Oral language development is always a hot topic in French Immersion, or any second language classroom. I can’t count the number of times someone has said to me “I took French all through high school and can’t speak a word!” As a French teacher, there is nothing that makes me more sad or disappointed. What is the point of pursuing language learning if we can’t interact with anyone else?
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Often we mean well, but there is a lack of understanding about how students best learn a new language. I would like to share my strategies for developing confidence in oral language amongst my Late French Immersion students.
Identify the Learning Intention
If we are not clear about our objective as teachers, how will students know what they are supposed to learn? I’m not talking about vocabulary here, either; I’m talking about what we want our students to be able to do. Try structuring your intention in the form of an “I can…” statement. For example, “I can use passé composé to share what I did on the weekend.” This will help provide you with context in which you can teach the language structure.
Vocabulary taught in isolation is almost never meaningful for students; it relies on memorization and is not representative of any authentic communication situation. Grammar in isolation can be even more troublesome; what is the point of knowing how to conjugate the past tense (passé composé) if we have no idea when or how to use it in a real-life situation? Focus on what students want to talk about in the past: their weekends, their vacations, or what they did before coming to school that day. These are meaningful learning opportunities because students are actually applying the language structure in an authentic way.
This step is so key! Teachers must model the language structure they want their students to learn before they ask students to use it or write it down. This means providing multiple examples along with actions and/or visuals to help cue students’ vocabulary. Using a simple structure repeatedly in context is most effective. For example, I might point to what I am wearing when I say: “Je porte un chandail bleu. Je porte des pantalons noirs.” Obviously the structure you choose to model and practice depends on the level of your students; in our class, we often focus on a specific verb tense or expression (e.g. passé composé or “J’ai hâte pour…”) The key in modeling is to avoid translating in favour of contextual cues and to take reading out of the equation; that can be learned later once the structure is internalized.
Once we have modeled a language structure in a meaningful context and supported our model with actions or visuals, we can move on to offering students the chance to practice. However, this should be done in a very structured way. I will often share my model and then ask students to share their own personal phrase with a partner. This allows them to practice in a safe way as it does not put them on the spot in front of the whole class.
Once students have practiced in partners, I model a question such as “Qu’est-ce que tu portes?” and call on anywhere from 1-5 students to answer the question. This is the time to correct any errors in the targeted structure.
Have the class repeat the question, such as “Qu’est-ce que tu portes?” chorally to ensure correct pronunciation. Then allow them the independence to practice the question and answer format with their peers. Inside/outside circles is a strategy that works really well with most students. It allows me the opportunity to circulate and formatively assess students’ abilities very quickly and easily; it also gives students the opportunity to practice the same language structure multiple times to increase
Know When To Intervene… and When Not To
With new language Learners, it is very easy to become intimidated or anxious. While of course the purpose of structured oral language practice is to target specific language structures, we need to know when to intervene or correct and when fluency is more important. If passé composé is what I am modeling, then that is the structure I will openly correct in students’ communication. Correction of errors is necessary and important, but building confidence is even more important! Don’t forget that it’s ok to leave them to fumble through expressing their thoughts as well, as they are developing different skills at different times.
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How Morning Meetings Have Transformed Our Learning
This year, for a variety of reasons, I decided to try morning meetings with my grade seven students. Every morning, we sit in a circle and one by one, we share how we are feeling that day. We rate our feelings on a scale of 1-10 and provide some reasons why we are feeling that way if we are comfortable doing so. This has been an incredibly powerful experience for me as an educator, as it provides us with dedicated time to listen to each other, builds trust within our classroom, and encourages students to take risks in sharing in a new language. It has also provided us with an avenue for oral language practice. Each day, we target a specific language structure. For example, Mondays are usually practicing past tense as we share what we did on the weekend and Fridays are a great opportunity to talk about “J’ai hâte…” It is amazing how many errors can be corrected when they are class learning intentions. Over time, students have become more comfortable correcting themselves and others as well. We are able to laugh about some of our mistakes while we develop common language understanding. Several initially shy students have come out of their shells during morning meetings! It’s been a wonderful experience that has greatly increased students’ confidence in French. I can no longer imagine not having morning meetings in our classroom.
I believe oral language development is essentially the most important skill we can help develop in our students. Without speaking and listening, they will always lack the ability to communicate meaningfully with others in real-life situations. By targeting specific language structures and modeling oral language on a regular basis, we can help our students open doors to new experiences.
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