In our last post, we discussed how our students’ confidence and motivation have grown since we have implemented the Real Language right away program. A key factor of this improvement is that they actually have become more fluent; they feel freer using their French because they can understand and produce more of it!
Our lower school program used to be a very focused on vocabulary. Class time was often spent playing vocabulary games and asking students to recall vocabulary. I remember standing at the front of the class with my set of flashcards, asking “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” over and over again. Once we decided to present the vocabulary within a conversational context, we found that students retained it better than ever. They had something meaningful to which they could attach the vocabulary, and they had interacted with it in a personal way. Denise did a little test of our new method as we were developing it, having second grade students practice a conversation using transportation vocabulary for 20 minutes the first day, and giving the students a quiz over the vocabulary the next day. Nearly everyone had a perfect quiz, and she could tell that the retention was much better. It has come as a surprise to us that as we become less focused on vocabulary recall and more focused on useful structures, students retain vocabulary with greater ease!
Keeping class in the target language is easier and easier as time goes on. Because the Partner Conversations provide English translations for abstract expressions (bits of language that cannot be represented by an image), all the students are able to follow easily. I remember doing my best to speak only in the target language knowing all the while that there were a significant number of students who were not following. Because the students have a unifying curriculum, classes at any level have a common vocabulary. I recently took a group of sixth graders to the Alliance Française in Chicago for a field trip. The native speakers who were presenting the cooking and film workshops were astounded at our students’ ability to follow their presentations. They were also struck by how accustomed to the immersion atmosphere our students were; it did not phase them when people addressed them in French.
In our middle school classes, we have a system for keeping the students in the target language. We keep a “liste d’anglais” where if we hear English spoken, students’ names are written on the list, and they lose one point off of their grade. This is counter-balanced by the fact that we are very generous with our little extra-credit tickets (“billets” worth 1/5 of a point). There is a lot of grace in the system, and students have completely bought into it. On our field trip, I gave everyone thirty participation points for the day, but if I heard them speak English, they lost two points. The people at the Alliance Française were also very impressed that the students were continually talking to one another in French. The reason that they are able to carry on a conversation all day long in French is because they have truly acquired the structures and vocabulary present in the Real French tout de suite conversations. It is a joy to hear them pulling out fun expressions and vocabulary from the curriculum—they truly own it!