False beginners--students who take beginning classes but who are not true beginners--populate both first- and second-year university foreign language classes, posing a unique challenge to their teachers. This problem is especially acute in French programs, in which the numbers of students enrolled are often insufficient to create special classes for them. This article describes a text and an approach that invite students from different language-learning backgrounds to collaborate to improve their reading and writing skills in French.
The placement of new college students into foreign language courses in an effective and efficient manner is "one of the primary challenges faced by large-scale university foreign language programs" (Bernhart, Rivera and Kamil 356). Because of this difficulty, university French teachers frequently encounter in their second-year classes students who have taken one to three (sometimes even four) years of the language in high school. But these students' skills are not always adequate to place out of second year classes by examination, and there are not enough of them to fill a class on their own. However, these students' knowledge of vocabulary, their familiarity with grammatical structures, and their ability to understand the written word surpass the skills and knowledge of their classmates who have just completed their first year of French. The instructor is faced with the challenge of 1) finding a text that meets the needs of both groups of students; and 2) structuring the class to maximize the advantage of the one group without jeopardizing the chances of success of the other group. Studying an authentic French text collaboratively provides a solution to this problem.
Selecting the text
Teaching literature in the foreign language is frequently left to the third year. Second year textbooks typically contain excepts of literary works side by side with non-literary works that are accompanied by exercises designed to help students learn to read. Such texts are organized by grammatical function or by theme, and the excerpts are selected to complement them. As stated in the instructor's guide to Quant a Moi, an intermediate French program, many such programs "concentrate primarily on grammar, with reading, writing, and speaking activities relegated to a subordinate position" (IG7). The resulting isolation of skills is unfortunate. Reading, writing, and talking about an authentic text in its entirety allow students to practice the skills they will need for their third year of study and to gain the feeling of achievement that comes from systematically interacting with a single work.
The teacher who wishes to have students read a complete authentic text, written by a French author for French readers, is faced with the challenge of identifying material that is both of interest to students and at their reading proficiency level. In addition to having literary merit, the text should lend itself to integrating grammar and vocabulary study and to providing points of discussion. Le Ballon rouge is such a text.
The novella Le Ballon rouge
This small-format book (five inches by seven and one half inches) is published by L'Ecole des loisirs, a French publisher which specializes in children's literature. Of its fifty-six pages, thirty-two are full-page photographs taken during the filming of Le Ballon rouge, the film that is directed by the author himself, Albert Lamorisse. Some of the remaining twenty-four pages contain no more than two sentences printed above or below more photographs, and merely four pages are composed of text only. Yet, a broad vocabulary enriches the pages (I have identified 232 words that second-year college students might not know); and every tense that first year university students can be expected to have studied appears (the present, the imperfect, the pluperfect, the future, the conditional, and the past conditional), plus the past historic, a past tense used in formal writing. …