I often find Elementary French I and II to be some of the most challenging and rewarding courses to teach. These courses are usually entrusted to graduate student TAs because the grammar is basic, so the material is assumed to be less difficult. However, since most language pedagogues today recommend replicating an immersion environment in the classroom, it can be tough to find ways to communicate with students in the first weeks of class without resorting to English. Encouraging students to use only French in the classroom seems nearly impossible when students have no previous knowledge of French. Further complicating the classroom environment are false beginners (students who have had some previous French but were not matched with a higher level on placement exams) who tend to take over speaking and answering questions, leaving actual beginners mute and confused.
Starting students off with a list of useful phrases has helped me build an elementary French immersion classroom. From the first day, students are armed with expressions to use when they want to comment, need clarification, or have a question. This list brings actual beginners up to the same level as false beginners, and increases everyone’s awareness of the language to be used in class. The next step is to make them feel comfortable using these sentences, because many students are very self-conscious when speaking a foreign language. Generally in these classes, I reassure students that no one but myself will hear any mistakes. Next, I focus on lots of eye contact, nodding, gesturing, and reassurance to give students positive feedback for even the most simple French verbal expression.
To create lessons that students will retain and remember, I use a combination of technology, culture, and charisma: images, sound, surprise, and, as much as I can, humor. I start a grammar lesson with an example of the grammar used in context. An advertisement, a small excerpt of text, or even a film clip can serve as real-life samples of the language concept we are studying. I might ask students to tell me which word they heard repeated in a conversation, or to work in pairs to find the subjects or verbs in a text. Starting a grammar lesson off by having students actively searching for patterns not only helps them to retain the structure we are learning, but also trains them in how to study language on their own time. This is absolutely crucial, because, as Katie Nielson notes in an article published in Business Insider, language must be studied differently than any other subject: “In history class, you start chronologically and you use dates in order of how things happened,” Nielson says. “That’s just not how language-learning works. You can’t memorize a bunch of words and rules and expect to speak the language[;] then what you have is knowledge of ‘language as object.'”
To learn a grammar rule, students need to observe it in repetition and in variation. For verbs, this can mean giving examples of sentences in which the subject changes, and asking students to highlight the different endings of the verb to learn conjugations. I want my students to take an active role in putting together the grammar rule with me, so I guide them through these observation exercises and ask simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions to draw their attention to the concept I am teaching. It can be challenging to teach grammar in the target language, and I will admit that for particularly thorny grammar concepts, I sometimes rely on an English Q&A period of five-ten minutes at the end of a class to clear up any confusion. However, I find that students fare better in more advanced classes if they learn in French from the very beginning, so I usually try to remain solely in the target language.
For language practice, I want students to be active. For example, I may ask students to get up, circulate around the class, ask their classmates a series of questions related to the activity, and report back on their findings. Students may have a worksheet to fill in that requires them to vary a pronoun, an article, a verb conjugation, or an interrogative structure, but the primary goal is to ask a question and receive an answer. While asking questions and recording responses, students receive immediate implicit or explicit feedback from their peers, which builds interpersonal relationships in the classroom and strengthens their confidence. Then, when reporting back on their findings, students first use the language in speech (communicatively) and ultimately receive feedback from the instructor to smooth out any persistent misunderstandings.
My Elementary French courses are a work in progress every time, both because different universities use different texts, because I am always finding new ways of presenting material and getting students to use it, and most importantly, because no one class is exactly alike. The one element that I never change is the goal of building students’ confidence: this is the cornerstone of any successful language learning.
A sample course description follows. I have taught French 101 and 102 (or 1001/1002) using the following curriculums: Vis-à-vis, French in Action, and Echo: Méthode de français.
Course description and objectives: This introduction to the French-speaking world aims to familiarize you with the basic language and customs of France and other Francophone countries with the goal of language production. Language production is emphasized in both oral and written forms, and is encouraged through exercises in reading, listening, writing and speaking. The goals of this course are to understand and use, in restricted contexts, the basic grammatical structures taught; to carry on a conversation on the indicated topics at a basic level and with sufficient accuracy that a native speaker can understand you; to read elementary-level texts with the help of a dictionary and to engage in basic discussion of them in defined contexts; to expand vocabulary; and to write compositions at an adequate level of expression. The great majority of this course will be conducted in French. From the moment you arrive in class, you should make every effort to communicate in French. I will provide you with a list of commonly used phrases: please keep and refer to this list throughout the semester. As with any skill, language proficiency can be acquired only through practice. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes: errors in conversation will never count against you! If you need to discuss a matter that goes beyond your skill level in French, please contact me outside the class hour by phone, in person or by e-mail. Remember that your participation in French will count towards your participation grade. Use of English will count against this participation grade.