What (my) novice language learners need

Over the years, it has become more and more clear to me that our novice learners can produce language and even have a bit of fun with it, if we remember the characteristics of novice-level production. I think a lot of teachers (myself included until just a few years ago) have expectations that are surprisingly unreasonable for novice level students. Once our expectations and the tasks aligned to those expectations correspond better to the characteristics of the novice learner, reader, writer and speaker, students experience greater success, and in some ways actually produce more content (and do so with greater accuracy) than was possible before.

According to the proficiency guidelines published in 2012 by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a language learner at “novice high” (which is where some of my French 2 students are at in writing) can “[…] express themselves within the context in which the language was learned relying mainly on practiced material. Their writing is focused on common elements of daily life. Novice High writers are able to recombine learned vocabulary and structures to create simple sentences on very familiar topics, but are not able tosustain sentence-level writing all the time”. Similarly, ACTFL states that “novice mid” writers (the rest of my French 2 students) can “[…] reproduce from memory a modest number of words and phrases in context. […] Novice Mid writers exhibit a high degree of accuracy when writing on well-practiced, familiar topics using limited formulaic language. With less familiar topics, there is a marked decrease in accuracy”

Here are two different examples (from two different themes we considered in French 2 this semester) in which I endeavored to design assessments of their writing proficiency that reflect ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines.

1. Jobs brochure

This was actually part of an Integrated Performance Assessment (IPA) that incorporated listening, reading and writing around the concept of careers and finding careers that fulfill individuals personally and professionally. We began by examining two documents from this Web site (where careers are profiled for French children, often including interviews with real French citizens who have chosen those careers. The first document was a “practice” document on the careers of “Photographer” before using the second document on becoming a florist as the reading portion of the IPA. For both the practice and the actual reading assessment, I followed the reading comprehension assessment template provided by ACTFL. Here are the students’ comprehension questions for the florist document. It should be noted that, as recommended by ACTFL I added section numbers to the authentic document before copying it for students in order to facilitate their ability to identify the information appropriate to their level of proficiency).

After completing this task, students were ready for the writing portion, in which they would create their own short brochure for a job fair featuring the careers on the Webjunior careers Web site. For this task, they were allowed to explore the entire set of careers profiled and choose the career that interested them the most. I did suggest that they might find the task easier if they chose a career that featured an interview with someone working in that field, but it was not required. On the brochure, they were required to provide the following:

Some images from one student's job brochure

Some images from one student’s job brochure

  • a list of responsibilities for people working in this field,
  • a list of advantages to choosing this career, and
  • a list of personality traits that would be important for individuals working in this career.

So, how does this task correspond to the guidelines from ACTFL I cited above? The first two bullet items in the brochure allow them to use language provided by the original document in order to complete the task…students are demonstrating their understanding of the relevant language in the authentic document by the relevance of the items they opt to include in their brochures. Only the third item requires students to use their own bank of French language (descriptive)  to produce something and the task could be accomplished in list form for the novice-mid learners or i sentence form for the novice-high students. It is also worth noting that this task allows students to create something that is inspired by an authentic document and adds something new to it, repurposing it for a new audience (those attending a hypothetical job fair.

Example 2: writing an article

In this same class, just after examining careers, we began considering how to talk about past events. I use a murder mystery (now out of print) from a series in Quebec that was originally published for “French as a Second Language” classes, much like the programs we create for students learning English as a second language in the U.S.  The murder mystery provided a very engaging context and introduces the students to the basics of speaking and writing in the past in a way that is almost so inductive that the students figure it out for themselves, naturally, as they progress through the scenes of the mystery.

As one of the culminating activities closing out this mini-unit, students write an “article” about what happened over the course of the mystery, and of course, they name the criminal in the article. Referring again to the proficiency guidelines provided by ACTFL, I prepared a list of actions that each character did, including the victim. The actions in the list were left in the infinitive and were in no particular order, but they were organized in a table by character, as you can see here . Students selected a number of these actions, determined a logical sequence of events for these actions and then put themPhoto of sample from French 2 Murder Mystery Article into sentences in the past in order to compose their article. In past years, I had asked students to write the article as well, but only the most advanced of my French 2 students found the task manageable. Students who were still at novice mid struggled mightily when they were asked to come up with their own articles using sentences about each of the characters they created without any support beyond their memories.  Those students who were not the highest achievers typically wrote significantly fewer sentences, and exhibited more errors in the sentences they did manage to write.

This year was different. More than 75% of students achieved a 4 on this assessment, meaning that they exhibited production of language that is fully proficient at the targeted vocabulary and structures. And the vast majority of the remaining students achieved a score of 3 (mostly proficient in the targeted language and structures, but some difficulty with the more complex aspects). They had much the same experience in terms of learning and practice of the new material as last year. The difference came from the table in which I provided them the characters and the characters’ actions in the story in infinitives along with a reminder of the targeted structure at the bottom. Was this too much information? Does this somehow detract from the validity of the assessment? I don’t believe so. The reality is that this assessment provides the degree of support that corresponds to the abilities of the novice learner while still requiring them to demonstrate the desired skills. Additionally, I believe that this format respects the reality of life and work in the “real world” beyond our classrooms: the “real world” almost never requires employees to produce high quality work without access to resources, information, formulas, etc. Why do we insist on isolating students from such resources and support in the academic world? Even with the benefit of the “tool” I provided them, they still had to show that they knew how to apply the knowledge in order to effectively communicate the details of the story. Providing them access to a list of the information they might want to include and a sort of formula to use to check their work is both more respectful of their capabilities as a novice user of the language and more realistic.

How do you support your novice-level students to communicate in a variety of contexts and in realistic ways? Share your thoughts and ideas below! I look forward to hearing from you.

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2 thoughts on “What (my) novice language learners need

  1. My initial instinct was to say they they shouldn’t have the structure spelled out from them below the table. However, I see her point. I do a similar lesson with a murder mystery in level two. I would say the majority of my students are at the Novice High level but those couple of students who aren’t would have benefited immensely with the structural clue provided. And I only provide images from the story, not a list of things by character. Although I start with the imparfait (since backgroud information is VERY important in a story), when we meet the passe compose, I present both etre and avoir verbs at the same time. It confuses them for a time but in the end it is cemented in their brains. Interesting article. This is an approach I will have to consider. At least earlier on in my story. I use Contes de Salade which I also think is out of print.

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    • I think the given that one of the characteristics of novice is an inability to manipulate structures accurately, consistently and spontaneously, providing the framework for how it is done is an appropriate support. You’ll notice it does not spell out the structure for every action in the chart. It’s just enough of a guide to remind them that there are separate components that each have to be included. For their proficiency, and for the fact that this was their introduction to the topic (not the summative), this approach provides a scaffold that some of the students still need. As they have more exposure, more practice, more contexts in which they use the structure to talk about past events, they will become more and more capable of independently using it to express their thoughts and actions without the help of any supports. All of us are working to empower our students to reach that level of proficiency.

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