Sarah Gagnon (BSc/BEd’11, MEd’20) knows what it’s like to live in the space between languages. Born into a Francophone family, she learned to speak English when she entered Kindergarten.
I go back to Quebec and my French doesn’t have the Quebecois accent,” she says. “Yet in Alberta I’m not English, either. There’s this feeling that I don’t really belong to one or the other. Imagine the tension, the culture shock, other students feel when they come from way farther away."
Gagnon taught Grades 7–12 French Immersion for six years and noticed that the difficulties students had with language comprehension impacted their performance in other areas. “Those literacy skills weren’t transferring between subject matters,” she says. “They might know the science or math, but if they can’t read the question or understand the vocabulary, how can we assess them?”
Gagnon enrolled in Multiple Literacies in Canadian Classrooms, a Master of Education program at the University of Lethbridge which focusses on the evolving nature and diverse literacies of Canadian schoolrooms. “For so long we’ve put literacy into the box of reading and writing,” she says. “Literacy is not a Language Arts classroom; literacy is in all the subjects.”
In 2018 Gagnon took a position teaching Grade 9 English Language Arts in Fort McMurray, a northern community with a diverse population. “About 20% of the entire school also speak a language other than English,” she says, noting that in her classroom alone 20 countries and 49 languages were represented.
Gagnon’s research interests lie in developing effective assessment practices for English language learners. “Most ELL students already have literacies, they’re just not in English,” she says. “If we can access what they know and transfer those literacies to the classroom, even if we don’t speak their languages, it makes for better assessment of where they are in content subject areas.”
Gagnon is also interested in studying the experiences and perceptions of second language learners in Alberta. She encourages her ELL students to talk and write about their lives. “They’re going to succeed much better in English if we hear and make room for their stories, language and culture,” she says.
At a time when ELL populations are increasing, Gagnon’s research has important implications for future programming and support.
Writer: Elizabeth McLachlan, Photographer: Rob Olson
Related story links to Faculty of Education Graduate Studies:
Bridging Neuroscience and Education: Riley Kostek (BSc’09/BEd’11)
Teaching and Assessing for Life Beyond the Classroom: Dr. David Slomp
Five questions with Shining Graduate Rita Lal (BSc/BEd '01, MEd '20)
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