Creating Beginner Buy-in through Positive Messaging 

Kirsten Halling, Professor of French
Wright State University

On the first day of teaching my first college class in 1987, I followed the exact instructions I had been given during my Graduate TA Orientation Week, enthusiastically implementing the Communicative Method in my teaching and respecting the goal of achieving 100% target language instruction from the very first day of elementary French. My twelve French 101 students were shocked to learn that the class would be conducted entirely in French. The warm- up, based on heavy modeling, involved students learning greetings and a short conversation in the target language. I communicated with the students through body language, gestures, cognates, writing vocabulary on the board, coaxing, and prodding until bewildered students managed to have mini-conversations with me – and then with at least five partners. It wasn’t until later, when I went over the syllabus with the students, that they learned the format of the class, my expectations, my pedagogical philosophy and the fact that those 15 minutes would be the last time they would hear me speak English.

Given the effort it would take to get students to the point where they could produce language with no formal training, I would look forward to each first day of class with a mixture of dread and excitement. I steeled myself against the death stares, the inevitable questions about the level of the class (“I think I’m in the wrong class. Is this French 101?”), and I would make mental bets about the length of time it would take for the students to come around. In those days, I had numerous “resistance fighters,” who would hold out until something finally clicked, sometimes after three or four weeks. Many students would come – or be invited – to my office hours, where I would explain and justify the methodology I had promised to use in class, and slowly a spirit of cooperation would develop, along with astronomically fast-paced learning.

When I think back on those days, I am grateful that as I get older, I no longer need to exert such superhuman energy to convince the students that the Communicative Method is the best way to learn a language. These days, thanks to group emails and course websites, we can prepare students in advance of the first day of class, allowing for the “buy-in” to occur before they even cross the threshold. This is not to say that the first few weeks of an elementary foreign language class are easy to teach – teachers still need to model, speak in cognates, use props, and push students to produce language – even when we all know they would rather be entertained. What it does mean is that students are invested and fully understand the adventure they are beginning.

Over the years, my introductory messages to beginning students have evolved. I continue to use persuasive rhetoric, but try to avoid intimidating the students by delineating my own responsibilities to them. While a part of me may regret the adrenaline that marked the first day of low-tech French 101, I find that giving the students reasonable expectations and explaining my part of the bargain to them gives them confidence and allows them to absorb language much faster than when fear guided them. For instance, in order to prevent the fear of bad grades and failing tests, I let them know that while they may miss some information in class, they need not panic since tests will be thoroughly reviewed and there will be no surprise material. I also promise the students to be organized so that they won’t get lost, informing them that I see the syllabus as a contract that helps them stay on track, and that I will only change it in case of emergency. Once these ground rules are laid out, students come to class relaxed and ready to begin hearing, learning, and practicing the language.

The following is an excerpt from the letter I send the students one week before each semester. I hope that some of this may be helpful to those teaching beginning French and would love any feedback or suggestions for improvement.

About the class: Some of you may have had French before, but I will teach this class as though you are all true beginners. At Wright State, we use the Communicative Approach, which is, in my opinion, the most accepted and effective method of language teaching to date. This approach has been around for over 40 years and posits that students must hear and use the language in order to become proficient in it. Instead of assigning old-fashioned grammar- translation exercises, you will find that I introduce eclectic and modern materials, combining grammar and vocabulary with high and low culture, placing a strong focus on proficiency and communication skills. The aim of the course is to give you novice competency in French, along with essential cultural insights, so that after a few short weeks, you should be able to get around in French, rather than just conjugate verbs.

In order for you to quickly learn the language, we only use French in the classroom. I know this may sound a bit crazy, but I promise to make this a painless and positive experience. We will study and practice high frequency vocabulary every day, and we will learn about culture through videos, popular music, short readings, and class discussions. Class activities designed to encourage language production will include: “Find a person who,” vocab bingo, peer interviews, surveys, and many other fun and interesting games and activities. The French I will be using will be slow, cognate laden sentences that focus on current lessons and accumulated vocabulary and grammar structures. Body language, gestures, writing on the board, props and image-heavy, interactive PowerPoints will reinforce your oral understanding. Outside of class, you will continue to practice vocabulary and concepts using online interactive exercises and websites. All homework is designed to reinforce concepts and vocabulary taught in class.

Learning in a foreign language may produce stress and grade anxiety; for this reason, I will post all information about tests and other graded work on Pilot and will send you regular email updates about class expectations and administrative matters. Because I expect you to listen to and use French in class, I keep the class structured and predictable in order to increase your comfort and confidence. For this reason, I will do all in my power to stick to the syllabus, only changing it in case of an emergency.

It’s amazing how much French you will be able to use and understand even on the first day, as we practice greetings and analyze a song! My goal is to make learning French enjoyable so that you won’t even realize how hard you’re working as the language begins to flow naturally.

Come to class ready to fall in love with the French language, and get ready to master basic French – a skill that you will be able to put to use all over the world. C’est super! Voilà! Vive le français! Et à bientôt.