Students want to learn. In language classes, students want to learn how to say things. Both statements seem obvious, but I think as teachers, we sometimes lose sight of these truths and inadvertently stifle the innate curiosity our students possess. As language teachers, we need to teach vocabulary as well as sentence structure and grammar. Language is complex, and the rules governing conventions of speaking and writing are not always concise. So whether it is in the name of consistency or procedure, classroom management or time management, we make choices about what vocabulary to teach or not teach, what phrases to introduce or ignore, and these choices will invariably leave students wanting and needing more. And unless we introduce that vocabulary in a relevant and appealing context, providing students opportunities to explore and create with it, it will likely remain little more than indecipherable words on a page, incomprehensible utterances with little sticking power and even less purpose.
I want students to be confident in the vocabulary they are learning so that they feel empowered to use it. That means that when selecting vocabulary to teach, the list must be wide enough to hit most broad areas of interest, but narrow enough that we have sufficient class time to introduce and reaffirm the pronunciation and proper usage of each word. I use pronunciation practice to engage students in vocabulary; rather than passively repeating vocabulary in a dull drone, we enunciate actively, varying the voices we use, how softly or loudly we speak, and using hand movements to highlight sound elements. I also have students write out personalized phonetic spellings of vocabulary, to which they can refer when needed. By doing this, they begin to develop an understanding of the patterns and relationships between spelling and pronunciation of French words and word parts, at the same time as they are supplying themselves with a useful study and reference tool. During this time, the repetition helps to develop a foundation of sound memory from which students may comfortably proceed to the application of vocabulary in communicative contexts. That is to say, in addition to learning vocabulary for vocabulary's sake, this process of vocabulary acquisition also paves the way for more complex language usage and understanding.
Sometimes I provide supplemental vocabulary lists, with pre-printed pronunciation guides. This does indeed give students more options, more ways to say what they want to say. But no matter how expansive the list, or how carefully and thoughtfully selected, or how inclusive of student input, there will
be some word or phrase missing; the list will always be in one way or another inadequate. And it will indeed remain lifeless unless students are adequately inspired to do something with it.
Not only do students need a reason to use what we teach them, but they also need an opportunity to contribute to the classroom learning experience. For some, a vocabulary list will be missing a particular expression, for others, the very fact that it is a pre-determined, finite selection of vocabulary will be its downfall. For those students who hunger to explore, to research, to be active agents in their own education, a list of choices provided by a teacher will simply not do. And for those students who do not currently demonstrate that hunger, well, this is where we start to nurture it in them, to provide them the tools and opportunities for inspiration that bring it to the surface.
In carefully laying out the groundwork for all, individual voices can get muffled if they don't have proper guidance in filling in the missing elements of communication for which they search. Or worse yet, that curious spark to discover and express could lose its glowing ember. So the task is to create a method for allowing students to explore and create, with enough structure to keep the focus on developing an understanding of the linguistic basics introduced, and enough freedom to experiment and construct their own linguistic understanding at individually-appropriate rates.
Enter, poetry. I have long used poetry and song as a way to engage students, to get them practicing memorization techniques that will help with vocabulary-building, as well as to teach them common sentence structures and speech flow patterns. But I have shied away from incorporating the
of poetry in my language-learning lessons because of that beginner's tendency to want to express an English thought verbatim in a language that has vastly different linguistic rules and forms. The newly-acquired language just can't keep up with even a relatively short lifetime's worth of expressive possibility in an established language. And this is frustrating to a new language learner, who often takes it to mean a failing on his or her part rather than just the nature of all the steps involved in mastering a language.
After having been re-familiarized with some basic poetic forms and sound devices during the course of this seminar, I now endeavor to craft a unit that will provide enough structure and guidance for students to be able to focus on word exploration rather than complex thought expression, and that this will allow students to build vocabulary in an expressive
context for excitement and enthusiasm to guide them in that pursuit. One big reason I use song and poetry in my classes is that it lightens the mood so that students feel more comfortable taking risks. As world language teachers, we are familiar with Stephen Krashen's "Affective Filter Hypothesis," which indicates that second language acquisition must occur in an environment of low anxiety. When a student is very self-conscious, nervous, or embarrassed, the affective filter goes up, the student hesitates or withdraws, and not much language learning happens. When the filter is down, the student is comfortable enough to take the risks necessary to practice communication, including making mistakes. Songs and poems help to lower that filter so that my students worry less about "messing up" because they are too busy, either having their own fun or else laughing at me as I ham it up to take the heat off of them! Either way, they are generally much more relaxed and receptive in this type of environment. Both song and poetry, as creative forms, honor the pursuit of entertainment and experimentation, which takes the emphasis off of perfection and the fear that often accompanies its pursuit.
In this unit, students will learn various techniques associated with the sound of poetry, as well as some simple poetic forms that will provide them a format in which to create poems organized around thematic vocabulary in the French language classroom. Students will classify and explore vocabulary on their own terms, according to their own preferences. They can then teach each other vocabulary that they have researched by sharing their poems, which not only puts ownership into the hands of the student, but also opens up the door for some great insight (as students figure out the best ways to teach each other). This poetry creation process will fulfill my need to individualize the vocabulary acquisition process as well as supply a worthwhile reason for using that vocabulary.
Classifying vocabulary is a proven effective learning strategy. With this unit I can take students beyond charts and traditional graphic organizers to poetry as an alternative way to organize learning both graphically, through the written poem, as well as aurally, while voicing the poem. Students can cluster vocabulary within a poem according to theme, and then too according to gender. For example, consider as a line of poetry the title of this unit,
píche, poire, papaye, pastèque.
peach, pear, papaya, watermelon
. In English, the words might not flow so smoothly, but in French, there is a definite rhythm; the first two words are one syllable, and the second two are two syllables (1). This creates a nice little chant that helps students to remember the words. They all start with the same "p" sound, and they are all feminine vocabulary items. By linking choice vocabulary through the poetic sound device of alliteration, and stringing that vocabulary together in a pleasing rhythmic pattern, we can take a concept that can be very challenging to second-language French-learners, like gender of nouns, and make it both easier and more fun to investigate (2). We are providing here a different way of organizing vocabulary and learning, the aural equivalent of the graphic organizer. Tapping into the way rhythm and rhyme aid memorization will give students needed support in vocabulary retention and conceptual understanding.
Although the strategies explored in this unit will prove useful across many languages and levels with certain adjustments, I am writing for a 5
grade, first year French class.