Offended Then Enlightened: A Challenge to my Values About Teaching French as a Second Language

Trudy Gath

I wanted to assess my students’ abilities to write simple French words that we had been using in class every day for two weeks. I gave them a list of the words that would be on the quiz so that they would have an idea of what would be expected of them.

Students received their spelling lists one week before the quiz. The quiz came and went, and 75 percent of my students achieved at the standard level or higher. I asked them to take their marked quizzes home so that their parents could see and sign them. I wanted to communicate the children’s progress to their parents. I value communication between home and school because I believe it better involves parents in their children’s education and hence improves student learning. As well, The Ontario Curriculum French as a Second Language: Core French (1998) states: “Studies show that students perform better in school if their parents are involved in their education.”

The document further states that, “French will be the language of communication in class, since classroom interaction provides students with opportunities to speak in French and to hear French spoken.” The curriculum does not say that English will be spoken in class to ensure understanding.

Later that week, most of the children returned their quizzes to me with parental signatures. None of the parents had addressed any comments to me concerning the quiz.

A few days passed and the children’s homeroom teacher, Mr. D. informed me that he had a note and a telephone call from a parent of one of the children in his class. This parent, Mr. L., told Mr. D. that he saw the quiz word list and asked his child to tell him the meanings of the list words in English. According to Mr. D., Mr. L. was shocked that his child did not know the English meanings of the French words listed.

In the following note, Mr. L. stated that he believed that there should be more translation involved in teaching French:

Dear Mr. D: The only concern I have now is regarding French. I am not exactly sure what is or is not being taught For example, on a recent test, the students were asked to spell some words, but when I asked X if he knew the English translation of the word, he did not know it. Is this a case of the teacher not teaching the English translation or has X forgotten? If it is the former, I believe this is the incorrect way to teach French, and should be rectified. Thanks, L.

This child had been studying French for the first time in his entire educational career and it was only October. What did his father expect? Furthermore, the parent sent in a note addressed to Mr. D. stating that he disagreed with my teaching methods.

I believe that in order to learn a language effectively, one must be immersed as much as possible in the target language. During a typical French lesson, I employ pictures, symbols, cognates, facial expressions and gestures instead of English words to convey the desired message.

“Acting, posturing, dramatizing, shouting, gesturing, and criticizing are styles a manager [teacher] may choose as he or she attempts to add drama and excitement to what can easily become a boring process” (Glasser, 1998.) My students typically use English when they have difficulty expressing themselves.

Wilson (1999) states that Krashen evaluates popular language teaching methods such as Grammar-Translation, Cognitive- Code, Direct Method, and the Natural Approach according to his second language acquisition theory. Wilson quotes Krashen as saying that “The grammar-translation method provides little opportunity for acquisition and relies too heavily on learning... In the Natural Approach the teacher speaks only the target language and class time is committed to providing input for acquisition. This approach aims to fulfill the requirements Tor learning and acquisition, and does a great job in doing it.”

However, I reiterate their dialogue in French in the form of a question so that I am modeling the use of the vocabulary in the target language. In a presentation to “The Canadian Experience in the Teaching of Official Languages” Pierre Calvé, the Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa, said “No matter what the motivation or the teaching methods, it is recognized that, for a language to come alive for an individual, exposure to it must be sufficiently significant and intensive” (1996).

My theory is that students learn a language more effectively using visual cues, cognates, and gestures than they would by completing translation exercises. In a website outlining Stephen Krashen’s theory of second-language acquisition, Ricardo Schütz writes:

“According to Krashen, [an expert in linguistics from the University of Southern California] there are two independent systems of second language performance: ‘the acquired system’ and ‘the learned system.’ The ‘acquired system’ is the product of a subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language. The ‘learned system’ is die product of formal instruction which results in conscious knowledge ‘about’ the language, for example knowledge of grammar rules. According to Krashen ‘learning’ is less important than ‘acquisition’.” (Retrieved May 12, 2001 from http://www.language impact.com/articles/rw/krashenbk.htm)

In a summary of Stephen Krashen’s principles and practice in second language acquisition, Reid Wilson states that Krashen explains his Second Language Acquisition Theory as follows: “We acquire any new language in an amazingly simple way: by ‘understanding messages’ in the target language. So one need not to imitate all aspects of natural setting of language acquisition, but to provide crucial ingredient of naturalistic acquisition: comprehensible input.” (Krashen. Retrieved June 3, 2001 from http://welcome.to/natural.approach).

I do not wish to say that I never teach French grammar lessons. In fact, I believe that some grammar instruction is crucial to second language learning. “When someone learns a foreign language, the goal over time is that the grammatical system of the language becomes internalized.” (Author unknown,1999. Retrieved June 2, 2001 from: http://www.msu.edu/~sandinkr/langlearn.htm). Through my research, I realize that I follow the Natural Approach when I teach French rather than the Grammar Translation Approach.

To speak of my personal experience of learning languages, I know that in ten months of living in Quebec City, I acquired and remembered more vocabulary than I could recall from 15 years of classroom language learning. I believe this was because many (but not all) of my language teachers taught primarily using the grammar translation method. I did countless, uninteresting workbook exercises and translated thousands of irrelevant sentences.

In Quebec City, I resided with a French-speaking roommate who spoke no English. In this situation, I was forced to survive using my previous, feeble knowledge of French vocabulary and grammar. I relied heavily on gestures, facial expressions and context to understand and communicate. Within one month of being immersed in the language and culture, my vocabulary and understanding improved immensely.

To return to the incident that sparked this article, Mr. L. challenged my values and I immediately felt defensive. After all, he did not contact me personally to discuss his concerns. I felt that he did not perceive me as a “real” teacher and that perhaps he would get more satisfaction from speaking to Mr. D. I felt ignored. In addition, I was annoyed that my teaching methods were being questioned. Perhaps Mr. L. would like to come into the school and teach French? Did he think he could do my job more effectively than I could? I panicked because I felt compelled to defend my teaching methods. I realized that I did not know how to explain why I teach French the way that I do.

Ghaye and Ghaye (2000) quote Day (1991) and Polyani (1962): “Describing what we do is a good starting point in exploring the issue of being a professional. In doing this we are often making the tacit explicit.” Deep down, I knew that it would be unprofessional for me, when asked, to say to a parent or administrator, “Well, I am not sure why I teach this way. I just know that it works.” After all, how do I know that it truly works? If I truly value accountability, then, as a professional, I should be able to state the reasons and the values behind my teaching methods with confidence and clarity. Although I was previously shocked by the way a member of the community criticized my pedagogical methods, I wanted to make my practice “open to inspection and critique” (Ghaye and Ghaye, 2000).

Worried, I sought the advice of a more experienced French teacher. Through reflective dialogue, my colleague helped me through the difficult process of putting words to my actions.
In retrospect, I needed her to validate my feelings and to tell me that I was teaching French in a competent manner. I discovered that I teach French in context, with pictures and actions rather than using the translation method. I employ these methods because I know they helped me to learn foreign languages.

In addition, during my first year of teaching French, our curriculum consultant taught me that if you translate oral and written texts into English, the children will listen for the English alone because they are anglophone. Throughout the past six years, I developed methods of teaching that I felt surpassed mere translation and that I knew helped me to learn French when I was younger — employing relevant, interesting visual aids and accompanying gestures. I telephoned Mr. L. to discuss his concerns and left a message on his answering machine. He never returned my call.

After the haze of my anger faded from this incident, I discovered I could turn it into a personal learning experience. If it had not been for this incident and for my involvement in educational action research, I might not have tried to provide explanations for my practice. “Reflective practice is concerned with learning how to account for ourselves. This means learning how to describe, explain and justify our teaching” (Ghaye and Ghaye, 2000). Upon further reflection, I learned that I became unnecessarily defensive and that my own perceptions were likely exaggerated. In addition, I learned more about the personal and professional values I possess. “Teaching is a value-laden practice. Values help teachers to make decisions on how to proceed” (Ghaye and Ghaye, 2000). Through this critical incident, I recognized that my espoused values are the following:

  • I value being accountable to the provincial curriculum;
  • I value fairness to children;
  • I value communication;
  • I value respect;
  • I value modern, effective methods of teaching a second language; and above all,
  • I value relationships.

After reflecting on the incident and what I learned about myself as a teacher, I wanted to act to make some improvements and move forward. If I chose not to act toward improvement, I would have been merely thinking about what I do rather than genuinely reflecting on my practice. First, I attempted to contact Mr. L. by telephone but without success. Second, I gave each student a list of the French vocabulary words that we used and would use during our unit and asked students to look for and record the English meanings for each of the French words.

With this list, I felt that I was compromising with Mr. L.’s wishes. The children would have a list of French words and their meanings in their notebooks to which they could refer and study at home. I realized that I should have given students a vocabulary list at the start of the unit rather than in the middle of it and that I rushed into things too quickly at the beginning of the school year. Next time, before diving into a new unit that I have never taught before, I will skim through the entire unit and record all of the necessary resources that I need to prepare at the start of the unit.

In conclusion, this incident and my resulting anger caused me to reflect on the pedagogical methods that I use and their purposes. “Reflective practice is a process that involves a reflective turn. This means returning to look again at all our taken-for-granted values, professional understandings and practices” (Ghaye and Ghaye, 2000). Now I recognize clearly that I teach French using context, visual aids and gestures so that children concentrate on learning the French words rather than relying on the English to understand communication.

I have witnessed my theories working in my practice successfully. I see my students applying the vocabulary that they have learned in my classes independently and accurately to complete their projects. In addition, my students teach others what they have learned through conversation and songs. I am ecstatic when I hear them using French outside of the classroom in their real-life experiences. In addition, I teach the way that I would like to be taught myself. As I have said, as a student of languages (French, German and Italian), pictures, gestures and context helped me to learn other languages effectively and to enjoy the process. I hope to provide the same experience for my students.

Trudy Gath, a teacher with the Grand Erie District School Board, is pursuing an M.Ed. at Brock University. Her focus on action research and a letter from a parent led her to examine her program and make some changes.


Ghaye, A. and Ghaye, K. Teaching and Learning Through Critical Reflective Practice . London: David Fulton Publishers Ltd. 2000

Glasser, W. The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion . Revised edition. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1998.

Calvé, P. (1996). Symposium: The Canadian Experience in the Teaching of Official Languages: “French as a Second Language: A Wind of Regression?" Retrieved May 12, 2001, from http://www.canadianheritage.gc.ca/offlangoff/perspectives/english/sympo/...

Krashen, S. “ The Natural Approach Web Site ". Retrieved June 3, 2001 from http://welcome.to/natural.approach

Language Learning for Language Learners (1999) [electronic newsletter]. “The (Proper) Role of Grammar Study in Learning a Foreign Language" Retrieved June 2, 2001, from http://www.msu.edu/ -sandinkr/langlearn.htm Ministry of Education and Training. The Ontario Curriculum: French as a Second Language: Core French. Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Toronto, Ontario. 1998.

Wilson, R. “ A Summary of Stephen Krashen’s Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition . " Retrieved May 12, 2001 from http://www.languageimpact.com/articles/rw/krashenbk.htm.