Novels: what you need to know before your begin

In my previous post, I made a promise to go into the nitty gritty of reading a comprehensible novel with Novice (French) language learners. If you are curious and/or impatient about ALL of the logistics RIGHT NOW, jump here to read a fabulous post on Teaching a Novel 101 by Allison Wienhold. There, she addresses the questions of funding, organization, planning, teaching and assessing all in one place. It’s a great 101 course! From my part, all I can add is a personal advice of what to keep in mind before and why it works in many classrooms, and mine in particular.

Remember Two Things

  1. YOU as a teacher can make reading a novel a great experience for your students or a mediocre one. YOU need to be sold on the fact that working through it together, your students will make immense gains in their abilities to interpret and use the language. Please, make no mistake, this involves work for both the teacher and the class. Interaction in the target language is at the heart of this process whether it is oral, written, or wordless (drawings, frozen scenes, reader’s theater, etc).  If you’re looking for a set of worksheets that can replace lesson planning and/or interaction in French, you need to reconsider your motivation for the process. I have seen novels get bad rep, and it was not students’ fault.
  2. Respect the hard work of people who write the novels, put together the teaching guides, or any other copyright materials related to these novels and their use in classrooms. It is never ok to make copies (print or digital) of a novel, or to post it online. If ever in doubt, contact the author directly for permission to use or modify. Need a personal perspective? Check out Martina Bex’ posts about her struggles to track down illegal use of her copyright documents: an emotional reaction and a rational explanation (if you still need one).

How to chose a novel

First of all, read it yourself. Is it interesting? Forget about repetitive vocabulary (your students do need it!), did you want to continue reading it chapter after chapter? That might be a good sign. Does the storyline get lost in forced vocabulary that seems to be taken from the end of some unit or is it simply boring? Discard. Need more pointers? Read Cynthia’s post in which she argues that “not all novels written for second language learners are created equal”.

Are you concerned that the novel you chose might be too easy or too difficult for your students? Here is a novel evaluation procedure for you. In the class where you’re planning to teach the novel, choose one student who is above and beyond others, one who has average language learning abilities, and yet another one who struggles but is willing to put forth effort. Ask each of these kids to read the same page from the novel, somewhere from Chapter 1 or 2, and summarize what they understood. Ideally, you high-flyer will have understood everything, average student – most everything, and that struggling kid will have caught main ideas and some but not all details (but you already knew that you’d have to help him anyway, right?). To play it safe, as your first novel, you would rather choose one that is too easy than too difficult. In the latter case, it will be a struggle for both you and the kids, in the former, you all will enjoy reading. Isn’t it the purpose anyway?

Why it works for us

From my personal observations, most of the teachers who use comprehensible novels with their students are proficiency-oriented, culture focused, and are willing to seek a variety of ways to make language classes enjoyable. Most of those teachers have distinct classroom routines, expectations, and progress reporting that directly affect their students’ performance. Here is a quick peek into my classroom that makes the experience of reading a novel work for us.

  • Most of my Novice learners are freshmen and have been exposed to French in middle school; however, some students are completely new to the language – kids who came to the district  from schools that did not offer French or those who decided to start/switch languages in high school for whatever reason. As I am the only teacher, I accommodate them all in one class which leads me to the next point.
  • I spend the first semester on building/solidifying the basis of the language through massive amounts of comprehensible input delivered in various modes and in many ways. At Novice level, I subscribe to “high frequency” structures and “plug-and-play” philosophy which means that my students learn lots of expressions with readily usable verb forms, for example il prend une photo (he takes a picture) or elle lui dit (she says to him/her) and are able to easily recombine them in own language production. I teach grammar through meaning (Why is there an -s here? What does this -ent  ending mean? How do we make it a “to do” version?); so this first year, kids never see a verb chart or hear the word “conjugate”. As a matter of fact, they will never hear the word “conjugate” but rather “you need to change the verb form here based on who is doing the action”. By the end of the first semester, students have a good understanding of sentence structure and are able to perform consistently at Novice High level with many starting to bridge into the Intermediate Low. Interestingly, most of the “newbies” who started learning French in September level out or even surpass those who took French in middle school.
  • We meet daily for 50 minutes all year long. I strive for 90% TL on my part but some days it just doesn’t happen. We’re all human, right?
  • I evaluate students’ performance in language skills – listening, reading, speaking, writing – on a 4-point scale and/or using ACTFL proficiency descriptors, i.e. they get a “Novice High” plus feedback (which translates into a 4 in the gradebook during the first semester) on writing quiz where a prompt may have been to describe a picture or retell a familiar story.

Given all of the above, my students have no issues picking up the book and reading a longer text – they have seen a page full of text before and they know how to handle it. Likewise, they are familiar with many comprehension activities and know that they will be expected to understand written and spoken language and produce it themselves. When I ask them at the end of the school year to reflect on their language learning journey, many comment that they enjoyed reading the book and learned a lot from doing it.
My classroom routines and techniques evolved over time and I credit teaching with novels as one of the main catalysts of changes I made to truly focus on what students can do with the language.

Novices? Read a Novel! The French Edition

Re-bonjour!

Time to dust off the blog. Not that I have more time (because, well, who does?) but I made some promises and have not acted on them. Yet. And a gentle nudge from Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell may have done the trick. To honor my commitments, I’ll start with a series of posts on teaching a novel in a Novice class.

Wait! Don’t leave!

Your students can do it and so can you. As a matter of fact, using a novel can ground your teaching, provide context for high frequency language structures, allow your Novices to use narration, make predictions, and argue, all in the target language! And if you are a “sans textbook” teacher like myself, you will appreciate having a clear direction for your lesson plans for a while. Reader’s theater, frozen scenes, review stations, and more interactive activities are sure to get your students out of their seats, laugh, hold their breath, compete, ultimately enjoying your class. There’s nothing sweeter hearing, “Oh, the class is over? Already?” when the bell rings. So, if you have not yet used a novel in your beginner classes, please, reconsider!

What kind of novel?

Let’s make this clear first. I am not talking about an original novel by Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, or even Guy de Maupassant, even though you could use them with your upper level classes who have started their language journey in kindergarten. The novels that work best with Novice learners are those that have a clear storyline, some action, relatable characters and/or situations, unexpected twists or ending, but most importantly, the ones that have VERY comprehensible language. That means simple text with limited repetitive vocabulary, multiple cognates, a good variety of language structures, and short chapters. So, if Balzac is your fave, you can certainly rewrite Le Père Goriot to be more comprehensible but would your students want to read it? On another hand, there are plenty of adaptations for learners of French of interesting and authentic novels like Les Trois Mousquetaires or even Bel Ami, but they all seem to be above OUR beginner learners. Ironically, even the A1-A2 Débutant rating on European CIDEB or ELI graded readers is aimed at students who have a functional ability in the language which corresponds to Novice High-Intermediate Mid level (correlation according to Assigning CEFR Ratings to ACTFL Assessments). Clearly, MY Débutants are not there yet.

So what does a teacher do with a class of Novice Mid/High kids who require lots and lots of input? Infographics can only go so far. Paragraph length texts that are offered by most textbook publishers don’t lead to discussion, interpretation, or inference. Kids need interesting and engaging input that can be manipulated in a variety of ways in order to be processed, retained, and used with a purpose. Daily storytelling can be an answer but it can also be very exhausting.

Enter comprehensible input novels. They come from a variety of sources, from original TPRS novels, to Fluency Matters novels, to Mira Canion’s one and only (hopefully for now) French novel. It is true that there are many more Spanish titles offered as of right now than French ones and those that exist in French are mostly “remakes” of their Spanish “siblings”. Nonetheless, there is a variety of French novels to entice your beginner students of all ages . Pick one and give it a go. Or better yet, order a sample pack and chose the best one for your students.  And as your readers grow in their command of the language, you might consider venturing in that A1-A2 rating.

How long to plan for it?

Well… There are different ways of doing it. Some teachers have a day of the week dedicated to novel reading, some abandon everything and focus just on the novel for a period of time. I belong to the last camp. How much time you devote to the novel should depend on your goals. If you use it to review, reactivate, provide lots of comprehensible input to students through an EASY read, you may breeze through one in a few days. Many teachers use a novel at the beginning of the school year to ease the kids in and provide an effective and engaging review. If your purpose is to broaden your students’ vocabulary, work on a particular skill (narration in the past, anyone?), create opportunities to use and recycle language structures from the novel, have fun with it, or stimulate serious discussion, it might take longer. In my experience, there is a fine line between working on a novel and dragging it. Take cues from your students and increase or slow down your pace as needed.

So, ok… May be… But how does one do it?

Hit the Internet for teacher blogs. So what if they teach Spanish, German, or Japanese? Some ideas are universal, worth taking a look at and applying to your practice. Many teachers share freely their materials, all you have to do is, well… change them into French and adapt to the students in front of you. It might be worth at first investing in the teacher guide for the novel if it exists in French. I promise, after a few rounds you’ll be a pro at creating your own pre-, during, and post- reading activities as well as the extensions that dig deeper into culture, AP themes explored in the reading, or simply exploiting your students’ talents of performers, artists, etc. Here’s a list of blogs of pros to check out: CI Peek, Somewhere to Share  by Carrie Toth (author), Kristy Placido (author),  The Comprehensible Classroom by Martina Bex, Language Sensei by Colleen Lee Hayes, Teaching Spanish with Comprehensible Input by Cynthia Hitz, and many more. Just search “reading” or “novels” on these blogs to see multiple posts devoted to a variety of techniques around a novel or a text. Diversify your practice!

What can I offer you?

Nothing more than one French teacher’s journey in teaching with a novel. After struggling through finding materials in French, I have long ago decided to make them myself. It took a few reads of the same novel to come up with something that consistently works in my classroom. May be it can work for you. In the next few posts, I will be blogging about teaching with Pirates Français des Caraïbes that became a “must do” novel in my Novice classes. Follow along and I hope that it encourages you to give novels a try.

Image Credit: DariuszSankowski CC0 Public Domain

“You just don’t understand, Madame!”

She threw that in the air, her voice breaking.

It happened in June, on the very last school day. All students were all already gone, liberated at the first sound of the bell after the last final exam. Except for her. She came in, as agreed, to take a quiz marked missing since the beginning of March. It was a simple quiz but as I took a quick look at the paper she handed in, it became clear that she had not mastered the skill. I made a few circles hoping that she may be able to correct herself, but she was unsuccessful.

A very bright student who required accommodations per her IEP, performing at or above expectations most of the time, she was often absent and struggling to catch up on missing tasks. She strived to do her best in many other AP classes; mine was always the last on her “to Do” list.

“I just can’t NOT have an “A” in this class!” she exclaimed almost breaking into tears.

“Why do you think I don’t understand?” I replied, my own voice showing emotion.

“Do you even know what I am going through right now?” I wanted to scream as this scenario just started to unravel. At that point it became painfully clear to me that just as I didn’t expect her to know and understand my own struggles, I was not able to understand hers. Yes, I actually knew her story, followed her IEP, and worked closely with her mother, but it did not help me to understand what it was like for her, how it felt to be in her shoes.

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Shoes I walk in

I took a breath and then another. If her prior performance was any indicator, given the time and less stressful environment, she would come in to work with me before or after school and ace this quiz in a few days or so. Who was I to play hard ball and possibly crush this girl’s college of choice dreams (she had big ones!) based on ONE quiz. At the same time, I knew that I could not compromise my professional ethics and enter the mark for performance that she did not demonstrate.

“Please, go home and enjoy your break,” I said to her, “I will excuse you from this quiz.”

She walked out of the room without a word.

I had tears in my eyes. I wish we had parted on better terms.


I struggled with this story for a long time. I shared it with a colleague and my husband to vent and to process it again and again because it felt that I was still missing something. I knew that being a teacher, I should not take things personally, but in this case I just could not help it; I kept thinking about it for days. I knew that I wanted to blog about it but at the same time, I was too emotionally attached to this story and it didn’t feel right. Little did I know that I would would find myself on the “other side” at the beginning of this school year.

My own child spent an entire summer going through what I will never wish for anyone to deal with. Returning to school and “just being normal” was her only wish. She did return to school this week – Yay! – but as far as “just being normal” part – this will take a long time and recovery road can be rough.  However, looking at her you would never know. Nor would she tell you that she needs help, accommodations, or any other special treatment because she doesn’t think it’s fair. She just wants to prove the world and herself that she can do it. I know she can. I also know that it’s not going to be easy.

As we resumed classes last week, I found myself looking at my students differently, with more attention to what they had to say to me and peers, to how they acted and daydreamed, being much more gentle in setting limits and redirecting, wondering sometimes about their personal stories and reminding myself that even if I knew those stories, it would not make much of a difference. Unless I walk in their shoes, I will never understand. What I can do is be someone who will take them for who they are, walk alongside them for fifty minutes per day encouraging them to be the person they are meant to be.

In some other classroom, my kid is walking through the door and I want the adults in her life to do the same, on the first day of school or the last.

 

What I learned this summer

Last school year was rough on the family front. You hold it together and you think that you’re finally making strides and getting some answers. Summer will help to reset it all. But then…

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So if there’s anything that I learned this summer, it’s that

life happens.

And it goes on. You do your best given the circumstances. So does everyone else.  Never assume. There’s much more than the face value. Everyone has a story but  you don’t necessarily need to know it. Just treat everyone like you would treat your best friend in crisis at all times. Accept the fact that you can have empathy but you will never understand. More on that in another post.

But that’s not the only thing that I learned this summer.

That online methods class that started in May had been  kicking my butt until last Saturday even though I had less time to dedicate to it and less brain power because a significant part of my brain was (still is) worried sick about my kid. On the upside, the same part of my brain was able to keep me awake until 1-2 am so I could finish yet another assignment.

These circumstances created a blended learning reality of a parent who went through an intensive self-taught course about her child’s illness and a teacher who sought formal training in applications of current research on language instruction in her classroom. If you don’t mind my personal story intertwined with my professional summer PD, I invite you to discover how the two learning scenarios intersect. In other words, how real-life learning of a parent fit in the framework of teaching languages. At first glance, they can’t be more different, but as you will see below, I was left with strikingly similar observations and takeaways. Just be aware that if you have never had to deal with a medical emergency or a similar crisis in your family, you may not fully understand my perspective. To me, my parental learning is not just as valuable as the professional kind; it made theory applicable.

If I had to choose one thing that I would change or implement in my teaching practice immediately, based on what I learned in my methods course, it would have to be better integration of 3 modes of communication.

Interpretive = Input, lots of it

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Some of the experts say that novices should regularly read longer texts (500+ words) so they can practice “reading between the lines”, not only answer basic who? / what? / where? / when? questions. I certainly had these questions in mind at the beginning but shortly thereafter, I was interested in more than the facts that were applicable to my child’s situation. Reading a variety of materials – from short scientific articles to books aimed at helping patients and their families overcome the illness, to personal essays on struggles in recovery – helped me get a really good understanding of what my child is up against. Visiting and seeing how others are affected by the same illness provided experiences that reinforced these lessons. I gained a completely different perspective on the illness itself, the patients, their families, and their struggles. I am not a Novice any more. I gained empathy and I can speak the language of the illness in order to communicate with professionals treating my child and to support my kid in recovery. Isn’t this our goal – to help our students use language to be able to communicate in culturally appropriate ways with people who use it on a daily basis?

Some of you might be tempted to attribute this success to the amount of input.  I must admit, it was a crucial step but it didn’t happen in isolation. I felt a strong need to process it somehow so I can make better sense of it. I realized that my personal interpretation of the text is just that – personal.

Interpersonal = Do I see what you see?

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Essentially, I engaged others in order to help me process what  I was reading through conversation and dialogue. It is at that point that I realized that many our conversations are based on some form of input of  something that we have read or viewed. As a teacher, I need to capitalize on this natural human need to process it together using these opportunities so my students can engage in meaningful interactions in target language about a text, a novel, a news broadcast, a film, a funny video. One caveat, these processing conversations rarely revolve around the “who / when / where / what”, more often than not they encompass opinions and personal interpretations referencing the source – just the thing we need to push our intermediates further along on the proficiency path.

Presentational = Use with a purpose in real scenarios

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If you asked me, I could easily do an unprepared oral presentation about my child’s illness or write an essay about it on the spot. I would make sure to include connections I made that go beyond factual information touching on community and global issues. Sounds like Advanced and beyond, right? However, I would not do any of it in a vacuum, just because. I need a purpose and an audience to chose my facts, arguments, approach, and means of presentation. Otherwise, why would I do it? Our students need that too – presentational task that evolves from something that has been learned, processed through discussion and used with a purpose. It’s not an easy task to find real opportunities for our students to present to an audience who speaks target language, but creating scenarios with these two aspects in mind – purpose and audience – will become a staple in my classroom.

Side observations: quick run down

Motivation is everything

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Context is important

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#RealLife

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My takeaway 

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Many of my colleagues are already back in the classroom or are putting finishing touches on their plans for the year. I am finally at a place where I can do the same with more focus. In the process, I will make sure to extend many of the activities that I do into another mode. As a consequence, I will need less resources but will end up with richer classroom with more natural interactions. Here’s the scenario that I plan on using more often with my students:

  • Get’em hooked and activate prior knowledge.
  • Let them read/view source and process it individually with structured teacher designed tasks.
  • Put them in pairs/trios/small groups to process together. Provide much needed expressions in TL that they can use in negotiation of meaning/opinion exchange.
  • Rotate groups and repeat as many times as I see fit.
  • Monitor discussions, offer feedback, process as a class at the end if needed.
  • Assign another task related to the source and discussion. It can be presentational or interpersonal. Just to practice, for feedback.

And right there, I got a mini IPA that can be done within a span of one or two class periods all based on ONE source that probably took me hours to find. I might as well use it to the fullest extent.

 

My first bite of AAPPL: logistics

 

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Image by: jmiltenburg

I have been tinkering with the idea of administering an outside performance/proficiency exam for a while. AAPPL (The ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages) is the one I kept hearing about. So I’ve done my research, made sure AAPPL tech specs were met on our end at school, asked my students their opinions on which tests they preferred to take, and have pestered kind colleagues on Twitter with all sorts of questions about it. Carrie Toth had written a blog post about administering AAPPL and so did Bethanie Drew; you can find their wisdom here, here and here. Both provided me with much needed insights from “how to” to “how not to” which is equally important. Ladies, I thank you for your help! Je vous remercie! Спасибо!

This spring, when my department needed to spend some extra dollars by the end of the year (if you ever worked at school, you know that the money magically disappears if not used), I asked for permission to use some of it to pilot AAPPL with my senior class. With approval secured, the race to make it happen was on. And while I was checking the items off my to do list, I kept making another “what if” list in my head:

  • What if the technology fails?
  • What if the test includes prompts that we never discussed?
  • What if the difficulty level is way above their head?
  • What if they can’t figure out how to type accents?

…and that one…

  • What if the results are not where I would like them to be?

Yeah. That last one. It’s not really just my students that the test will be evaluating but also their teacher. It was my responsibility in the last four years to teach them vocabulary and structures, to develop their ability to use context, to organize and convey ideas in a comprehensible way without major patterns of errors, and most of all, to trust themselves to be able to interact and perform in French in a variety of situations. How did I measure up? I was definitely nervous. To the point that I had flashes and accelerated heart rate on the first day of the test administration. But before I can report to you about my takeaways from the results (you can read about them once speaking and written samples are scored), here’s my “To Do” list for the AAPPL first timers.

  • Learn about the test as much as possible. AAPPL site offers excellent resources: you can find tasks and topics descriptions according to grade levels here; tips for each section of the test here; AAPPL score descriptors here; and demo exams here.
  • Ask your IT team to review TECHNOLOGY section of the AAPPL FAQS (bottom of the page) to make sure that your school’s computers/laptops as well as Internet connection and filters comply with the requirements of the AAPPL test. You can test your own computer here; make sure to do it on school ground as your home connection may be quite different.
  • Establish an account with Language Testing International (you can find the link to this site on AAPPL’s site under “FAQS” and “Ordering”). It says that it may take up to two weeks to get your account approved but mine was ready to go in a few days.
  • Once your account is approved, you can easily order tests by downloading a template from Language Testing International and completing it with students’ information.
    • You can order all tests (Interpretive Reading, Interpretive Listening, Presentational Writing, Interpersonal Listening/Speaking) for every student, one per student or any combination of tests per student. You can add or cancel tests at any time.
    • You will not need to pay for tests upon ordering; you will be billed as the tests are completed and scored.
    • I recommend using students’ school ID numbers for the corresponding field on AAPPL test order to keep things simple.
    • I was able to negotiate for $10 per student from that “need to spend now” money for my pilot, and based on feedback from my students, I ordered Interpretive Reading, Interpretive Listening (both for the total of $5) and Presentational Writing ($5) for all of them. I also offered an option for those who wanted (and were willing to contribute $10) to take Interpersonal Listening/Speaking test; eight students volunteered.
  • Choose suitable date(s) for tests. AAPPL says that each of the components will take approximately 30 minutes but I found this not to be true. Most of my students took much longer for every test. The best part is that each test is composed of several tasks that are completed individually and each section can be ended and resumed at any point without compromising the test; all answers for tasks completed are saved automatically.
    • I allocated three class periods of 50 minutes on three consecutive days for three required tests (Interpretive Reading, Interpretive Listening, and Presentational Writing) but will never do it again because a considerable number of students were not able to finish the three tests and it was just too “standardized-testing” like. Next time, I will space the tests out (one or two per week), planning five of my class periods (5×50 minutes) for the entire test battery while making sure that fast finishers have something to do while others work at their own pace to finish.
    • Another unexpected obstacle came with the testing season as the district passed from one required standardized test to another using all available laptops which prevented me from completing all tests before AP exam season when random amount of students from your class may be missing due to an AP exam taking place that day. And then there were students absent due to sickness, vacations, college visits, scholarship interviews, etc. All of this dragged overall test completion way past my original intentions.
    • Take into consideration that it takes about two weeks to get speaking and written tests scored. For me, it means that these two tests must be done in April while Interpretive Reading and Listening can be completed at any time in May because the results are delivered instantly.
  • Before the first test: there are quite a few things to do.
    • Print labels with students’ log-in information. I taped them on 3×5 index cards and wrote a number 1-19 that helped me to establish a seating arrangement and keep track/pass out/collect these cards to be reused on the next testing day.
    • Go through EACH computer/laptop to be used for testing to make sure that it passes AAPPL Measure Systems Check. I spent my entire prep hour on this. BUT! Nothing is better than knowing that you kids will not encounter any technical issues. I also wrote the number of the laptops on each of the index cards with students’ log-in information to make sure that every student will get the same laptop that has been checked on each of the testing days.
    • Decide where you will administer the tests and secure that space. I wanted to have a quiet area away from the other classrooms but you can certainly do it in class too. Discuss all arrangements with your students so they know what to do on the first day of the test.
    • Prepare simple instruction sheet for your students; you can find mine here. I included the descriptions on how to type accents because we have 1:1 iPad program and students are not used to computer shortcuts.
  • On the day of the test: don’t be as nervous as I was. 🙂
    • Arrange the seating, set up the computers/laptops if you can. I wanted to use the time I had with students to the maximum, and having a prep hour just before testing time came in very handy.
    • I suggest that students watch one (or more) AAPPL tips videos that pertain to the test(s) they are taking, even if you may have watched them earlier in class. It helps to remind them how the test is structured and eases their anxiety.
    • Step back and supervise. If you did your homework, you can just walk around and be nervous like I was until you start seeing the results of the first test come in. I am certain that you will smile and be proud of what you and your students have accomplished. Just like I did. 

Have you administered AAPPL before or thinking of doing so? Do you have your own tips and tricks to share? And my main question to ponder after this experience: I would love to do this yearly but how do I fund this in the future?

Grammar Rules


If you missed #langchat last week, I did too. I do have an excuse though, just in case. As I was scrolling my feed an hour later, I came upon this tweet of one of my favorite bloggers, a fellow French teacher Lisa Shepard (
@mmeshep). As you can see quite a few langchatters expressed their approval, including myself.

Later, Lisa mentioned that she does not teach or explain the rules at the Novice level, to which I replied, 

Some of you (you know who you are) kindly asked for an explanation and since I don’t have a blog (I have the same excuse for that too), I decided to make this conversation public. Feel free to comment or add your thoughts; just be nice, as Martina Bex (@MartinaBex) recently requested. So here’s my story.

Five years ago I got a new job in a school where I would be the only French teacher. By that time, I had gone to a NTPRS conference which completely changed my views on language acquisition and teaching of L2. The experience of learning Swedish in one of the sessions sent me on a quest of everything CI related, Google became my best friend, I discovered teacher blogs. I had also experimented with storytelling and skill-based assessments in the classroom, but felt that I was tied to a school and district with many other more experienced professionals expecting me to follow the textbook. Heck, I was on the textbook adoption committee myself a few years prior to that.

As I walked into my new classroom for the first time, I felt free. Free from pressure to be on the same page, free from my own teaching baggage, free to start anew. I smiled and started to clean and rearrange the classroom that desperately needed it. Then I saw them. They were staring at me from the shelves. Three sets of textbooks of all levels from different publishers, some older than my future students. I stared at them too. At that very moment, I decided that if I wanted to take this chance to change my teaching, I needed to let everything go, including the textbook. So I did. Those old books remained on the shelves and were quietly disposed of a few summers ago. I did the same with vocabulary quizzes,  grammar exercises, culture days, homework, and many more things that I used to do just because everyone else around me was doing them. When Amy Lenord (@alenordwrote on her blog recently that old habits die hard, I felt like I dumped all mine at once but didn’t have enough left for a solid foundation to teach effectively balancing all aspects of this complex task.

If you ever made a similar drastic move at some point in your teaching career, you know quite well that it didn’t simplify my life. On the contrary, it made my prep nights longer. But I persisted and my students strived. They were able to say and write so much more than I could have ever imagined in my previous “page-by-page textbook + discrete grammar + canned tests + points off for everything wrong” teaching. My students had plenty of input, structured and scaffolded output, novels to read and role play, authentic resources and current events to discuss. I know that I am a much better teacher now than I was five years ago. It feels good. But I know I could be better.

Once my first class of freshmen graduated, the sense of full responsibility for my students achievement weighed heavily on my shoulders. Some particular patterns of errors and lack of attention to detail, especially in writing, were starting to bother me because there was no one else to blame – I am their only teacher after all.

Here’s a quick list of issues that kept bothering me at the Intermediate level:

  1. In pronunciation:
    • final consonants that I could still hear – a big no-no in French with exception of liaison, of course, as in “mes amis” and “les élèves” – first “s” sounds like a “z” but the second is silent – tricky!
    • lack of solid decoding skills to figure out how to pronounce an unfamiliar word, usually a cognate that looks similar but sounds quite different;
    • inability to adequately spell the word according to sounds a student would hear, even when I exaggerated them;
  2. In grammar:
    • lack of consistency in proper agreements at the upper levels;
    • a big mix-up of verb endings in their heads as in “Madame, is there an “-s” at the end? … Oh, I know! An “r”? … No? Ok, “-ent”? … Still no? I give up! Just tell me!”
  3. Or yet other serious problems like the use of “vous” (second person plural) common to show respect in francophone countries but very foreign to my classroom – I use it all the time but the kids do not have a habit.

This list can go on.

And on.

I know I can do better. Even though grammar should not rule my classroom, there still are grammar rules, the basic ones. The ones that will help my intermediate learners communicate efficiently in basic structures. The ones that will set them up for success in language learning after my classroom so they do not need to “unlearn” the incorrect versions that have already fossilized. “Oh, French verbs are so confusing!” they would say. I knew why: because most endings are silent yet written differently and because I failed to provide them with adequate focused practice of differences of “il parle” vs “tu parles” vs “ils parlent”!

Enter Gianfranco Conti’s (@gianfrancocont9) blog The Language Gym that I discovered right around the same time. It confirmed some of my ideas and questioned others. It also really pushed me to realize that I need to find a balance between happy carried away CI and non-boring, still relevant, still comprehensible mostly input activities focused on eliminating deficiencies that I identified. I felt like I owed it to my students to equip them with tools they needed and I could not do it without some targeted practice. In context, of course, in mini-doses, but to the point that they become aware and tend to these differences. I am starting to do it now, slowly, focusing on my beginners. My novices are self-correcting already to enunciate well “je” (“I”) as opposed to the sloppy version that sounds like “j’ai” (“I have”) because they know that it changes the message and may confuse the listener. See, communication is still the greatest and the most important aspect of what we do and my students know that any practice in class is for getting better and that I value their effort to speak and write in the target language. As long as I can understand what they are trying to communicate. As long as they do it with increasing proficiency and accuracy.

At least I know that I am not the only one in this boat 🙂