NOTE: This report is part of a larger article, Action Research: Reseeing Learning and Rethinking Practice in the LOTE Classroom, published by the LOTE Center for Educator Development. Please access the main page for full text and copyright information.

Choosing and Using Meaningful, Communicative Activities

Leah Sequeira, Spring Branch ISD

Purpose of the Study

I want my students to communicate with one another in the target language in spoken and written formats that mean something to them and are interesting to them. I want them to learn French, not just memorize it. I want them to learn the process, not just the parts. I want them to be involved in the language, seeing the “big picture.” Therefore, I wanted to identify a process for choosing and using meaningful, communicative activities because without meaning and context, the language is many parts that do not necessarily equal the whole. With meaning, the students can function and create and understand. I am wasting my time if they are not experiencing the language in context.

An opportunity to take a Spanish III course at the University of Houston’s Accelerated Learning Program provided me the inspiration to modify my current teaching practice. In my Spanish course, we worked hard, spoke and wrote Spanish a lot, used our creativity, and did not have tests or quizzes. I wanted to incorporate some of the ideas from that class into making meaningful communication happen in my French classes. Rather than my current routine of deductive presentation of structures and vocabulary and mostly structured practice from the textbook accompanied by frequent tests and quizzes, I decided to focus on developing a new process, including more time spent providing students opportunities for creative use of French.

Research Questions

What activities am I currently using that are producing meaningful communication? What new activities can I create that will produce meaningful communication on a daily basis? How would my students feel about experimenting with a new style of class?

Data Collection and Findings

To conduct my research project, I did an analysis of my lesson plans, developed new activities that I hoped would generate more meaningful communication, and surveyed students to find out their reactions to the innovation. I also kept a journal of my observations on how students seemed to participate in class. By “meaningful communication,” I am referring to use of the target language in tasks that are interesting to students, in which they are actively engaged and using the language to express their own meaning.

To begin the analysis, I looked through the last two months of my lesson plans and made an outline of the types of activities that I had been using. I identified which parts of the lesson were most valuable to the learning process by reflecting on the activities in which students had seemed to be most engaged. I decided to continue beginning each class with activities reviewing the previous day’s lesson, checking for comprehension and reinforcing learning. For example, we continue to check homework, answer questions in French that tie to the previous day’s material, and translate two sentences (also tied to those materials) to reinforce difficult structures. They use their notes from the day before to help them complete the questions and translations. I believe these activities are meaningful to students because, as I observe them, they are on task, asking questions, and striving to get the right answer. Their ability to communicate successfully and the amount of interaction in French among students that I have observed shows me that these activities are meaningful and useful to them.

Immediately following the review, I now reinforce the previous day’s learning with a communicative activity (see examples below). I have eliminated drills and mechanical textbook activities in class (structured workbook practice is done as homework) and have developed tasks that are more open-ended and allow for creative use of language. I provide the structure for the activity, but students come up with the content within those parameters. With the open-ended tasks, students do not “finish”—rather they continue to work, creating with the language until I call time. Now, rather than introducing new material with a grammatical explanation followed by structured practice, I have developed a process to teach new structures or vocabulary in context through story-telling and comprehension checks. For example, I introduced a past tense by telling students a story in French about something that had happened to me. I checked that they were understanding by asking them questions about the story as I went along. Their verbal responses to the questions showed they understood. I also now introduce structures in a simplified context and do not introduce everything at once. For example, I initially presented only third-person object pronouns rather than all of them.

Following the introduction to new materials, students work in groups on a task-based assignment in which they must use French and the structures or vocabulary in context to complete and present a “product” to the class. These tasks are open-ended and allow for creativity. In one group assignment, for example, following my contextualized introduction to possessive adjectives, Level I students were given a piece of butcher paper on which they drew a house that belonged to two famous people. They then presented their drawing to the class, telling us in French what was in the house: “This is their cat,” “Here is their chair,” “This is his car,” etc. I observed many students rushing to use dictionaries to look up new words to create their own meaning—something I had not observed before. The language was spontaneous and often humorous. From watching the students who were listening, it was clear they also were enjoying and understanding their classmates and that the new vocabulary was being reinforced.

Another activity enjoyed by Level II students was working in pairs to write a dialogue on a transparency incorporating object pronouns. They introduced a topic and then continued the dialogue, replacing the noun with pronouns in the rest of the conversation. For example, students might begin with, “Oh, I like your watch! Where did you get it?” “I got it at the Gap,” and so forth. Then, with the transparencies on the overhead, students read the dialogue and pointed out corrections that needed to be made. Many students worked hard to make their conversations unique, and student surveys indicated that students found these two activities most interesting because they were able to be creative with the language and enjoyed the conversations of their peers. In my journal, I observed that, from an instructional point of view, structures that in past years took days to make clear were now being used creatively by students within a single class period because the tasks were personalized and specific.

At the end of a month, I gave the students a survey containing questions about the new class format. They commented that they enjoyed it and also felt that the class time flowed better. They understood the purpose of the review at the beginning of the period, the new strategy for presenting material, and the purpose of the more communicative, creative practice. It was a simple format that they could readily follow.

In my journal, I noted that students were experimenting more with the language. Their written and spoken French brought in new vocabulary that they found in the dictionary, vocabulary from previous lesson that they incorporated, and many idioms that I had helped them with. For the first time, students were reaching for the dictionaries because they had new things they wanted to say. Because they had a need to know, they ended up learning much more vocabulary than would have been introduced otherwise. As I observed their presentations and evaluated their use of the new structures and vocabulary in dialogues, I also found that they were grasping the ideas and language faster than previously. In their surveys, the students commented that they felt like they were really learning because they could hear themselves communicating well in the language.

Plan of Action

I enjoy this new, simplified way of teaching: reviewing material, presenting new material, and watching students produce language in a meaningful way through contextualized, task-based activities. A colleague once told me that language is to be discovered and that discovery happens when language is presented in meaningful contexts—an idea that has driven this project... and me! This summer, I will be reviewing what is taught at each level of French. I plan to create a way to present the material in a context that is relevant to students and reflects their interests. I will use story-telling, question/answer, and games. I will also develop templates for eight types of activities resulting in a “product” (such as the butcher paper drawing or transparency dialogues) and that will engage students and provide them an opportunity to use the target language to express real meaning.

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