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Student attention and involvement: The viewpoint of a foreign language teacher

by Anne-Marie Hallworth-Duez

Anne-Marie Hallworth-Duez

We all know professors who, although extremely clever and well-informed, cannot teach properly. Like Professor Binns, the history teacher at Hogwarts School of Wizardry, they tend to put their class to sleep. How can we then keep our students motivated and engaged in their learning experience?

First, we need to be enthusiastic ourselves about what we teach and leave the security of our desks to move about in the classroom. Let's meet the students with a smile, and as soon as possible, let's learn their names. It certainly helps to foster a pleasant atmosphere as well as good student/teacher relationship.

Movement is a great learning tool. With a game such as Simon Says, students can learn in a lively manner about parts of their body. Movement can help master numbers in a foreign language: with the whole class standing, a student sits down if his or her number is a multiple of seven. A small foam ball is a useful prop to practice conjugation of French verbs like faire. Here, the instructor chooses a subject (je, tu, il ...) and throws the ball to a student who conjugates the verb and then throws the ball to another student with another subject, etc. When it comes to learning about pieces of clothing and physical appearance, the students love to participate in "fashion shows". While some of them parade in front of the class, a commentator describes their hair and attire: The more lyrical, the better!

One of my most vivid memories is of my grade four teacher demonstrating how to spell the adjective vieille with her arms for the two i's and her head for the e. Now, I use the same technique in my classroom as I chant "My head is between my two arms; vIEIlle. Give me an I give me a E, give me an I!" After performing this dance, most students have no trouble with that word ever again.

Handling material and looking at pictures helps visual and tactile learners. With a dollhouse and its furnishings, practising the names of rooms and what is inside them becomes a game. Dressing up dolls or paper dolls is a fun activity to learn about clothing. I bring a toiletry bag to class to ease the pain of the reflexive verbs: Je me lave avec du savon, il se rase avec un rasoir ... and cleaning implements to teach about chores. The students particularly enjoy the toy iron and vacuum cleaner!

For the auditory learners, there are useful tongue twisters and nursery rhymes. For perfecting French pronunciation, we sing "B avec un A, BA, B avec un E, BE, B avec un I, c'est BA, BE, BI; avec un O, BA, BE, BI, Bo ; avec un U, c'est BA, BE, BI, BO, BU". Then we use other consonants in the song. Later on in the school year, when students pronounce a vowel incorrectly, I just have to start singing B avec un A for them to correct themselves. Music is one of my passions; consequently, I use a lot of songs in my classes, to teach French grammar for example. Anybody who has heard L'été indien will probably remember how to conjugate the irregular verbs aller and vouloir in the future tense!

Secondly, forming bonds between students and engaging them in interactive activities supports learning. For this, skits are wonderful. In French classes, students practise their newly acquired vocabulary in "real life" situations: how to introduce oneself, how to buy bread at the bakery, how to ask for information at the train station... Quite often, we have students who plan a trip to Quebec or France, and they particularly appreciate this type of role-playing. Small group work also allows participants to use vocabulary and grammar while relating to each other in a non-threatening way. When it is time for more sedate exercises, replacing "he" or "she" in the text by the names of students makes the assignment less impersonal and the class more attentive.

Finally, allow students to use their imagination. For example, instead of doing a simple and maybe boring conjugation exercise, I encourage the learners to create sentences: Je vais. Where do you go? With whom? How do you go there? To polish the use of the conditional, why not have a discussion about what might happen if they met ET? Story making is a fun way to practise imparfait-passé composé. : "One day, I was in my bath ..." and each student adds a sentence to create their very own adventure.

In Continuing Education, we are blessed with mature students whose life experiences can contribute a great deal to the learning and teaching process. So, let's make sure we promote a welcoming, lively and interactive environment where everyone can learn and share while having fun!


My Background

I come from Belgium where I taught High School Chemistry, Geography and Biology for seven years before arriving in Calgary in 1975. I studied at the University of Calgary and obtained my MA in 1992. I also became a certified member of the ATIA in 1988 and have worked as a freelance translator ever since. In the meantime, my husband and I have had three sons who are now adults and have given us the joy of becoming grandparents to two little granddaughters. I have been teaching French in the FIS Department since 1990 as well as in the Faculty of Continuing Education. Twenty-two years later I still enjoy teaching, especially the French evening classes offered by ContEd. The students are enthusiastic and really want to work and learn. They are not afraid to experiment. Since most of them are mature students, they have a lot of experience to share in the classroom. They know why they are taking classes and what they want to get out of them. I feel so proud when I see them develop their understanding of the language, the culture, and the love of learning.