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An Eighteenth-Century French Literature Course and
Linguistic Competence: Surveying Classroom Dynamics

Bonnie Arden Robb


LIKE many foreign language students elsewhere, students enrolled in our Foreign Language Teacher Education Program at the University of Delaware have sometimes commented that literature courses do not contribute sufficiently to advancing their oral proficiency and fostering the confident speaking performance they need for their career.1 Confronted with their concerns, I attempted to examine more closely the experience of students in one of my own advanced literature courses and to implement methods and activities that would enhance my students' literary and linguistic progress in an integrated way.

In surveys conducted at the beginning and end of my eighteenth-century French literature course in fall 2008, I gathered information on the perspectives of the fifteen undergraduates in my class.2 Using a theoretical model proposed by Virginia Scott in her article "An Applied Linguist in the Literature Classroom," the surveys I constructed addressed psycholinguistic factors, sociolinguistic considerations, development of linguistic competence, and construction of meaning (schema theory).

Psycholinguistic Factors

The first portion of the survey asked students about their attitudes and motivation — confidence level, anxiety, interest in the course — and invited them to share their strategies by making a list of suggestions they would offer to a student about to take his / her first French literature course. The September survey showed that most students began the course with low confidence, and many with anxiety. By semester's end, the number reporting anxiety had decreased by almost half, and the number claiming confidence had grown by a factor of 4. Interest remained strong, but became more informed. At the beginning of the semester, 53% of the students indicated that they generally felt admiration for the works they read in literature courses; at the end of the semester, 80% felt admiration for the works they read in this course (Fig. 1).3

Fig. 1. Psycholinguistic factors surveyed at beginning and end of semester; charted by author. Please click on the figure above to enlarge.

Sociolinguistic Considerations

Following Scott's Vygotskyan model, this portion of the survey attempted to determine students' perspectives regarding the importance of the classroom as a community of learners and their view of the role of various course activities, including group work, in the learning process. Responses at the beginning of the semester indicated that 80% of the students considered small-group discussion and 60% considered whole-class discussion as fundamental to learning and understanding; by semester's end this edged even higher, to 87% and 73% respectively. In September, only 60% of the students cited reading as fundamental, but by December this had jumped to 93% with the realization that reading was the necessary basis for all else in the course. During the semester, the ratings of oral presentations by the students and of professor's lectures also rose (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Sociolinguistic factors surveyed at beginning and end of semester; charted by author. Please click on the figure above to enlarge.

At the end of the semester, students were asked to comment on the relative importance of group work and individual work to their progress, to indicate whether they preferred group or individual work, and to rate how well the two were balanced in this course (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. End-of-semester perceptions of group vs. individual work; charted by author. Please click on the figure above to enlarge.

While 53% of the students found group work and individual work equally helpful, 33% declared group work more helpful. Several of the latter also said either that group work and individual work were well-balanced in this course, or that they were pleased to find that there was, in fact, more group work in the course. One student said that there was "more group work," but still "too much individual work." Another student commented that s(he) didn't generally like group work, but had found it useful in this class.

It is important to note that, in this course, group work did not mean graded group projects; rather, it meant focused discussion in small groups (typically composed of three undergraduates and one graduate student), affording oral practice as well as the opportunity for collaborative development of skills in literary interpretation and analysis. Students shared ideas, learned from each other, and prepared to explain and defend their ideas to the whole class. Every member of each group had to participate in the group's presentation and in fielding questions from the rest of the class. This collaborative practice in presenting ideas helped students prepare for the course compositions, exams, and quizzes (both oral and written), which were individual performances and graded as such. The only graded collaborative project was the "Résumé et Réflexion," a weekly presentation by a pair of undergraduate students who partnered to prepare the assignment but nevertheless received individual grades. It consisted of three required elements: summary of the ideas and activities of the previous class, reflections on how those ideas related to the three course themes, and formulation of two questions to prompt class discussion (along with well-prepared answers to those questions, in case classmates did not respond fully). The work in pairs was designed to allow students to compare notes, brainstorm ideas, and practice together. The R & R was presented orally (the two students shared the allotted time), but each student also submitted his / her own résumé and reflections in written form and received an individual grade based on both oral and written performance.

Perceptions of Linguistic Competence

Ideally, literary discussion provides a forum for students to develop advanced- or superior-level speaking functions, such as narrating in major time frames, using extended discourse, presenting opinions and arguments, exploring alternatives, and hypothesizing. However, research has shown that students are not always pushed to develop or demonstrate these capacities. Rather, despite literature courses' focus on constructing understanding of complex texts and ideas, students may frequently participate in class using intermediate-level speaking skills. In their award-winning article, "Literary Discussions and Advanced Speaking Functions: Researching the (Dis) Connection," Richard Donato and Frank Brooks have suggested that literature instructors should be more aware of discourse opportunities, should make speaking expectations and advanced functions clear to students, and should monitor student language use.4 Their research, including transcripts of classroom exchanges, has shown predominance of the IRE pattern (teacher initiation-student response-teacher evaluation), with student responses often limited to word- or phrase-length utterances.

In my course, I attempted to elicit more extended discourse by phrasing questions during class discussion in such a way as to necessitate more than a one-word or phrase-length response; by distributing questions on each work in advance to encourage preparation of well thought out sentence- and paragraph-length comments to contribute to discussion; and by initiating small group discussions that were subsequently reported back to the class as a whole. In addition to monitoring student language use in small-group work and whole-class discussions, I assessed students more formally by administering an oral quiz, which I substituted for one of the written quizzes originally planned for the course. It was time-intensive, involving a 1/2 hour appointment with each student in my office. The quiz, which focused on the work we were reading at the time — Voltaire's Zadig ou la Destinée — had four parts, announced in advance, as shown in the chart below. Students were made aware of the linguistic demands that would be placed on them during the quiz (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4. Organization of oral quiz; image by author. Please click on the figure above to enlarge.

The first part of the quiz, an easy "warm-up," elicited short answers, based on information I had presented in my introduction to Voltaire's conte. In the second part, which called for the narration of an episode, I targeted the "advanced" skill of narration in major time frames. Voltaire's contes lend themselves extremely well to this; I selected the episodes of le Borgne (chapitre 1), la Femme Battue (chapitre 9), and le Brigand (chapitre 14). Interestingly, some students chose to narrate using the passé simple (rather than the passé composé) in conjunction with the imparfait and plus-que-parfait. They had practiced in class and at home, in some cases learning long passages almost by heart (I was incredibly impressed, as memorization is not very common these days) and incorporating vocabulary that was almost certainly not part of their lexicon previously. This was even more impressive in that they had to prepare all three announced episodes, since the episodes were randomly rotated and students could not know which they would be asked to recount. In the third part of the quiz, I asked students to hypothesize alternatives to the "cause-and-effect" of the tale, requiring correct use of the plus-que-parfait and the past conditional. A grammar worksheet, with sentences to be completed based on an understanding of Zadig's circumstances and adventures, had provided practice for this task. The final portion of the quiz elicited extended (paragraph-length) discourse, as students were invited to interpret the conte, expressing and defending their opinions as they had done during class discussion.

It is to be noted that, in the end-of-semester survey of Perceived Usefulness of course elements (see chart below), the oral quiz was rated as more useful than written quizzes and exams. It is also interesting to note that Zadig was, according to the survey, the students' favorite reading of the semester.

Another, more informal, "quiz" was the Jeu de la Destinée. Named in honor of one of our course themes, this was a Jeopardy-like quiz game played at the beginning of class each week while we were reading Zadig and Candide. I designed the questions to provide a review of the previous week's episodes and discussion points while also checking on the care with which students had read the new assignment. The game format motivated participation; the first student to raise his / her hand to answer a question collected a card (for a correct response) and the 3 students with the most cards after 4 weeks of play received small French-themed prizes amidst applause from their classmates.

Small-group discussion, whole-class discussion, the Jeu de la Destinée, and the oral quiz were all among the course elements rated most useful, as shown in the following chart (Fig. 5):

Fig. 5. Perceived usefulness of course elements, according to end-of-semester survey; charted by author. Please click on the figure above to enlarge.

Students were asked at the end of the semester to self-assess the development of their linguistic competence, and reported the following (Fig. 6):

Fig 6. Perceived progress in linguistic competence, according to end-of-semester survey; charted by author. Please click on the figure above to enlarge.

When asked to identify what contributed most to their perceived progress, students replied as follows, citing "speaking in class" as the most helpful element (Fig. 7):

Fig. 7. Elements perceived to contribute to progress in linguistic competence, according to end-of-semester survey; charted by author. Please click on the figure above to enlarge.

As part of a pilot, I evaluated my students using our departmental Oral Rubric, which is based on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages' Oral Proficiency Interview scale. At the time I was chairing our department's assessment committee, which organized an OPI Familiarization Workshop that helpfully guided us in piloting our newly developed rubric that semester. My ratings (which were not official ACTFL ratings, and which were not used for grading purposes) placed 3 students at AL — Advanced Low (one of these was subsequently confirmed by an official OPI interview), 10 students at IH — Intermediate High, and 2 students at IM — Intermediate Mid. The rubric sheets, showing their ratings, were distributed to the students to give them feedback on their developing oral proficiency.5

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