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An argument could easily be made that chemistry is in fact its own language — which means I’m helping my students become trilingual!

I teach grade 11 and 12 chemistry in an urban high school in Manitoba, Canada. What may set my story apart is that I teach en français in a French Immersion program, where my students are simultaneously learning two languages: French and chemistry/chimie. In this article, I will share how I plan and support the integration of these two subjects through my teaching. Hopefully you’ll find some tips and ideas that you can take away and incorporate into your own classrooms.

Canada’s two official languages are English and French, and across the country, public school boards function in both languages. French Immersion is an English language program that is operated by English Language School Boards. It was created and implemented in the early 1970s with the goal to promote bilingualism and ensure that more citizens are able to competently function in both official languages.

In Manitoba, there are two approaches to French Immersion1 : a dual-track program, where core courses are offered in French and optional courses are offered in English, and a “full milieu” program, where all courses (except for English Language Arts) are taught in French. My school is a grade 7-12 milieu setting, meaning my chemistry course, demanding as it is for content, is also taught in French, which can make it additionally challenging in terms of vocabulary and language.

Going back and forth between languages

How do I support French language learning in the context of chemistry? Ultimately, I want my students to be confident and independent enough to look up words they don’t know and to grow their vocabulary. I am also aware that those who continue on to an undergraduate science program are likely going to be taking their courses in English.

I do a lot of translating back and forth while I’m teaching, both in my class OneNote (which houses my course notes), and also when giving spoken clarifications. For example, when teaching electrochemistry and redox reactions, I explain the concepts and the movement of electrons and introduce problems and practice exercises — all in French. However, as a memory aid, I share the “LEO the lion goes GER” mnemonic, which is actually derived from English (Loss of Electrons Oxidation; Gain of Electrons Reduction). All of my students speak both French and English, so the mnemonic leverages both of their languages in order to be able to engage and understand the chemistry they are learning.

Reaching different types of learners

Figure 1. A screenshot of one section in the author’s class OneNote, showing the organization she uses to present each unit, including links to an introduction (A), a supporting booklet (B), and individual lessons, lab protocols, and study guides (C). 

Even though chemistry is an optional course, I have all different types of learners in my classes. I spend lots of time making my course accessible, and try to have multiple access points to the concepts I’m teaching. This is where I incorporate various ed tech products — namely, Microsoft Team and OneNote. I use these powerful tools both because my school board supports Microsoft products, and because they’re easily accessed by my students.

Of course, there are other apps that do similar things, and I strongly recommend choosing either what is supported by your school board (or school system) or what is most readily available to you and your students. This approach minimizes barriers to learning and avoids getting bogged down by challenges with tech support and students’ digital literacy.

All of my class notes and documents are in my class OneNote, and I use the pages to teach the daily lessons in my classroom. Teaching units are chunked to address each of the curricular outcomes and provide some structure and organization for the students. Each section of my class OneNote corresponds to a specific outcome or concept, and includes lab protocols as well as a study guide for assessments (see Figure 1). I also print and distribute guided-notes booklets so that students can take notes and follow along during class.

I am absolutely passionate about the use of technology in the classroom, and find using booklets and my class OneNote in tandem to be very effective. The reason I offer printed booklets is to support my visual and kinesthetic learners, as well as provide a support to those whose organization skills are lagging. I have some students who simply listen and jot down their prompts and notes in their own separate notebooks, and refer to specific sections of the OneNote to find answers. I also have other students who politely take my booklet but never use it, because they run fully virtually off the OneNote.


Figure 2.The reaction the author uses most often to model the ICE tables is iron (II) nitrate and potassium iodide. Part of her approach involves pairing the demonstration with a word problem, either written or projected on the whiteboard.

Problem solving — including the ability to read word problems, tease out pertinent information, and decide what needs to be calculated — is a complex process. Both language skills and chemistry knowledge are at play during the journey. In my French Immersion classroom, students can encounter a variety of challenges to success. Some students get stuck on the French written comprehension, while others struggle with the math or chemistry knowledge. Still others seem to be challenged by both.

To build my students’ problem-solving abilities, I start with an actual lab demonstration. Then I work through a word problem, during which I identify and highlight the words and language that are cues to the calculations.

An example of this in action is during the aqueous solutions unit in grade 12 chemistry, where the students are learning to use “Initial, Change, Equilibrium” (ICE) tables and calculate Ksp (terms that translate in French as IRE tables and Kps, respectively). I’ll project the problem on the board at the beginning of the class and have the students read it themselves.

Next I pull out the reagents and do the demonstration (see Figure 2). My preference is to use either lead (II) nitrate with potassium iodide or copper (II) sulfate pentahydrate with sodium hydroxide, as both produce vibrant precipitates. I emphasize “what does ICE represent?” during the demo. I also ask guiding questions, such as “Why do we put a zero for the two products during the initial step?” or “What is actually happening during the reaction step, and do you think all of the reactants have transformed into products?”

After the demonstration and related discussion are concluded, I go back to the word problem and show the students which words tell me the calculations that need to occur. An example is “On a ajouté…” translates to “We added…” which would be the quantity for the I (Initial) step. “À l’équilibre on a…” means I know the number of moles or the concentration for the E (Equilibrium) step and have to work backwards or deduce to find the number of moles consumed or produced during the C step (Change or Réaction). This parallel gives the students a context of the chemistry that is occurring during the word problem and supports their language learning to be able to read and compose a plan for the necessary calculations.

Communication during labs

During formal lab sessions, we communicate in French, including discussions about safety concerns, protocols, and how the session is going to run. By the time the students are in grade 11/12, they tend to know the names of the tools and equipment better in French than in English (an exception being Erlenmeyer, which is a proper name).

The lab session is a forum where the students can practice their spoken French to explain the science that they’re doing. I encourage them to ask me questions in French, and kindly correct them or supply the appropriate French term as needed. This is very important, as any second-language learner is taking a risk by speaking in their new language. and needs to trust that they will be supported, even if they make a mistake.

The one exception to providing all communication in French is safety. If it’s an emergency, a student needs to ask me something pertaining to safety, or I need to give them an immediate directive, it’s in English. At the beginning of the semester, I’m very open with them about this approach, and they are well aware that the tone of my voice (and my use of English) are clear signs that it’s time to stop, listen, and pay attention. Again, I try to blend the language learning into the chemistry learning.

Needs improvement?

Up to this point, I’ve highlighted what works well in my classroom … but as chimistes, we all know there are pitfalls to every experiment. For example, I still struggle with lab reports. I assign one formal lab report in grade 11 and two in grade 12 in order to have the students practice, receive feedback, and improve their craft before their post-secondary careers.

In my French Immersion setting, the most challenging task for many of my students is writing their lab report’s introduction. I’m asking my students to write a significant piece in French. It is a constant battle to remind my students that while Google Translate may be quicker, the goal is to see if they understand the context of the lab and why it supports what we learned in class.

I’m still trying to find a good solution to this, and am experimenting with allowing students to do oral presentations of their introductions using the FlipGrid app, or complete an entrance/exit slip, where I prompt them to do the research the day before and put them on the spot to briefly explain their research. This is still a work in progress!

Incorporating supports and resources

Ultimately, the goal of French Immersion is to promote bilingualism, where graduates are fluently and functionally bilingual. This parallels the goal of our high school chemistry courses in general, which is to prepare students with a foundation on which they can continue their studies in their post-secondary career.

To build independence as language learners, I encourage my students to look up words using the WordReference website when they need a quick translation, rather than asking me. It’s free, up to date, usable on any device via a web browser, and contains French/English translations of most scientific terms. I am very clear with my students that my rationale in not instantly giving them the translation is to build their independence and confidence, so that they can figure out the language they need as they continue to grow their command of French.

One popular support is the use of YouTube videos. This can be a challenge in the French Immersion setting, as many of the videos in English were made for first-language speakers, rather than second-language learners. English videos are satisfactory, but some of my students find it challenging, time consuming, or frustrating to have to translate back and forth, when they really just want to focus on the chemistry.

The pandemic experience gave me an opportunity to solve this conundrum: I had the time to make videos of my lessons, where it is my voice narrating, in French, what the viewer sees. Not only does this lessen the language challenge for my students, but it also reassures them, as it’s their own teacher speaking in the video.

Even more impactful than the videos of the lessons, I’ve made videos of myself doing each practice exercise I assign. I deliberately channel my “inner student” and narrate the tricky parts of questions or model the thought process when reading a question. I also build in some classic mistakes and correct them as I work through the problem. The goal here is to again build my students’ literacy and independence and to get them thinking like chemists. It also gives my students a place to look when they’re anxious or becoming overwhelmed by the detail and the content of the course, or just want to go over it all once again.

To conclude, in my classroom I see all of the same chemistry hurdles that exist in any high school chemistry course. Chemistry is a detail-oriented, different way of thinking that is challenging for all grade 11 and 12 students. What’s different in my classroom is how we add the layer of language learning and run it simultaneously with the chimie learning. I hope that I’ve provided some ideas and food for thought that you can use in your own daily teaching, in whatever language of instruction you choose.


1. Province of Manitoba Education and Early Learning web page, “French Immersion Schools in Manitoba.” https://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/schools/fr_imm.html (accessed Sep 7, 2022).

Photo credit:
(article cover) Bigsto