FLLs based on the area of residence of the students attending the school. The number and relative proportion of ELLs/FLLs was greater in urban areas than in rural areas for all grade levels examined. This may be influenced by the fact that most new immigrants to Canada, some of whom need additional language programs, take residence in urban areas. According to the 2001 Census for example, among immigrants who had stated a destination at the time of admission to Canada, only 1% [4]planned to settle outside of an urban area. The majority of newcomers settle in the three largest census metropolitan areas of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

On average, survey results reported 3.5 ELLs/FLLs per class in urban areas compared to 1.6 in rural areas (Chart H). As a share of total classroom enrolment, these language learners represented 15% of all students in urban areas compared to about 9% in rural areas (Chart I). Consistent with the previously noted tendency, differences were most substantial in lower grade levels.

Chart H. Average Number of ELLs/FLLs per Reported Class, by Area of Residence of Students Attending the School and Grade Level


Chart I. Percentage of ELLs/FLLs per Reported Class, by Area of Residence of Students Attending the School and Grade Level


About 1 in 5 reported urban classes (21%) had 5 or more ELLs/FLLs per class compared to only 1 in 10 classes in rural areas. In addition, more than 7 in 10 classes reported in rural areas (72%) had no ELLs/FLLs at all, compared to 4 in 10 urban classes. As a share of total classroom enrolments, ELLs/FLLs accounted for 40% or more of all students in 12% of urban classes and in 8% of rural classes.

Final Thoughts

School-aged children enter public schools with varying levels of linguistic skills. The difficulties faced by some of these children can be daunting and may be exasperated when their primary language is not the language of instruction of the school. Some students, in many cases recent immigrants, enter the classroom with little or no ability in the official language of the school they attend. We can only imagine the monumental challenge facing these students to learn a new language along with the content required in the curriculum.

Teachers work diligently to adapt their lessons to meet the needs of a diverse student population. This diversity not only includes ELL and FLL students but an increasing number of students with identified exceptionalities (see CTF publication “Optimizing Conditions of Teachers’ Professional Practice to Support Students with Special Educational Needs”).

When provided with the proper resources, teachers are able to meet the diverse needs of their students. Canada is a world leader when it comes to providing equal opportunities to all learners. It is incumbent upon those providing resources to schools to support professional practice aimed at maintaining this high standard. Policy makers should take into account not only the number of students in the classroom but also the unique educational needs of each learner and the demands that those needs place on the classroom teacher.

[1] Citizenship and Immigration Canada, News release – Canada continued to welcome a high number of immigrants in 2011, Ottawa, March 2, 2012.

[2] LANDRY, Rodrigue. Petite enfance et autonomie culturelle, Là où le nombre le justifie…, Commission nationale des parents francophones, Mars 2010, p.16 and 19.

[3] For the purpose of this paper, ALLs refers to ELLs and FLLs.

[4] Statistics Canada, Immigrants’ choice of destination, Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Canada: Process, progress and prospects, Cat. #89 611 XIE.

Richard Riel is Researcher at CTF. Ronald Boudreau is the Director of Services to Francophones at CTF

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