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

Bonnie Arden Robb

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Schemata: Construction of Meaning

As seen above in Figure 7, students perceived progress in their ability to understand the texts they read, to read increasingly analytically, and to express their ideas in a grammatically correct fashion, both orally and in writing. The final portion of the end-of-semester survey addressed the overall construction of meaning through scaffolding activities and the organization of the course around three principal themes (l'autorité politique / religieuse et l'organisation de la société; la femme vs. l'homme; et le hasard et la destinée). Responses showed that students were sensitive to scaffolding opportunities. Their performance showed that they gained both linguistic and cultural "fluency" in these themes as they regularly examined and articulated ideas relating to them throughout the semester (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Perceptions of scaffolding/construction of meaning, according to end-of-semester survey; charted by author. Please click on the figure above to enlarge.


Activities that promoted oral proficiency in a literature course (small-group and whole-class discussion, oral quiz, in-class game show) were rated very useful by undergraduate students (cf. survey of Perceived Usefulness of course elements).

Close reading was valorized by emphasis on oral activities (cf. discussion / survey of Sociolinguistic Considerations). Abundant opportunity and significant pressure to speak seem to have increased motivation for careful reading as preparation for successful participation, which in turn may account for the markedly increased appreciation of the literary works read, as well as for lower anxiety and higher confidence (cf. survey of Psycholinguistic Factors).

Half of the students (53%) found group work and individual work to be equally useful to their progress, while a third (33%) found group work more useful. Two thirds claimed to find a good mix of group work and individual work in this particular course; no one expressed the opinion that there was too much group work (cf. end-of-semester survey of Perceptions of Group vs. Individual Work).

Speaking in class was rated as the most important contributor to linguistic progress, which may indicate that progress in oral expression is most highly prized. Reading was the next most highly rated contributor, along with professor's comments on written work. 87% of students perceived that they had made progress in oral expression; 93% perceived progress in command of grammar; 73% perceived progress in writing and reading skills (cf. survey of Perceived Progress in Linguistic Competence).

Students were appreciative of elements that fostered scaffolding, e.g. the three major themes traced from work to work, the "que sais-je" activity at the beginning of the course, the "Résumé et Réflexion" oral presentation that began each class, and the "Jeu de la Destinée" quiz game that provided review during the Voltaire readings (cf. survey of Perceived Usefulness of course elements and survey of Perceptions of Scaffolding / Construction of Meaning).

Students gave high usefulness ratings to the oral quiz, which pushed them to "peak" into Advanced and even Superior speaking functions. While their success on the quiz (achieved through practice of announced, targeted forms and functions), attests to only "partial control" of those functions, the usefulness ratings given by the students indicate that they are eager to cross the threshold into Advanced-level speaking. The structure of the quiz enabled them to prepare, and reduced the stress and discomfort of the "breakdown" normally experienced by speakers when they are pushed into higher-level functions.

Through surveying the dynamics of my French literature classroom, I gained valuable insights into my students' goals and learning styles and strategies. My students, too, gained a greater awareness of course dynamics as the surveys prompted them to reflect on their goals, on the learning process, and on their progress. Beginning early in the semester, a discussion of the results of the initial survey seemed to foster a sense of community and common purpose. The improvement of oral proficiency was, indeed, considered an important goal, and throughout the semester the students embraced the opportunities provided. It is, moreover, important to note that the increased emphasis on speaking skills strongly supported the construction of meaning in scaffolding activities and achievement of the course's literary goals.

This is an ongoing project. While I do not teach advanced eighteenth-century literature courses every semester, I had the opportunity to resume my project in spring 2011, and will be analyzing new data in the coming weeks.

University of Delaware 6

Fig. 9. Class photo taken by author. Please click on the figure above to enlarge.

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