Principal Support of FSL Instruction in Ontario Schools: A Literature Review

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Principal Support of FSL Instruction in Ontario Schools: A Literature Review

French as a second language (FSL) instruction is obligatory in Ontario English-language school boards and is offered in three streams: Core French (CF), Extended French, and French Immersion (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2020). However, this mandate is not always supported or prioritized by school leadership; therefore, FSL programs are often marginalized (Cloutier, 2018; Lapkin et al., 2009; Milley & Arnott, 2016). A lack of principal support reduces FSL teachers’ desire to remain in the profession and limits students’ learning and academic success in this subject area (Lapkin et al., 2009; Lin, 2012; Padron & Waxman, 2016). When FSL programs are marginalized, those teachers experience lower levels of self-efficacy, the personal beliefs about one’s ability “to organize and execute courses of action required to successfully accomplish a specific teaching task” (Ma & Marion, 2019, p. 189). This negatively impacts their instructional practice choices directly affecting student learning (Viswanathan, 2019).  To improve student learning in FSL classrooms, school administrators must understand how to apply instructional leadership practices to advocate for and promote FSL programs within their school and community. 

Instructional leadership focuses on improving “the quality of teaching and learning, curriculum, [and] staff motivation and capacity development” (Ma & Marion, 2019, p. 188). Limited research exists on the influence of this leadership approach on FSL instruction. However, inferences can be made from studies researching the impact of instructional leadership on general second language (L2) and English as a second language (ESL) programs, as well as studies examining the correlation between instructional leadership, teacher efficacy, and positive learning environments. This paper synthesizes research to answer the following question: How do educational leaders use instructional leadership to support FSL instruction in Ontario schools?



This literature review first identified scholarly research focused on instructional leadership for FSL programs through electronic databases available at the Trinity Western University (TWU) library. Databases included in this review were: Google Scholar, ERIC, Academic Search Ultimate, Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson), Teacher Reference Center, JSTOR, SAGE Journals, and TWU Library One Search. The following key subject words were used to search the databases with Boolean “AND” to combine the search terms: administration OR principal OR leader, FSL OR “French education” OR “second language” OR L2 OR “core French” CF OR “French immersion” FI OR “French as a second language”, “Instructional Leadership” OR “academic support”. The search results ranged from 21 to 645 articles. While most articles were irrelevant, 23 articles were identified as relevant to this review.

Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

         The 23 articles identified were manually screened for relevance and attainability and were either kept or eliminated based on the inclusion and exclusion criteria. The reviewed articles were required to meet the following criteria: 1) be published between 2009 – 2021 2) be peer-reviewed or a thesis, 3) be written in the English language, 4) focus on FSL or second language learning and the impact of instructional leadership on those teachers. Conversely, articles were eliminated based on the following exclusion criteria: 1) published earlier than 2009, 2) written in a non-English language, and 3) discussing bilingual or dual language education. Of the 23 articles identified, 10 articles met the inclusion criteria and were used in the review. 

Critical Analysis         

Each of the 10 articles were then critically appraised using one of Plano-Clark and Creswell’s (2015) 21-point rating scales for different research methods. A rating of 0-10 indicated low quality, 11-16 indicated adequate quality, and 17-21 indicated high quality. Only articles of high or adequate quality were included in this review. 


To understand the instructional leadership practices of principals in Ontario schools, it is important to note the obstacles preventing school leaders from acting out those practices. As a result, the major themes found in the articles for this review were divided into two categories:

  • Potential factors preventing effective instructional leadership for FSL programs
  • Instructional leadership practices supporting FSL instruction

Potential Factors Preventing Effective Instructional Leadership for FSL Programs

Personal Experience in FSL 

Very few FSL teachers move into leadership positions meaning there is a limited number of principals with FSL teaching experience or an ability to communicate in French (Cloutier, 2018). In her study of 58 principals in Ontario school boards, Cloutier (2018) discovered administrators with an FSL background found it easier to empathize with FSL teachers and provide reliable resources for them. Administrators without an FSL background struggled to do the same. She noted having French language skills allowed principals to understand the happenings during class time and to better complete FSL teacher evaluations. These challenges may affect principals’ knowledge and perceptions about second language programming. In a study of 22 elementary principals, only two were able to describe the objectives, implementation methods, and strategies of second language programs in their schools (Padron & Waxman, 2016). However, administrators still valued FSL programs despite their lack of familiarity or understanding of FSL instruction (Cloutier, 2018). They used experiences in ESL or other literacy practices to provide support for staff; regardless, FSL teachers were often dismissive or skeptical of their principals’ support because of the lack of FSL teaching experience (Cloutier, 2018). Despite this, not having an FSL background may be less detrimental to teacher instruction when balanced with other instructional leadership practices independent of language skills (Cloutier, 2018; Lin, 2012). This idea is discussed in further detail later.

Poor Training in Principal Qualification Programs

Instructional leadership requires pre-conferencing, observation, and post-observation conferencing, during which principals emphasize instruction areas needing improvement and encourage teachers to reflect on and plan new approaches (Baecher et al., 2016); however, there was limited training provided in principal qualification programs (PQP) to help administrators understand how to carry out this process for FSL programs (Cloutier, 2018). This lack of emphasis in PQPs meant principals were reluctant to take ownership of these programs because “the evaluation/supervision of the French program [was] not as high a priority as that of the rest of the curriculum” (Calman, 1988 as cited in Milley & Arnott, 2016, p. 4). As a result, principals attributed responsibility and success of FSL programs solely to the teachers (Milley & Arnott, 2016; Padron & Waxman, 2016). When administrators did conduct FSL program or teacher evaluations, they considered a high level of student engagement, not second language acquisition, as the determining factor of a program’s success (Milley & Arnott, 2016). Principals needed to base their evaluation on something they could see and understand rather than what they knew to be excellent or inappropriate implementation of second language instructional practices (Padron & Waxman, 2016). 

A similar problem was noted by Baecher et al. (2016) when evaluating teachers’ practices with English language learners (ELL). This led to the development of an ELL Observation Tool to be used by all principals, regardless of personal background. The tool provided both a structure of observational notes and exposure to pedagogical strategies unique to ELL (Baecher et al., 2016). The development of a specialized FSL observation tool would assist principals in providing instructional leadership to that specialized program. It is important to note only three of the 12 principal candidates chose to use Baecher et al.’s (2016) ELL Observation Tool during their principal internship because they had a background in ESL teaching. This suggests principals’ personal experiences may still play a role in the successful evaluation of L2 programs and teachers despite having a specialized observation tool. 

System-Level Constraints

Some factors preventing FSL instructional leadership were outside a principal’s immediate control and are a direct result of system-level constraints. Elements such as funding (Cloutier, 2018; Viswanathan, 2019), contradictory language policies in different education sectors (Slaughter et al., 2019), a shortage of qualified FSL teachers (Padron & Waxman, 2016; Slaughter et al., 2019), lack of board-level consultants (Cloutier, 2018; Padron & Waxman, 2016), government policies, socio-demographics, and geography (Slaughter et al., 2019) inhibited principals’ ability to provide FSL instructional leadership. Principals must commit to providing quality language education and thinking creatively about how to address program implementation problems based on their unique circumstances (Slaughter et al., 2019).

However, not all system constraints were external. Internal policies and structures also impacted principals’ support for FSL. Lapkin et al. (2009) noted FSL teachers were less likely to receive support for ELL or special needs student even though those same students were successfully supported in English classrooms. The most common practice was to exempt the students from FSL instruction despite research showing the students’ ability to match or outperform their peers because the supports provided for those students made FSL accessible to all students (Lapkin et al., 2009). 

Another internal system constraint was timetables and scheduling (Cloutier, 2018; Lapkin et al., 2009). Some principals scheduled FSL classes according to the planning time of other subjects (typically 40 minute classes three to five days a week) indicating FSL had lower priority than the other programs (Milley & Arnott, 2016). In contrast, students had deeper L2 retention when taught during compact and long periods of time (i.e. half-day blocks for 10 weeks) (Lapkin et al., 2009). This scheduling difference requires principals to review or revise their internal policies, practices, and structures to give FSL programs equal prioritization to other programs. 

Instructional Leadership Practices Supporting FSL Instruction

Despite any lack of personal FSL experience, poor training, or system-level constraints, there were other instructional leadership practices principals made to support FSL instruction. Those practices centered on increasing teacher self-efficacy by establishing trust and a positive learning environment.  

Building Trust 

Ma and Marion (2019) conducted surveys based on three dimensions of instructional leadership: defining a school’s mission, managing the instructional program, and developing the school learning climate. They reached three conclusions: there was a positive relationship between faculty trust and teacher efficacy, all three dimensions significantly impacted faculty trust, and teacher trust had a strong mediating effect on the relationship between instructional leadership and teacher efficacy. Therefore, school leaders had to exhibit trust building behaviours with teachers which positively impacted student performance (Boies & Fiset, 2019; Viswanathan, 2019). 

Those behaviours resulted in two different forms of trust: affective, which is built through relational care and concern, and cognitive trust which comes from believing someone is reliable and dependable in task-oriented leadership practices (Boies & Fiset, 2019). School leaders must know which instructional leadership practices to use when building trust because “understanding how trust works will be the key to linking effective leadership with quality instruction” (Ma & Marion, 2019, p. 201). The way principals gain trust from FSL teachers may be different from how they gain trust from non-FSL teachers. Boies and Fiset (2019) focused on principals’ relational behaviours rather than instrumental or resource forms of support. However, Cloutier (2018) noted how principals with FSL backgrounds could provide reliable resources to teachers, perhaps building more trust with them on a cognitive level.

Developing a Positive Learning Climate

The most significant factor in supporting instructional practices through teacher efficacy was creating a positive school learning environment (Ma & Marion, 2019). Developing this environment had a direct positive correlation to teachers’ self-efficacy while other dimensions of instructional leadership, such as defining a school’s mission and managing the instructional program, had an indirect effect on teacher efficacy as mediated by the element of trust (Ma & Marion, 2019). To build a strong learning environment, principals must be role models in moral conduct, professional learning, and problem solving (Lin, 2012) and must counteract the negative attitude towards FSL education in school communities (Milley & Arnott, 2016; Slaughter et al., 2019). The attitude of staff towards FSL improved when principals demonstrated a positive attitude towards and intentional inclusion of FSL activities in whole school events (Milley & Arnott, 2016). When principals led by example, provided structural supports and professional development, and gained the support of a school community, teachers trusted their leaders, indirectly improving teacher efficacy and student learning (Cloutier, 2018; Lin, 2012; Ma & Marion, 2019).


This literature review provided insight into how educational leaders used instructional leadership to support FSL instruction in Ontario schools. Factors such as principals’ personal background in FSL, poor training in PQPs, or systemic policies and structures can prevent principals from effectively supporting FSL programs through instructional leadership practices (Cloutier, 2018; Milley & Arnott, 2016; Padron & Waxman, 2016; Slaugther et al., 2019; Viswanathan, 2019). However, there are many other physical and emotional supports principals can provide for FSL teachers despite those obstacles (Cloutier, 2018). These supports center on increasing teacher self-efficacy by building both affective and cognitive trust with teachers and by promoting a positive learning environment (Boies & Fiset, 2019; Lin, 2012; Ma & Marion, 2019; Padron & Waxman, 2016; Viswanathan, 2019).

Strengths and Weaknesses

These findings were reached by synthesizing a variety of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed method reports. There was a clear correlation between principals’ actions based on instructional leadership and their impact on teacher efficacy and student learning, thus impacting the overall success of FSL programs. However, this research depended largely on inferences drawn from other language program studies or studies based in other countries rather than from studies directly examining instructional leadership of Ontario FSL programs. Further research should be done in Ontario FSL programs to see if these inferences are accurate. Additionally, further research on the use of instructional leadership practices in FSL programs of independent Ontario schools is required. The articles in this literature review focused on government funded and government run schools which may affect the different obstacles principals face when providing instructional leadership to FSL teachers. It should be determined if independent schools have more freedom for or are more limited in their FSL support. 

Implications for Practice

There are several implications for principals’ practice based on the research presented in this paper. Principals must take responsibility for FSL instruction rather than putting that weight solely on FSL teachers (Lapkin et al., 2009; Milley & Arnott, 2016). Due to limited FSL training in PQPs, principals should attend FSL professional development sessions to gain a better understanding of how to support those programs (Cloutier, 2018; Lapkin et al., 2009; Padron & Waxman, 2016). Principals must use creative problem solving to address potential obstacles preventing successful support of FSL instruction (Slaughter et al., 2019). Principal training programs must focus on improving the personal capacity of principals, as well as on building the professional, organizational, and community capacities of schools (Lin, 2012). This will help school leaders find ways to build trust with FSL teachers which will increase teachers’ level of self-efficacy and improve student learning (Viswanathan, 2019).


Ontario FSL programs have experienced and continue to experience marginalization despite government mandates for FSL instruction. The research presented in this paper illustrates ways in which principals can offer meaningful support to FSL teachers despite potential barriers. When teachers are supported, student learning improves resulting in an overall positive experience for all those involved. 


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