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Lessons in language

A new approach to teaching and learning Core French

By Elwin LeRoux


[dropcap]L[/dropcap]earning the French language has never been more fun or natural for students. 

That’s because teachers are now using a brain-based model for French language learning; one that’s highly interactive, relevant to students’ lives and interests, and anchored in active speaking and listening. It’s called the Neurolinguistic Approach. Canadians Dr. Claude Germain, a professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal, and Dr. Joan Netten, honorary research professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, are behind its development. 

The Neurolinguistic Approach encourages students to learn French by speaking French from the very start. The theory behind this approach is rooted in the natural order of language learning. As toddlers, we learned our first language by speaking, listening and modelling others. Therefore, it’s only natural to acquire an additional language by doing the same. Rather than teaching vocabulary, the Neurolinguistic Approach teaches conversation. Essentially, it’s a student-centered model that encourages learning by doing. 

This approach was originally designed and used for Intensive French, but the strategies have been adopted for the Core French program in Nova Scotia. The model was piloted extensively throughout the province in Grades 4 to 12 and it’s now the basis for the new Grades 4 to 6 Core French provincial curriculum. It’s also being introduced at all grade levels across the province. 

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If you walk into any Core French classroom today, you’ll see students engaged in conversation with one another. You’ll hear them talking about what interests them. You’ll watch them participate in class discussions using full sentences. You’ll notice they’re taking risks in their language learning. In classrooms where the Neurolinguistic Approach is being fully implemented, you’ll also notice they aren’t doing vocabulary or grammar worksheets.

Traditionally, students learning French as an additional language would learn grammar and vocabulary before actively listening and then modelling the language. This approach assumed knowledge about the language was required before learners could speak the language. We now know this isn’t the case. It’s important to recognize that vocabulary and grammar are absolutely important; they’re simply being taught through conversation. 

The Neurolinguistic Approach is flexible and encourages teachers to get to know their students and develop units that are truly reflective of their interests, prior knowledge, lived experiences, and culture. As an example, if students are interested in sports, teachers could develop lessons about the different kinds of sports, what seasons those sports are generally played in and what one might wear while playing those sports. 

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If students are interested in music, they might talk about the various types of music, what part of the world particular music genres comes from, and the instruments students play or might like to play someday. The details around a particular topic are where vocabulary and grammar are learned. 

This new model gives students the opportunity during each lesson to practice what they just learned through reinforcement activities, affectionately known as games. Essentially, they have fun practicing their newfound knowledge in new and different situations.

So far, teachers using the Neurolinguistic Approach are noticing an increase in student participation and engagement. They’re also noticing that students’ confidence around language learning is growing and they’re walking away at the end of a year with something substantial to carry forward.  

Nancy Comeau is Core French Literacy Coach with the Halifax Regional School Board and Gilles Belliveau teaches Core French at East St. Margaret’s Bay Elementary. Please take a few minutes to watch this video, where they explain the Neurolinguistic Approach and what it looks like in action in a class of Grades 4, 5, and 6 students: youtu.be/V_1XRVs_L3k.