Intermediate French, Guilford College
The course to be modified is French 201: Intermediate French. It is a third-semester course that meets three times/week for 75 minutes. Third-semester language courses are challenging for students and teachers alike. Students are eager to use the target language independently, but they still struggle with grammatical accuracy and fluency. The difficulty of this level often frustrates students to the point that they discontinue their language studies. To combat this pattern, I revised our third-semester curriculum by moving from a traditional textbook to one organized around contemporary films (Séquences). Each chapter focuses on a single film, and each film addresses a contemporary theme, e.g. student life, adolescence, post-colonialism, immigration, racism. I designed the syllabus to include seven chapters and therefore seven films. In addition to regular quizzes and exams, students had to complete three readings, three short essays, and two individual speaking tests.
As a whole, I have been pleased with these revisions. Students respond well to these films and are eager to engage with each other about the topics. There is no question that this change in textbooks has sparked more interest in the material. However, the course moves so quickly that students feel burdened with the number of hours they must devote to film viewings. Moreover, these revisions have not resolved the students’ struggles with the language. They might want to talk about racism in France, but their understanding remains superficial, rarely progressing beyond the material presented in the film. Likewise, they cannot make significant strides in proficiency when their usual partners are other intermediate students. To advance beyond this level, they need non-scripted practice with sympathetic native speakers. Struggling to understand and make themselves understood will ultimately boost their language skills as well as their confidence levels.
I plan to reduce the number of films to six and dramatically increase the emphasis on oral expression. In reducing the number of films, I will be able to devote more time to each chapter, its themes, and its vocabulary. I plan to restructure individual speaking tests to build upon Talkabroad sessions. Each student will complete ten conversations with native speakers: one each week and roughly two per film.
At the beginning of each week, I will post the theme and key grammatical points online so that students can prepare in advance. I will regularly listen to the recorded conversations to mine for clips to share with the entire class to spark discussion, guiding students to think about the topic through a cultural studies lens. Short, in-class writing assignments based on their conversations will further develop their communication skills. When two conversations fall during the same film, I will guide students to think about how their opinions have (not?) changed, i.e. “I previously thought X, but now I think Y,” or “The characters in the film say X. I did not expect this because….”
Three times during the semester, I will ask students to go back and listen to their conversations. They will complete a reflection report in which they note their areas of success and areas needing improvement. I will also expect them to set a goal for their next set of conversations. In this way I will hold them responsible for remaining intellectually present during each conversation.
I hope that such intentional recycling will make students aware of their own progress and therefore encourage them along the way. Overall, I expect that these curricular changes will improve their proficiency as well as their confidence. By extension, this should improve retention into our advanced French courses.
On the whole, my students completed the semester with stronger speaking skills and greater confidence in French. Below are some of their comments to illustrate this:
- “Before I could handle speaking and comprehending, but only in very slow conversations on easy topics. However, now I feel like I am able to talk about broader and more complex subjects, and I have even noticed that during conversations I have begun to think in French, which makes speaking even better.”
- “I think my French pronunciation has improved a lot. I also think I’m better able to elaborate on answers and speak it more comfortably. I also think I’ve gotten better at listening to different French accents through listening exercises and understanding words based on their context in reading passages and when listening to people speak. I really enjoyed doing TalkAbroad. I was nervous at first, and I didn’t like how it was through video chatting with random people, but after awhile I got used to this, and I began to like speaking with these people and I thought it was helpful in improving my French speaking.”
- “I saw a large improvement in my French this semester. Last year we learned a lot of grammar, and this year, with a few exceptions, we went back to those grammar modes/tenses. However, unlike last year, this year we spent way more time talking whether it be in class or in the speaking test or even with TalkAbroad. This allowed my French speaking skills to improve dramatically, and now I can talk fairly well with my parents in French. I would say that TalkAbroad was the most useful thing this year in the way of improving my French speaking skills. I would say that everyone should spend around an hour preparing the topics to make TalkAbroad a learning experience as well as a fun thing to do on the weekend.”
- “I have improved the skill of navigating around a word with which I am not familiar. At the beginning of the semester in TalkAbroad, I would have wordreference open during the conversation, and I would frequently search for words during the conversation. Now, however, I use other vocabulary words that are not as precise, but still express my idea. I definitely recommend to continue the program, as it provides a platform which the instructor can guide, and also a program in which students are immersed in francophone culture while having total freedom to express their ideas in a foreign language.”
I had also hoped to improve student retention in the French program. I cannot say for certain how well I met this goal. Of the 17 students enrolled in the fall, 9 have continued this semester. Of the eight who did not continue, only two students were able to continue but opted not to enroll. Among the others, one student graduated, one withdrew from school, one is studying abroad, and three students had schedule conflicts with required courses. It would have been nice to keep the two students who chose not to continue. In truth, they were not the strongest in the class, so perhaps they made wise decisions to focus their attention elsewhere. I wish the three with schedule conflicts could have continued, but I can understand their need to prioritize coursework in their majors. Obviously I could not hope to retain the three who are away from campus. So, my fourth-semester enrollment is not where I would like it to be, but I cannot blame the attrition only on the third-semester curriculum.
The initial implementation of TalkAbroad was rocky. For the first couple weeks of the semester, students were unable to connect with partners. We eventually realized that our college’s network was blocking TalkAbroad’s videoconferencing system. Once our IT department worked out the issue, our students were able to make most connections. There were occasional Internet issues on the partners’ end, but most problems were resolved by rebooting the connection. On the rare occasion that a conversation failed due to technology, TalkAbroad was very quick to reimburse the student in question.
Beyond the technological glitch, I also realized that I had planned too many conversations. I reworked the syllabus mid-semester so that students completed a conversation every two weeks.
In conclusion, I found TalkAbroad very beneficial. My students liked it, and they made significant progress thanks to it. I plan to use it again next fall when I next teach third-semester French. I also plan to use the newly revised syllabus, as is, with 6-7 conversations. Next year should prove smoother now that I know about the potential IT hiccup as well as the preferred pacing of conversations in the syllabus.
Dr. Maria Bobroff, Guilford College