The experience of a French teacher who worked on the Gulliver forum
Before becoming involved in the project with a class of 14 Czech secondary-level pupils, I asked myself the following questions:
- Does Gulliver meet the current objectives of foreign language teaching?
- Is it possible to integrate Gulliver into our teaching curricula without too much extra work?
- Can Gulliver help me make language lessons more effective?
- Can Gulliver enhance my pupils’ autonomy?
- Does Gulliver make it possible really to develop intercultural communication skills in a language class?
How did I achieve current foreign language learning objectives with the help of the Gulliver project?
In a language class I encounter the same problems as many of my colleagues. The pupils in my class learn two foreign languages. English is their first foreign language, French the second. Some of them think “More school work for me”. The reality of economic and cultural links among the different European countries, which requires a good knowledge of several European languages, remains too remote and theoretical for my pupils. For them it’s just a school subject, homework, exercises and so on.
But society requires language learning at school to be rapid and complex and to produce people who are autonomous in several foreign languages. In order to meet that objective, communication at school has to be enriched by real contact with the socio-cultural environment in which the pupil can use the language in real communication situations. Of course there are ways, for example school exchanges, but Gulliver, a communication project via an Internet forum with pupils in other European countries, was less expensive for us and above all offered ongoing contact. Through Gulliver we have met a great many young people in several countries, something we could not have done during a school trip. And our virtual trip was very practical. First, when we wanted to show all the countries taking part in the project on a map of Europe, we found that the class’s notions of geography needed brushing up. My pupils did not find it altogether easy to say where Lithuania or Armenia were. At that moment they asked themselves the question. Did the young Greeks or Estonians have the same problem finding the little Czech Republic on the map?
When reading and looking at the other pupils’ presentations they did not confine themselves to just one language of communication. In order to communicate and understand each other, all the knowledge and skills acquired at school had to be called upon.
How did I incorporate the Gulliver project into the foreign language teaching curricula?
The design of the forum, its 3 fields with 5 topics in each, perfectly matched the content of our curricula. Questions asked on the forum dealt in different ways with the subjects of our textbooks. The texts were not prepared by the authors of the textbook or by the teacher but by the pupils themselves. Finally, they saw what their classmates wrote. And what pleasure to find one’s own text, or a reply, on the Internet!
I did not abandon the main objective of foreign language teaching – gradual acquisition of the language and autonomy in its use. Communicate on the forum took place via texts written directly on the computer screen. However, as we have only a limited number of computers, we often used printed texts. The two skills mainly developed were comprehension and production of a written text. But oral skills were not neglected. In class we looked for the meaning of selected texts and also had lengthy discussions before sending our own contributions. And as the choice of topics was open, pupils were more motivated.
How did our French classes change?
I try to bring to my French classes activities that will make the work more interesting and motivating. Gulliver offered me something else. This time it was the pupils who selected and organised the work.
Communication with pupils in countries speaking different languages called for rather complex skills – those of morphology, lexis and syntax, but also a good measure of socio-cultural skills. The pupil applies not only his knowledge. He demonstrates his capacity for interaction and general communication. He develops strategies that can be applied to all learning.
Before starting our forum work we had to organise the class. Pupils formed groups of 4. When I explained to them that they would be reading and writing freely as they chose, they thought about how to share out the work within the group so that everyone was doing something. What surprised me was that the formal aspect of the work was very important to them – the colour of the file, the graphical presentation of the text, etc. They liked this freedom very much and set about the work with great enthusiasm, Gulliver being a novel element in the learning situation. It is true that this enthusiasm waned over time, but they retained certain habits – taking responsibility for their work, sharing work with others, respecting the plan and timetable. They somewhat forgot that communication via the forum was part of their learning. Language was no longer a set of rules but a real medium of communication.
During a language lesson, if a pupil cannot understand a text in the textbook or cannot write his own text, what does he do? He remains silent, being afraid to make a mistake and get a poor mark. When working on the Gulliver project, pupils quite naturally asked questions, and sought help from classmates and from the teacher. They were also very well able to distinguish between material already studied but not sufficiently assimilated (the statement “I know, we’ve already done it, but I’ve forgotten” recurred frequently) from the new material needed to formulate the contribution (lexis of topics, conditional sentences, etc.). Yet Gulliver did not place an extra burden on the curriculum. It was sufficient to reorganise it as requested by the pupils reacting to communication situations. And this seems to make for very good learning motivation. A learner who can choose freely between texts on a topic and choose his own way of producing a text contributes to the learning process and becomes more autonomous. Gulliver did not impose any texts, unlike school textbooks. It offered an opportunity for communication, and classroom communication was transformed into genuine communication with a real interlocutor whose interest derived from personal curiosity.
For example, when my pupils wanted to produce a text on the topic “Who is the person you admire?”, they discussed the question at length. Should they describe an actor, a singer, or a sportsman? Everyone had his preferences, his “hero”, his ideal model. Nobody wanted to accept his classmate’s choice. For the language lesson this was an ideal situation. Everyone worked according to the same pattern: the text with its presentation, and the description and justification for the choice. They modified it in accordance with the actual person they had chosen.
In addition, this work enabled me to see the scale of values applied by the pupils.
The pupils were also able to make the same observations in respect of the other participants. My pupils were surprised by the choices made by some of the others. They had not thought of figures like the Pope, who was the choice of the young Poles, or they discovered the names of Greek singers who are very familiar to their Greek counterparts but not heard on Czech radio.
How did my pupils become more autonomous?
We language teachers often wonder about the organisation of our classes. How to prepare lessons so that they correspond to each individual’s learning style, pace of work and interests? How to give them greater learning autonomy?
From the very outset my pupils liked the freedom of work on the Gulliver forum. They soon realised that this form of communication also entails work. Some even found themselves working harder than before. But it was they who asked for the work, the detailed vocabulary, the right grammar, the complex sentences. I helped them apply everything they had already learnt.
Pupils could choose texts according to several criteria. They could ignore topics which did not interest them, but read several that did, and also read in several languages. Pupils wanted to know how others had contributed to the discussion on topics they themselves had chosen. In other cases they chose according to the country of origin and read all a class’s contributions on all the topics because they were at the same language level and so were easy to understand. Linguistic level proved to be a very important criterion in their choice. Over-long, difficult texts discouraged certain pupils, who no longer wanted even to try to read them. Each pupil decided on his own pace of work. He could read a text several times, work on it outside the classroom, read for overall comprehension or work with a dictionary and translate the text into his mother tongue. Thus he chose his own pace when preparing his contribution. And he decided at what point the text was in final form.
He could work alone or with a classmate, use the dictionary, ask the teacher for help, sometimes even abandon the text and take up another. By repeating the most efficient strategies, he developed the strategic skill needed not just for learning a foreign language but for learning in general.
How did we develop intercultural communication and plurilingualism in our classes?
Being aimed at the development of intercultural communication, Gulliver enabled us to achieve what we expect from the learning of a foreign language, that is to say creating in school a context close to real communication and becoming a place of intercultural contacts where the pupil will benefit from his pluricultural and plurilingual knowledge, something that is still relatively rare in language classes. Pupils have not communicated with native speakers, and so have not sought to discover the culture of the language but that of the speaker.
Before deciding on the text of a new French-language contribution, all the other contributions posted on the topic had to be checked. The pupils saw all the contributions in all languages, and the frequency of contributions from the participating countries or of those from a particular pupil. This was the best incentive to open some and read them. In this way even the humblest linguistic skill was turned to account. Curiosity proved to be excellent motivation for language learning.
For example, when reading texts on the topic “What do you do apart from your school work?”, my pupils worked for the first time in a language lesson with two types of text. They read all the texts in French because they worked on the project during their French classes, but they also read the texts from other participants in English, Spanish and German, each according to his own ability. For the first time, my pupils’ plurilingualism became a natural part of the process of learning a foreign language. We did not exclude the second language from our lessons: on the contrary, we took advantage of it.
At school, pupils discover the life of the country of the language being studied through stereotypes chosen by the authors of textbooks, or else through authentic documents chosen by the teacher.
As the project proceeded, we discovered that communication breaks down not only because of linguistic obstacles but also when intercultural communication skills are lacking. A pupil who does not understand asks questions. By learning how others live he has discovered the limits of his own culture. Gulliver made it possible to observe codes of behaviour which differ from country to country.
The Gulliver forum project is over for us. However, I still appreciate how effective learning based on real motivation and personal feelings is. Even today, when we come across a topic in our work which reminds us of Gulliver, my pupils’ immediate reaction is: “Hey, we did that in Gulliver!” or “We read that in a Polish or Greek contribution!”, and they repeat for me the texts they had put in their files.
We are already working on another project, and this time it was fairly easy to organise the work. In fact we are still in the intercultural, and indeed in the plurilingual, field (we are preparing a 4-language information bulletin for our twin towns to mark our own town’s jubilee). We have learnt how to work thanks to Gulliver.