– Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan
As I am preparing to retire after some 30 years of having taught French at the college level (that is, if I count my years as a Teaching Assistant and Teaching Fellow at Pitt), I occasionally ponder over what is the most successful teaching strategy that I have used to make my teaching of the French language more effective.
And I always come back to task-based instruction. Well, you may ask, what is that?
Task-based language teaching relies on classroom activities that require students to complete meaningful, real-world tasks using the target language. More focus is given to the successful completion of the task, rather than to linguistic accuracy. A task-based activity would, for example, consist in deciding with a friend on a movie to go and see together. The completion of this task would require:
- comparing schedules to decide on a day and time to go see the movie.
- finding a movie that is suitable to both partners by looking at online movie sites, and
- “negotiating” each other’s preferences so as to come to a consensus.
Task-based activities are wonderful, because they allow students to use the target language as a means to a meaningful end. As such, they foster language acquisition.
As stated by Glisan and Shrum (2016), their pedagogical value transcends that of mere “mechanical drills and exercises that have limited value in contributing to language acquisition and in developing communicative abilities” (p. 233). This makes sense as studies on aphasia indicate that structure drill and repetition are not processed in the same part of the brain as communicative language production (R. Donato, Personal communication, cf. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2017).
I will discuss here two task-based activities that I have used in my French classes:
- Selecting two roommates.
- Producing a cooking video.
Project 1. Choosing Roommates.
This project – which I have implemented as a “getting acquainted” activity in my French conversation classes, as well as in the Advanced French Grammar class that I teach for the Pitt in Nantes program – includes two tasks:
- Students produce a PowerPoint presentation in which they introduce themselves and set parameters concerning potential roommates.
- Students review all of their peers’ presentations, select two roommates, and produce a video in which they state and explain their choices.
Detailed directions for Task 1 are provided to students on D2L, and discussed in class. I also provide students with a model for the PowerPoint presentation, which gives them a realistic template for their own “introduction” and explanation of what they are looking for (and want to avoid) in a roommate. See Figure 1.
An important part of this process is my review of this model in class, during which I call their attention to its organization (components), to its linguistic features (vocabulary, grammar), and rhetorical devices (expository devices, use of humor, etc.). This is referred to by some experts on modeling as the “critical framing” of one’s model. Note that students do not “copy” the model. They TRANSFORM it – i.e., they use the tools provided to them in the model to create their own project. See Figure 2.
Students find a model useful in this first assignment. Here are two students’ reflections on their work:
I used the PowerPoint that you provided as a template for my presentation. I just used the titles, like everyone else did, and added my own personal information and pictures.
In order to produce my PowerPoint presentation, I followed your model. I used the same titles as you did for my slides as a guideline. […] While I was reading everyone else’s presentations, I saw many things that I wish I could have written on mine.
For Task 2, I review all of my students’ PowerPoint presentations, and decide on the two that I would choose as roommates. Then, I record a video of myself, in which I explain whom I chose and why, and why I discarded the others.
Again, I review my video model with the class, pointing out to them its organization, linguistic features, and rhetorical devices. Again, in producing their own videos, students do not “copy” my model but, rather, appropriate and emulate it. In their reflections on the process involved in making their videos, students mostly focused on how they had prepared for it, and how nervous they had been videotaping themselves.
To make the video, I watched everybody’s PowerPoint presentations and made a list of things that I liked about them and things that I wasn’t so crazy about. I took into consideration what they liked and what kind of activities they were into and compared them to myself. I also looked at their descriptions of their personalities and tried to imagine what it would be like if the other person and I were to get together and spend a lot of time with each other to judge whether or not we would be compatible.
The part that was most difficult was the video. I was nervous being taped because of my pronunciation and content of the project. I was nervous that my content would not convey the point that I was trying to make. It was also nerve-racking to think that my pronunciation can hinder someone from understanding my video. […]
This video was created by one of my Pitt in Nantes students a few years ago:
Project 2. A Cooking Video
The final product of this project – which I assign as part of our unit on food in my third semester French class – is a video, in which two students prepare a simple recipe. I break down this task as follows:
- Students prepare a complete script of their cooking video (formatted as a traditional film script – i.e., it must describe their setting, and every step involved in the filming of this video, and include what they will be saying.) Of course, that script is written in French. I also model that part of the project, and review my model with the class, making sure to go over the vocabulary and grammatical structures necessary for this task. I review the students’ scripts during individual conferences with each team.
- Students record their cooking show. I post my own cooking video on D2L, which I produced some years ago, as well as a few cooking videos done by students in previous years (I find it extremely useful to show students what their peers from previous years were able to do). I strongly encourage them not to read a script, although it is quite obvious that most of them are still reading a written document or cue cards. Students are typically quite creative for this part of the project, and a number of them even include bloopers at the end of their videos!
This cooking video was produced by two students – one of whom was a communications major, which explains its rather polished nature:
Modeling tasks, and reviewing models with students provide them with:
- A clear sense of what is expected of them.
- Helpful guidelines for performing these tasks.
- The necessary linguistic tools for completing them.
I enjoy working on and reviewing these assignments. As one student comments here, they realize the value of task-based activities in improving their proficiency in French:
In general, I really enjoy these assignments. It seems very practical and I like how what we do in class and before we have an assignment like this prepares us to do it. It’s also interesting to prepare something instead of a paper or a written assignment.
Note: All students gave their permission for their work to
be featured in this piece.
Glisan, J. L., & Shrum, E. W. (2016). Teacher’s handbook: Contextualized language instruction (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.