Intermediate French Online: Pedagogical Uses of Multiple Interfaces

Many models for online courses have been developed in recent years [1]. I suggest thereafter a model for the use of the Internet at the second-year level in French class. This model is intended to resolve what is sometimes presented as a conflict between personal websites and course management systems. It tends to develop a compromise according to the capabilities of the two systems, eliminating in the process the use for a textbook at this level.

The general institutional objective at the second-year level is the mastery of the target language at the intermediate level through the critical study of culture, cultural practices, and intercultural comparisons. Specific objectives include the enrichment of grammatical competency (through review of structures and acquisition of new structures and uses), and the development of communicative strategies through the five competencies (cultural understanding, listening, speaking, reading, and writing). As a certified ACTFL tester, I expect language students to be able to do the following towards the end of the second year (as delineated in my syllabus for this level I am quoting thereafter):

1. Participate in simple, direct conversations on topics related to daily activities and personal environment. Initiate, sustain and bring to a close a number of basic, uncomplicated communicative exchanges. Satisfy simple personal needs and social demands to survive in the target language. Obtain and give information by asking and answering questions.
2. Create with the language and communicate personal meaning to sympathetic interlocutors by combining language elements in discrete sentences and strings of sentences [2] .

Students are also expected to do the following:

3. Develop/practice the use of grammar/syntax in context, with focus on using tenses appropriately (past, future) and expressing one’s subjectivity (with the subjunctive, comparative structures, etc.).
4. Identify (and respond to) information in French on various supports, including the Internet and other technological tools.
5. Develop their appreciation of French-speaking cultures (notably through the final project).
6. Last but not least, they are supposed to fulfill their own goals in the course as well as the necessary foundations for the major/minor/requirement in French.

During the first week of class, students state and discuss their own goals as learners. While desired outcomes include enhanced ability to communicate in French according to the ACTFL guidelines for the Intermediate level, they also include increased ability to use technology (in French), not the least since technology is a natural and often familiar environment for students. However, showing students how to use different programs, design PowerPoint presentations for their final projects, and take advantage of the possibilities offered by the Internet is not the primary goal in any of my courses. Rather, technology is used both outside and inside the classroom to ensure a better communication and facilitate learning.

In the classroom proper, it seems to me that emphasis should be put on meaningful communication rather than on repetitive drills. In practice, it means that I teach French from the outside, by using what in French is particularly useful to communicate at a given level, always keeping in mind the ACTFL requirements for passing an OPI test at a given level. I am not teaching from the inside and constantly describing the language’s structure. Rather, I have found concepts such as ‘function,’ ‘speech act,’ and ‘communicative competency’ to be particularly relevant and helpful in my teaching [3]. As a result of the importance given to communicative competency, my teaching at the intermediate level is based on culture and civilization, and speech acts and functions are introduced according to their relevance to the cultural material. For instance, studying French History is an opportunity for studying the use of past tenses. I also tend to speak about culture from the outside, using some marginal and non-canonical works, in which the outsiders (minorities such as Beurs) point out ways to become insiders. After all, students may be themselves considered as outsiders to French culture, and learning is as procedural as it is content-based. It is my contention that minorities provide models for understanding better a given culture.

I stress the fact that language learning should be both collaborative and contextualized within a larger cultural frame. Beyond the Novice level of proficiency generally associated with First-year French, all of my language courses are content-based and provide for meaningful exchanges in French. Accessing online material allows the class to display data visually, read recent articles and current news, download music, work on pictures, or visit a museum or a city through a (live) web cam. It also allows students to work with digital media. All these new tasks imply new methods of assessment [4] and new teaching methods. I will develop this second aspect here. Working in the Northeast with the Ellis Island web site, for instance, can be very effective when it comes to study vocabulary on family and the possessives. In the class just after the 9/11 tragedy, students read French papers online and posted several sentences that were used as a basis for discussion. Any event can be presented in a number of ways, according to different points of views. Among other things, information technology presents simultaneous access to different versions of the same events, or multicultural variations of the same phenomenon. Instant access to information enables a class to engage with authentic material and/or fresh and primary data, beyond the delayed mediation of a given textbook or pre-packaged database. In this situation (and there is no reason to think that it will be different in the future), the instructor largely becomes a mediator. A distinction should be made between pre-packaged information such as electronic databases or textbook material, and other categories of information available through the Internet. As Raymond Perry, Verena Menec and C. Ward Struthers have proposed, «since the information is already available in the textbook, the library readings, or electronic databases, [the role of the teachers] is to motivate the students to want to acquire the information» [5]. Students are more self-motivated to acquire any information not readily available or pre-packaged in databases, and appropriate this kind of information much better, provided that they are given a limited number of websites or a way to evaluate websites properly. This discovery process is integral to their learning experience and informs the discussion in class.

My typical Intermediate course is not linear, but divided into four, five or six units (in the European unit/credit system, they would be called ‘modules’). Units are loosely built around a general topic related to French and Francophone culture. Topics for last year included suburban youth and Francophone culture in the Americas. Each unit presents structures and vocabulary in relation to a specific subtopic. For instance, this semester, unit 3 includes the discovery of French regions, and the study of adjective and comparative structures. Writing assignments reflect both. Last semester, a study of pronouns and adjectives through recent rap songs in Canada and France ended with the creation of a song. No textbook is used. However, given both institutional constraints and the fact that the level of comfort of some students increases if they actually have a reference book, a good reference grammar is required, such as that created by Stillman and Gordon. The reference grammar is expected to be used throughout the language sequence and beyond. A reference book on civilization may supplement units on civilization, while short novels or films may be used for specific units. Textbooks for Intermediate French are often criticized. Some say that «they do not provide enough contextualized activities» [6] . Not using textbooks gives the instructor more freedom to create such activities and get rid of the pre-packaged rhythm, content and form provided in textbooks. At the same time, the perception of the goals becomes much easier, and there are real interactions in class about completing these goals. Adopting a regular textbook, on the other hand, may transform the multiplicity of learning-oriented goals into an overarching institutional one, that is, to study everything that is in the book by the end of the semester.

Not using regular textbooks implies that the course relies heavily on the Internet. My Internet site, used both in and outside of the classroom, includes a list of selected language links arranged according to ACTFL oral proficiency guidelines, cultural links arranged by areas of study, and other pages including lists of teaching documents to be found on the password-protected sites designed for my current courses on the online course management system in use, Blackboard 6. This is exclusive of links pre-arranged on the desktop, downloads and html documents generally stored on Blackboard, documents that would be created for a particular session but not linked to my home page. This Internet site is directly linked to Blackboard, so that both can be used in and outside of the classroom more conveniently. Internet and Blackboard sites can of course be used separately on the same desktop along with other interfaces (Word, CAN-8 environment, programs such as ELFE). In class, I tend to use no more than four interfaces simultaneously, although I limit this use to two only most of the time in order to facilitate students’ focus on the task at hand.

The Blackboard 6 sites include teaching documents such as exercises for different levels arranged by grammatical categories and used for reviews, two complete grammars respectively designed for intermediate and advanced French (on Power Point), a writing guide for papers, vocabulary lists, Internet downloads on specific points of culture or language, cultural links arranged alphabetically, and discussion boards organized in weekly and thematic forums; all of this online and widely used by students (10000+ hits last fall for Intermediate or Advanced French, 3000 hits this semester in Elementary French for the month of September only). A common mistake, I would suggest, is to have too many links on Blackboard. It is much more effective and practical to use the Internet site from within Blackboard for links. Blackboard is a useful tool, but it comes with severe constraints and a not-so-friendly interface. Having used Blackboard since 1998, I now tend to use Blackboard mainly to manage forums and communication. The content section is now limited to the essentials.

The centerpiece of the course is the online forums. At the intermediate level, typically, students enter their contributions (comments, questions, vocabulary) to the different forums twice a week, individually or in group. It is part of their homework. This method also allows them to use informal writing and create sentences and paragraphs that they can later recycle in their papers, writing both spontaneous and reflective being an essential skill at the second-year level. Grammar and speech acts are studied in context through texts and movies, which allows for meaningful discussions as well as systematic recycling of vocabulary and phrases prepared online in the forum entries and used in class through computer projection or ‘smart board’ when available. This allows the instructor to check students’ level of preparation before class, use relevant student’s postings in the classroom, and focus the attention of the class on some postings for the day, a good way to sustain the discussion, and also a good way to include in the group those students who have difficulties speaking up in class. Postings are evaluated according to the quantity, quality, and accuracy of information they present, and feedback is constant. These postings are also useful at another level: this form of informal student writing is more spontaneous, more linked to the direct needs of communication, and less based on the representational function sometimes taking place in the classroom context (describing objects, actions, and so on) [7]. Writing questions, in particular, forces students to prepare acting on communication needs. And this is consistent with the fact that being able to ask questions is one of the main learning goals at the Intermediate level.

In this environment, homework (including self-corrected exercises automatically pre-assessed through the ELFE software—see below), is delivered only online, except for the compositions. In fact, I am careful to keep the compositions on paper, a good medium for formal writing; besides, it is the only paper I see beside the tests. It should be noted that a better and more cost-effective management of the paperwork is not the objective here. Rather, to go online for homework is consistent with the course’s online goals, and it allows for the archiving of student work and much more. Student work, even in grammar, becomes a database that may be consulted and used as needed. In the first part of the third semester, ‘Intermediate I’ students usually post paragraphs on different aspects of French civilization. I use among other materials a book on French civilization for the intermediate level created by Ross Steele. In the second part of the third semester, ‘Intermediate I’ students usually post responses on a short novel based on a real story, more of a rewritten interview, Née en France, Histoire d’une jeune beur, by Aïcha Benaïssa and Sophie Ponchelet. Vocabulary and questions are provided online. It is of course possible to teach only online, although I am reluctant to do so for a lower level language course in the college environment. In my summer 2004 online advanced course on ‘modern’ and contemporary French civilization, there was of course no book or paper material, and I never saw the students physically. I prepared a reader for French civilization from 1789 to 2004 and had it scanned and put in the Library e-reserves. I added relevant links and forums for each period (for instance, 1789-1799) and a forum for the successive drafts of the final essay.

Online learning is supported by adequate software accessed from workstations around campus. As for grammar, Intermediate French students use the ELFE program originally created by the University of Iowa and send the self-corrected exercises to an ELFE forum on Blackboard. The ELFE software, which includes hundreds of self-correcting exercises arranged by grammatical categories and levels of difficulty, is an excellent database for an online model based on specific units. While these exercises are not content-based by themselves, it is easy to select and assign the specific exercises that are appropriate to the content of a particular class session. This selection process is part of the teacher preparation for the class, and the exercises selected should appear clearly on the online syllabus for the whole semester. According to the student’s diverse needs at the Intermediate level, supplementary exercises can be assigned individually or collectively at any point during the semester. All completed ELFE exercises automatically come with user name, date and time, and results. Students have to complete the exercise successfully before exiting. They are given several tries and online tips. In all of my language courses, part of the homework is self-correcting, the idea being to make the student more autonomous and responsible for his/her day-to-day learning process. I find this program particularly useful when it comes to improving the use of spelling, verb forms and accents (that they have to type correctly). In general, practice with ELFE forces students to improve dramatically in these categories, and the results are visible in the written assignments. However, it has to be noted that the use of ELFE would not be optimal without the grammar and practice review files stored online on Blackboard, and the online self-correcting exercises freely available on the Internet.

Regarding assessment, I created a specific assessment approach for the intermediate courses, with focus on communication and culture. The goal is to test the grammatical categories relevant to Intermediate French tasks according to ACTFL guidelines. Assessment includes quizzes on these categories as well as on culture, short essays (corrected twice) and a final formal presentation, accompanied by a PowerPoint document. The material covered may be reviewed online with the help of the online review file arranged according to grammatical categories. As an ACTFL Tester, I also test all French students through standardized interviews modeled after ACTFL OPI interviews. An OPI interview allows the tester to measure the general level at which a given student is able to perform, and the specific tasks this student can or cannot perform well. At the end of last semester, all Intermediate I French students were at the Mid-Intermediate level or higher but one (Intermediate Low). The data available through the course assessment function on Blackboard 6 allows for measuring student’s involvement online day by day, hour by hour, thus enabling the instructor to analyze preparation trends both collectively and individually. Demonstrated outcomes can also be measured more traditionally through student evaluations and student retention rate from one level to the next. For the Intermediate courses described above, student evaluations have shown very positive responses in all categories including course’s format. The retention rate measured after Intermediate II French was satisfactory last year, since 75% of students continued with French, taking an advanced course or going abroad to study French further. Next semester, in Intermediate II, I am planning to revert to the youth subculture theme. The study of this topic will be based on a novel and a movie, both already used in previous semesters: Les Petits Enfants du siècle, by Christiane Rochefort and Le Thé au harem d’Archimède, by Mehdi Charef (students also buy the novel, Le Thé au harem d’Archi Ahmed). Support online is provided for both, under the form of vocabulary lists, internet downloads on the particular works and related topics, links, and work done on these novels by students in previous classes. These student’s postings are recycled on the new site. The topic is also studied through songs and popular culture from France and other Francophone countries, the lyrics and images being available on the Internet. The Internet material adds value (and context) to the texts. I should mention that I have developed a similar model for upper-level literature and culture courses. Obviously, developing courses in this format may take time initially, however once they have been developed, it is a quick and easy process to maintain, adapt and enhance them, as long as the supporting environment and technological tools (classroom with computer-projection, in particular) are well supported by the particular institution.

While access to a classroom with computer-projection facilities or potential is imperative, especially when one does not use a regular textbook, access to an interactive classroom with 20 or so individual workstations in network should be implemented whenever possible. I use such a room frequently, to prepare a paper in groups, complete an Internet-based assignment, show video clips, or generally work on spoken and written French. It facilitates collaborative work and makes instant research on a topic possible. Typically, this kind of computer room, very similar in its purpose to the rooms used for laboratory sessions in sciences, is used in combination with a streaming server, and download of movies, live TV, web cams and other materials from the Internet may be easier than in the classroom. It may include printers, a sympodium station allowing the instructor to use both analog and digital material (and thus switch from VCR/DVD/TV to smart board or Internet via desktop and/or console) and a hard drive with sufficient memory to digitize and edit analog material quickly. It may also include features such as CAN-8 VirtuaLab, a useful authoring program to manage audio training, create activities for the five skills, track students’ performances, and store video and audio files as well as other documents.

In my courses, I use CAN-8 (a product of Steffri Multimedia Inc.) in order to enhance the listening, speaking and writing abilities of the students, both in and outside of class. Creating activities directly on the program, or indirectly through links to pre-arranged files such as short edited segments of video recordings and other documents stored on U or V drives, is an extremely quick and easy process. I have used the material created by selecting some relevant activities combining mostly listening and speaking (and/or) writing, and assigning these activities (tests, practice) in class. I use no more than four short listening and speaking activities per session in Elementary French, while in Intermediate French I use longer segments linked to video clips, songs, pictures, texts, and recordings. I have used CAN-8 in combination with Blackboard forums and material, Word documents or Internet activities, an extremely quick and interactive way to combine the five skills. All students’ performances can be archived, allowing for better assessment. I also use my ACTFL sample interviews stored on CAN-8 to prepare students for ACTFL tests. Finally, the Babylon environment in CAN-8 allows me to efficiently manage speaking activities by tracking in real time groups of two to four students selected automatically or manually. This virtual environment modifies the traditional classroom setting, forcing students to interact not just with their usual group partners but with everybody in the class. All CAN-8 activities can be easily managed from my office, allowing me to use office hours to offer more practice time to students who need it.

A computerized language learning center also allows me to prepare students better, technically and otherwise, for the final project. The final project is an opportunity for groups of students to give presentations on PowerPoint on a wide array of subjects linked to the course’s topic, and use technology to facilitate the presentation linguistically and otherwise, by incorporating music, pictures, recordings, or slides. The projects are recycled and archived online. They are also part of the online portfolio material required from all majors. Finally, from the point of view of the students proper, working even more closely with fellow students on a meaningful group project at the end of the semester may alleviate the increased stress that inevitably comes with the proximity of final examinations and the writing of term papers in French or other courses.

There is no question that combining the use of the Internet with that of a course management system adds potential value to a language course, as long as the instructor is willing to become an effective mediator between the material available and the student [8]. This implies that sufficient preparation time is taken to plan ahead the coherence of the course for the semester to come, unit by unit, day by day, session by session. The interactive syllabus (also on Blackboard) should be more than a textbook’s table of contents, and market the logic that presides over the learning process. In this process, transitions and integration of all materials is essential, as is the multiplication of learning styles. With practice one develops an ability to improvise within this structure and modify material and/or material presentation, according to learning objectives. Thus it seems that the main reason for combining Internet and course management systems is to extend the institutional space of the classroom to a virtual classroom (in and outside of class) while facilitating class management. Using this combination of tools makes the learning of French more efficient, but also more attractive. While some students are already fluent in computer technology and/or familiar with this model of teaching, other students acquire in the French class a competency that may be useful for other classes and tasks related to information technology. This competency is consistent with that required by most institutional policies, at a time in which technology is emphasized in Humanities departments. Furthermore, students can compare their performance at various times during the semester, since they are archived online, and acquire the habit of using technology in French. Conversely, instructors can share the online material on pre-arranged sites, making team-teaching and other aspects of the teaching dialogue easier. Finally, this combination gives the learner a better access to French and Francophone cultures, and more forums to discuss them. The communicative competencies are achieved through the acquisition of the cultural competency, itself enhanced by the technological tools mastered in the language class.


[1] For instance, Pat Miller presents her use of WebCT in «My Life as an Infomercial: On Time, Teaching and Technology», Profession, New York, The Modern Languages Association of America, 2001, pp. 137-141. Lina Lee explores a combination of Internet technologies for advanced foreign language students in “Going beyond Classroom Learning: Acquiring Cultural Knowledge via Online Newspapers and Intercultural Exchanges via Online Chat Rooms” (Calico, San Marcos, Texas, 1998, vol. 16, num. 2, pp. 101-120.) Back

[2] 1-2 are adapted from the «ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines--Speaking» (revised 1999), in Elvira Swender, ed., ACTFL OPI Interview Tester Training Manual, ACTFL (American Council On The Teaching of Foreign Languages) Publications, Yonkers, New York, 1999, pp. 116-117. Back

[3]On this notion of describing languages from the outside (versus the inside), see Henri Besse, «Enseigner la compétence de communication», Le Français dans le monde, Paris, 1980, vol. 153, p. 42. Back

[4] See the «Guidelines for Evaluating Work with Digital Media in the Modern Languages» presented by the Modern Language Association Committee on Emerging Technologies in Media and Research, and approved by the MLA Executive Council on May 19-20, 2000 ( Back

[5] Raymond Perry, Verena Menec and C. Ward Struthers, «Student Motivation from a Teacher’s Perspective», in Robert Menges, Marilyn Weimer and Associates, Teaching on Solid Ground: Using Scholarship to Improve Practice, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996, p. 77. Back

[6]John Tucker Mitchell and Mary Lynn Redmond, «Rethinking Grammar and Communication», Foreign Language Annals, New York, Spring 1993, vol. 26, p. 14. Back

[7] See Bernadette Grandcolas, «La communication dans la classe de français langue étrangère», Le Français dans le monde, Paris, 1980, vol. 153, p. 54. Back

[8] See on this topic «Wired U: A Round Table on Education and Technology» in Pomona College—Spring Lecture Series: Critical Reflections on Liberal Education, available at and Gregory C. Farrington, «New Technologies and the Future of Residential Undergraduate Education», in Educom Review (July/August 1999), available at Back

Works cited:

Benaïssa, Aïcha; Ponchelet, Sophie. Née en France, Histoire d’une jeune beur, Paris, Presses Pocket, 1990, 139 pp.

Besse, Henri. “Enseigner la compétence de communication”, Le Français dans le monde, Paris, 1980, vol. 153, pp. 41-47.

Charef, Mehdi. Le Thé au harem d’Archi Ahmed, Paris, Mercure de France, 1983, 185 pp. Le Thé au harem d’Archimède, Paris, October Films, 1984.

Farrington, Gregory C. “New Technologies and the Future of Residential Undergraduate Education”, Educom Review, July/August 1999. (< a href=>

Grandcolas, Bernadette. “La communication dans la classe de français langue étrangère”, Le Français dans le monde, Paris, 1980, vol. 153, pp. 53-57.

Lee, Lina. “Going Beyond Classroom Learning: Acquiring Cultural Knowledge via Online Newspapers and Intercultural Exchanges via Online Chat Rooms”, Calico, San Marcos, Texas, 1998, vol. 16, num. 2, pp. 101-120.

Menges, Robert; Weimer, Marilyn and Associates. Teaching on Solid Ground: Using Scholarship to Improve Practice, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996, 406 pp.

Miller, Pat. “My Life as an Infomercial: On Time, Teaching and Technology”, Profession, New York, 2001, The Modern Language Association of America, pp. 137-141.

Mitchell, John Tucker and Redmond, Mary Lynn. “Rethinking Grammar and Communication”, Foreign Language Annals, New York, Spring 1993, vol. 26, pp. 13-19.

Modern Language Association Committee on Emerging Technologies in Media and Research, “Guidelines for Evaluating Work with Digital Media in the Modern Languages” (Guidelines approved by MLA Executive Council on May 19-20, 2000). (

Pomona College—Spring Lecture Series: Critical Reflections on Liberal Education (

Rochefort, Christiane. Les Petits Enfants du siècle, Paris, Grasset, 1961, 122 pp.

Steele, Ross. La Civilisation progressive du français avec 300 activités, Paris, CLé International/VUEF, 2002, 191 pp.

Stillman, David; Gordon, Ronni L. The Ultimate French Review and Practice. Mastering French Grammar for Confident Communication, Chicago, Passport Books, 1999, 436 pp.

Swender, Elvira, ed. «ACTFL OPI Interview Tester Training Manual», ACTFL (American Council On The Teaching of Foreign Languages) Publications, Yonkers, New York, 1999, 128 pp.