Empty-headed linguists? French undergraduates and learning transfer

Authors: Fran├žoise Close and Mike Fay


This study describes an attempt to encourage some advanced learners of French as a foreign language (A-level plus two years) at Anglia Polytechnic University (APU) to develop some strategies and skills applicable both to language learning and to other knowledge domains. We examine what happened during a three-week learning and teaching sequence; we re-examine the principles and assumptions on which the teaching was based; and we draw conclusions pertinent to attempts to achieve similar ends, at APU and perhaps elsewhere. Our title is a wry reference to the stereotype, common within British Higher Education, of foreign language proficiency as a mere skill requiring only low-level cognitive activity.

Table of contents

1. The study

The study is an observational description of five hours teaching and learning. It is ethnographic, a piece of action research: non-replicable, but intended as a first step towards generating hypotheses for subsequent, more empirical study. Viewpoints are mainly those of Mike Fay, the module teacher and of Françoise Close, who had previously taught the module, observed one class, and examined tape recordings, transcriptions and written data collected. These are supplemented by students' views, some elicited via a questionnaire, some gathered from remarks made in assessed portfolios, and some points from informal conversation. Video or audio recordings were made of three two-hour classes on 7th, 14th and 21st November 2000 (weeks 7-9 of a twelve-week teaching semester), while other information was obtained by looking at examination scripts and portfolio assessments, as well as the questionnaire. We discuss and evaluate the overall learning experience as well as the fit between APUs Generic Graduate Outcomes the knowledge base expected of every student who graduates from Anglia Polytechnic University and the outcomes of this learning sequence.

2. Teaching and learning

2.1 The module

Advanced French 3 was taken in 2000-2001 by 21 second and third year students who formed two teaching groups. It is designed for students who on entry to the module have A-level (or equivalent) plus one year of French at university. Marks obtained are counted towards their degree classification. Intended outcomes include:

  • to be able to demonstrate language knowledge in written and spoken French;
  • to discuss contemporary cultural issues in French;
  • to discuss different registers of French;
  • to construct written texts in an academic register;
  • to translate and summarize texts appropriate to this level.

No translation exercise was undertaken during the sequence discussed here, all classes being conducted entirely through the medium of French. Assessment of the part of the module in which this sequence was located included:

  • A one and a half hour examination taken in January 2001 which tested students' ability to synthesize three written texts. One of the texts was studied during this teaching sequence; the two others were thematically related (see appendix). None was unseen;
  • An optional assessed portfolio of work done by students during the module. This included written work arising out of this sequence as well as an overall self-assessment of progress made. For this delivery, six out of twenty one students submitted portfolios.

Prior to this sequence students had practised reformulating key ideas from texts, often orally in pairs or small groups, leading to three types of text summary:

contraction of single texts for academic purposes (le résumé de type contraction) ;
a situated account of the content of a single text in a professional context (le compte rendu); and a situated synthesis of several texts (la synthèse de textes) .

Some but not all students had submitted these practice exercises to the teacher for correction and feedback and were to include them in their (optional) assessed portfolio of work. Students' chief source of written information on the three genres were abridged versions of pages extracted from French manuals on writing procedures and strategies , interpolated in the module dossier (see References). Strategy and skills training was overt: we aimed to lay enough emphasis on it for activities to merit the term direct instruction rather than the less explicit embedded instruction (O'Malley and Chamot: 153).

2.2 Intentions

Assumptions underpinning the entire teaching sequence were that

  1. Language acquisition would be enhanced by students assuming a role, a purpose and an intended outcome for their reading, speaking and writing;
  2. Students should be encouraged to activate and share prior knowledge relevant to the topics studied;
  3. Communicating information and opinions to others would provide students with spoken input and output and help them to develop their linguistic proficiency;
  4. Students would exercise and develop some worthwhile cognitive as well as linguistic skills;
  5. Students would be able to transfer learning to new contexts.

Students were asked to assume the role of marketing consultants advising a chain of supermarkets on how best to project a brand image to the socio-economic group represented by the readership of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur (NO). Overall, students had to read, take notes, compare and discuss findings in both small-group and whole-class formats, and finally write one practice compte-rendu and one practice synthèse de textes for correction by the teacher and eventual inclusion in the portfolio. We now discuss the results of their activities, as evidenced in classroom recordings, portfolio exercises, examination performance, and questionnaire feedback.

2.3 Evidence from the classroom

2.3.1 Transfer and the tasks proposed

In the initial stages of the sequence one sees evidence that students transferred prior knowledge to the learning task, but analysis of what they actually did with that knowledge rather throws into question the appropriateness of the term transfer. If we are to use the term, it has to be understood as an interaction between prior knowledge, new data, and the students' intentions.

On 7th November students were given back numbers of Le Nouvel Observateur and asked to find the answer to three questions:

  1. Who reads the NO?
  2. Why do they read it?
  3. What is there of interest in the magazine?

On 14th November they were asked to resume the role of marketing specialists and to read the article Les Hypermarché (see Appendix) in order to find out what they could about the attitudes of the NO readership towards hypermarkets. They discussed these questions in groups before participating in a teacher-led whole class discussion. These tasks required students to activate prior knowledge. They had to confront new data against their existing world knowledge and make some inferences. This was in line with a view of language comprehension as an active and complex process in which individuals construct meaning from written information (Anderson 1985, quoted in O'Malley and Chamot 1990:33). A key moment in the process is known as elaboration (O'Malley and Chamot 1990:35). This consists of making meaningful connections between new input and relevant information in long-term memory. From the perspective of knowledge transfer, this represents both the activation of prior knowledge and its transfer: new data is matched against representations stored in long-term memory. We might note in passing that the concept of elaboration is compatible with and provides at least a partial account of constructs such as Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (see for example Frawley and Lantolf,1984) and Krashens i + 1 (Mitchell and Myles: 145; 126). Both of these incorporate a notion of learning readiness which can be explained as learners being able to make meaningful connections between new and old knowledge during elaboration.

On 7th November the aim was that students should skim and scan for information using their prior knowledge of magazine layout as a guide, rather than using bottom-up processing of incoming data starting at top left of page 1. All skimmed and scanned, some taking notes; on the audio tape it is difficult to identify individual students but one hears them verbally identifying elements of information to each other:

Il y a des agences matrimoniales

Des vacances aussi en Espagne des gîtes en Finlande aussi

Il y a un article concernant la vache folle

Il y a peut-être la vache folle en France

They quickly infer information, sometimes in a collaborative fashion:

Une fois par an c'est ça je pense

Je pense que c'est euh
pour rencontrer des gens

Des gens qui veulent être au courant de ce qui se passe dans le monde quelque chose comme ça

There was also one example of using prior knowledge of French culture (a comparison between Le Nouvel Observateur and L'Express). There was a prolonged attempt by one student to understand the distinctions between une grande surface, un hypermarché and une galerie marchande in terms of named British or American shopping complexes, which can be explained as an attempt to invoke a schema. Problems with lexis provoked requests for translations (of range, shopper, convenient) while utilisation of prior knowledge was evident in one false friend (Moyen Age used for middle-aged) and a larger number of anglicisms (le content*, des exhibitions*, des préjudices*, les affaires courantes*, le langage est influential*) hypothesised forms (les liseurs, le chenal used inappropriately) and overgeneralisation of the lexical field covered by événement (a calque of event as used in the English term events secretary).

O'Malley and Chamot (148) note that beginning learners of L2 use transfer as a major strategy, while Intermediate and Advanced students use it rather less. The evidence of this recording is that even Advanced learners do so during the initial stages of a new second language task, or perhaps a task in a new lexical domain. One might go on to infer that the presence of obvious transfer strategies can only reflect a transitional competence in the new domain, and that the comparative scarcity of such features in the students' subsequent exam scripts (see Appendix) reflects their growing familiarisation with the subject matter and task type. If so, the amount of language transfer behaviour evidenced is not a direct function of proficiency but is inversely related to task and domain familiarity, at whatever level of proficiency. At the outset of an L2 learning sequence there is more of a mismatch between students' (L1-mediated) prior knowledge and their ability to reformulate that knowledge in the target language, as can be seen from the following sequence which occurred during whole-class follow-up to the groupwork we have just seen:

Professeur Etes-vous prêts à mettre en commun vos ré;ponses à cette question? A ces questions? Jean? Je peux vous demander de commencer? Euh vous direz ce que vous avez trouvé; et les autres diront s';ils sont d';accord ou s';il y a autre chose à ajouter.
Jean Je pense que les gens eduqué;s euh qui travaillent et euh qui gagnent d';argent
Professeur Oui
Jean Et qui sont au Moyen Age
Professeur Moyen Age?
Jean Erm non (rire) erm
Professeur Vous savez? "Middle aged"? Entre deux âges
Jean Et mmm
Professeur Excusez-moi, je vous ai interrompue (pause) Deuxième question? Oui on va voir si les autres sont d';accord (pause) Allez-y Joan
Joan Je pense que les liseurs sont plus jeunes que le Moyen Age mais aussi les
Professeur Le Moyen Age c';est
Joan Middle Ages but what is it in French?
Professeur Entre deux âges (rire gé;né;ral)
(à Ellen) Qu';est-ce que vous diriez, vous, en français?
Ellen Ben entre deux âges
Joan Entre deux âges
Professeur Entre deux âges on est poli en France
Joan Excusez-moi
Professeur Vous alliez poser une question, non?
Joan Non (rire) pas après ça
Professeur Non vous aviez une observation inté;ressante
Joan Ce sont mm les pers les gens qui pensent que mmm les gens qui pensent oui et mmm peut-être l';âge
n';est pas important peut-être c';est la vingtaine mais soixantaine mmm ce n';est pas important l';âge
mais ce sont les gens qui veulent mmm qui veulent mmm être informé;s avec les les les mmm choses
de le jour de la jour du jour.

The lecturer is asking quite a lot from the students in this sequence. The social stakes are fairly high, since individuals are being asked to speak in front of the class on a new topic; moreover the students knew that the sequence was being recorded. The focus is informational, but there are unfamiliar linguistic demands, and two faux amis make their appearance. The lecturers attempt to correct Jean's Moyen Age (which means the Middle Ages rather than middle-aged) causes her to lose her informational thread. When Joan comes to the rescue she introduces another inappropriate lexical item (liseur means a bookworm rather than a reader) and returns the misuse of Moyen Age to circulation. Correction makes her lose her informational thread and she has to be persuaded to continue. Her final long utterance seems to indicate that the informational demands of the task are conflicting with linguistic demands, since one can assume that in less stressed circumstances she would have no trouble with the gender of jour. The tape extract thus indicates the kind of pressure points which can arise at the beginning of a learning sequence if one is teaching for transfer: some kinds of transfer are undesirable, while the social, linguistic and informational demands being made of students need to be predicted, balanced, and managed in an ongoing way.

2.3.2 Evidence from the classroom: 21st November 2000

The recording of 21st November was technically the most successful. The microphone was alternately placed at the front of the class (to record whole-class work) and on a table shared by the same three or four students (to capture some group work). Group-work students' orientation to the equipment seems to vary during the recording between different degrees of acceptance: some inhibition; occasionally turning the microphone away; but also amusement, tolerance, a willingness to give the lecturer what he wishes, moments of playing to the gallery, and perhaps some forgetting of the microphones presence. The construction we have placed on the (admittedly commonplace) classroom events captured by the recording has been modified more than once during the processes of transcription, analysis, background reading, and discussion.

Lesson aims were that students should:

  1. Pool their existing knowledge of the importance of street markets within everyday French culture and likely attitudes towards them;
  2. Read an article from Le Nouvel Observateur understanding the author's and by implication the readership's stance towards the subject matter, including an appreciation of humour and irony;
  3. Plan a motivated written summary of the article: a compte rendu, or account provided in a professional context rather than the more academic résumé;
  4. Develop some aspects of their competence in spoken and written French by undertaking a number of tasks aimed at promoting comprehension, reformulation, and negotiation of meaning.
Time devoted to each activity (in minutes) was approximately as follows:
Activity Minutes
1. Teacher's instructions and information to the whole class 17
2. Silent reading of the article Le Marché Richard-Lenoir 20
3. Transitions between activities 3
4. Whole class pooling of information 14
5. Supervised pooling of information 5
6. Unsupervised pooling of information (within group, without teacher) 24

Analysis of activities 4 and 6 was particularly instructive for the lecturer in the sense that unexpected things took place.

Activity 4

For this activity, students were asked to read the articleLe Marché Richard Lenoir and update their views in the light of any new information it contained. All nine members of the group were then gathered in a semi-circle to pool and compare their views, the lecturer orchestrating. The lecturer's assumptions in choosing this whole-group format included the following:

  1. He would be able to control the turn-taking economy, ensuring a more equal distribution of chances to contribute;
  2. He could provide linguistic and informational feedback;
  3. He could control the balance between linguistic and informational feedback.

He also assumed that this would come at a price: students would have fewer turns than in group-work. Although the episode appears from the recording to have been a happy and educational one, the assumptions are to some extent challenged by the recording. In particular it seems that the lecturer had to strike a moment-to-moment balance between a traditional directive role which tended to inhibit students drawing on prior knowledge and a certain momentary dethronement at points where students felt they had equal rights to contribute their own prior knowledge and viewpoint to the conversational event.

The section lasts ten minutes and thirty seconds. The lecturer took 36 turns, Joan 20, Marie 15, Anita 6, Ellen 4, Katy 2, Jean 1 and Martin 1. Follow-up to student responses mainly focussed on information rather than on form, whether lexis, morpho-syntax, or pronunciation. One unsolicited and possibly premature attempt at supplying a correct lexical item had the effect of shutting the student up for the remainder of the section. However a number of students asked other members of the group or the lecturer to correct them. In discourse terms this is a marked form: in normal conversation one corrects oneself (Schegloff, Jefferson and Sacks 1977). The behaviour furnishes some welcome evidence that learners co-constructed the exchange with the lecturer and other members of the group as a learning exercise. There was also some student self-correction, occasional correction by others, but a large number of requests for help with lexis. Requests for help reversed the teacher-led direction of the interaction: requests for help with language items were only mildly disruptive of teacher-led discussion, but requests for cultural or background information tended to produce a certain healthy disorder, provoking conversational overlaps and self-initiated information supply by the more vocal members of the group. It was as though they felt as well-qualified as the lecturer to supply information on topics other than the actual target language.

Activity 6:

Four students were recorded during two episodes of unsupervised group-work: Ellen, Jean, Martin, and Marie. They were asked

  1. to pool any relevant knowledge they already had about street markets in France; and
  2. to speculate about the image readers of Le Nouvel Observateur would have of street markets.

An initial analysis of conversational turns showed that Martin had 9 turns, Ellen 6, Marie 5 and Jean 2. Martin and Ellen appear relaxed, with Martin in particular laughing more than the others; Marie (the only non-native speaker of English) appears anxious, speaks rapidly and at times unintelligibly; Jean speaks infrequently, softly but in comparatively well-formed utterances. Martin's greater share of turns at speaking are not the result of greater fluency. Overall the learners produced 22 turns overall in just under six minutes. It was noticeable that:

  1. turns were very unequally distributed, one female student achieving just two turns;
  2. two of the students appeared more relaxed and empowered than the other two;
  3. the male student took risks and achieved turn-taking dominance but the (marginally) most dominant female set the agenda;
  4. there were a number of examples of self-correction and appeals for help.

We can conclude that students tried to push themselves and help each other and that learning consequently took place, but that social dynamics affected the distribution of conversational turns and perhaps therefore of learning opportunities. The same sequence was analysed again from the point of view of communication strategies, using Yule and Tarones (1997:20) taxonomy as a point of reference. This distinguishes between achievement/compensatory strategies (e.g. approximation, circumlocution, exemplification); reduction strategies (e.g. message abandonment, topic avoidance) and interactive strategies (e.g. appeal for assistance, mime). This second inspection indicated that:

  1. Jean used no communication strategies during this episode; her interventions were limited in number but to the point. She either required no extra-linguistic strategic assists, or lapsed into silence when words failed;
  2. Marie's favourite compensatory strategies were circumlocution and exemplification. It was left to the other participants to infer what she actually meant, but speed of delivery and frequent changes in tack made it hard to reconstruct the meaning from the recordings. On the recording the other students did not pick up on her points: it seems they were not comprehensible under real-time conditions. She was active, producing a lot of output, but did not succeed in getting the native British students to direct their input towards her;
  3. Martin's interventions were less positive than at first appeared and included a certain amount of topic avoidance or steering onto safer terrain. During this interaction he appears to have been consulting a pocket dictionary and directing conversation towards useful lexical items which he wanted to display. There is a certain amount of jockeying between him and Ellen, who addresses the task at a more conceptual level and uses more achievement and interactive strategies.

The interest of this type of analysis is in the type of pedagogic interventions it suggests. Intervention would address the areas of turn distribution and types of communication strategy deployed in small-group work. Interpersonal skills appear to be eminently transferable from native language contexts, but there is some dispute in the SLA literature about the pedagogic utility of teaching communication strategies. Tarone is in favour of teaching some communication strategies (Yule and Tarone 1997: 18) but James (1990:209) comments acidly on language teachers' encouragement of what may simply be avoidance strategies; his views are shared by Kellerman (Kasper and Kellerman, 1997). Within this group of learners, Ellen did not appear to need instruction on ways of keeping going and getting the message across somehow: one might infer that she was transferring L1 discourse knowledge to the L2 situation. In contrast Jean might benefit if she had more ways of making regular intervention on the direction of the conversation . Marie might also benefit if it were pointed out that her circumlocutory and exemplificatory strategies were indirect and relied on shared co-reference with other participants. Martin appears a completely different case, only just hanging in there and perhaps more in need of linguistic than strategic instruction at this juncture. Our point here is that the utility of teaching communication strategies is likely not to admit of a simple yes/no resolution but to be a matter of investigation into which kinds of student needs are best addressed by which kinds of teaching strategy at which moments. We return to this in section 4 below.

A final point from our analysis of this sequence is that we probably needed to get students to disagree more often. Although the more speculative second exercise provoked students into attempting more ambitious utterances, there was little sorting and comparing of information between students, and consequently little chance of their having to verbally negotiate their way through disagreements or differences in perspective. If one takes the view that verbally resolving differences encourages learners to reformulate and clarify their language and thinking, and thus helps push on their proficiency, the task needs redesigning in order to prevent the kind of foreclosure of discussion which appeared to satisfy students on this occasion.

To sum up, data from the recordings tends to show that in class

  1. Students were socially supportive and co-operative;
  2. They made requests for linguistic and other information;
  3. Speaking rights were unequally distributed, possibly limiting some students' opportunities to increase proficiency;
  4. They transferred prior knowledge to tasks;
  5. They were active cognitively as well as linguistically, though perhaps not as much as we would have wished: they took notes, matched new against prior knowledge, made inferences, and orally summarised information.

The recordings give a November picture of a group of students who are high on social strategies, and middling on cognitive strategies. There is little evidence of metacognitive or self-management learning strategies, though these are hard to obtain without using self-report techniques. During the three-week sequence of recordings the students appear to make linguistic progress; we have no evidence of their spoken proficiency after this period, but written data was provided by the January examination.

2.4 Portfolios

Six portfolios were made available by students for inspection within this study. The model of portfolio adopted parallels rather than draws upon the model disseminated by the TransLang project (Pilkington 2000). All six students included an initial self-evaluation, a self-presentation, and an end-of-module self-evaluation. All students did grammar exercises and all except one included a practice synthèse de texte; as part of her preparation one had made use of the (previously taught) grille de lecture technique of confronting information from different texts. The main difference was in the nature of the diary exercise undertaken. Most students wrote in French about their activities: films they had viewed, participation in the department's French Society, or attendance on a French language course in Paris attended during the vacation. However the journal kept by the most successful learner as judged by the exam results was kept at much greater length. It is a narrative of self-regulation as a language learner, full of fears, celebrations of successes, comparisons with other students, and occasional tart remarks about the lecturer. It also records conversations with native speakers who had been sought out and cultivated; contacts seem to have been social and intercultural but also touched on linguistic points and the whole project of second language development. This journal is the single most important indication of student self-regulation and reflection on learning to come out of the study.

2.5 Examination scripts

The end of module examination is included in the Appendices. Scripts were returned to the students after the examination period and have been consulted and reproduced with their permission for the purposes of this study. On the whole, students were awarded higher marks for their text synthesis than for the quality of their language. Assessment criteria included respect for conventions; text organisation; identification of key information, as well as clear or at least comprehensible expression. Example extracts from examination scripts are included in the appendices.

2.6 Student questionnaire responses

Module evaluation returns by students in December were supportive of the approach taken to the teaching and learning, but only 15 out of 21 students continued to the semester 2 module Advanced French 4. Time constraints prevented us from asking student participants in this study to comment on the tapes and transcriptions, but 11 Advanced French 4 students completed a questionnaire in May 2001 about certain aspects of the Advanced French 3 case study. Responses to some key questions were as follows:

Q1 What do you think you mainly got out of Advanced French 3?

Confidence in speaking, greater spoken fluency (4)
Grammar (2)
Synthèse skills (2)
Vocabulary ( 2)
Improved written French (2)
Reading skills (2)
Self-learning (1)
Thinking about registers (1)
Reading real French articles (1)
Academic ways of study (1)
Actual issues in France rather than just the language itself (1)

Q2 Do you think you were able to bring any prior knowledge, strategies or skills (e.g. things learned in other modules; in previous education; at work; in social life etc.) to Advanced French 3 and 4?

Yes 6
No 3
No response 2

Yes responders cited prior qualifications, previous language modules, life experience, social life, a study skills module, a teaching degree, English essay writing and formal vocabulary.

Q3 Do you think you have been able to use knowledge, strategies and skills acquired in Advanced French 3 and 4 in other contexts (e.g. in other modules; at work; in social life etc.?)

Yes 6
No 2
No response 3

Examples of transfer cited were:
Learning transferred from Advanced French 3 and 4 To which other contexts?
French language, culture To Spanish (and) the France and Modernisation module
Résumé, compte rendu etc Other modules
Vocabulary/grammar Other French modules
Paragraph structure of essays Psychology essay
Presentation skills For work
French history Cinéma françis module
Essay skills, research skills English writing

In addition students were asked to evaluate how well the modules met their intended outcomes (section 3.1 above); APUs Generic Graduate Outcomes menu (section 4 below); and a checklist of features of learning strategy teaching derived from OMalley and Chamot. Results from the rather small sample were positive, mainly that the modules did so very well or quite well rather than not very well.

3. Discussion

3.1 Overview of learning outcomes

Broadly speaking the study of this teaching sequence shows that:

  1. In classroom interaction in November, students made a lot of use of social learning skills and strategies;
  2. Between November and the January exam, students learned how to do synthèse de texte. In skillspeak, they proceduralised cognitive strategies of identifying information, inferring connections, paraphrasing, transforming and reorganising data for a new audience and purpose;
  3. The data available shows only one student making sustained use of metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies;
  4. There was transfer of knowledge into the learning sequence which was picked up by the recordings, and near transfer of skills from learning tasks to the examined task;
  5. Subsequent questionnaire responses indicated that students felt they had transferred knowledge learned during this module to other modules on their course;

3.2 Critique

It is now possible to critique the students' learning experience in terms of teaching for transfer, instruction in learning strategies, levels of transfer facilitated, and applicability to Anglia Polytechnic University's Generic Graduate Outcomes.

3.2.1 Learning strategies and level of transfer

In Advanced French 3 there was explicit training in the skills required for summary but perhaps not enough clarity about the need to enlist metacognitive strategies as well as social and cognitive ones. Although students wrote introductory texts about themselves no attempt was made to model a variety of learning or cognitive styles. More modelling of performance, by native as well as non-native speakers could be provided. There appeared to be good support and practice opportunities but explicit self-evaluation was left to the volunteers undertaking the portfolio, which itself could be restructured to lay more emphasis on reflection and self-management as well as evidence of learning activity. No systematic attempt was made to encourage students to transfer strategies beyond the confines of the module, though some students subsequently felt that they had done so. The depth of transfer captured in the study was in Haskell's terms (see Appendices) to level 4 out of 6.

3.2.2 Applicability to Anglia Polytechnic University's Generic Graduate Outcomes:

The easiest way to evaluate this is by reproducing APUs Generic Graduate Outcomes here, underlining those areas to which this teaching sequence appears to have made a contribution:

  1. Work with confidence both independently and as a member or leader of a group or team.
  2. Demonstrate a capacity for systematic, conceptual and critical thinking.
  3. Show flexible and creative approaches to problem solving.
  4. Communicate clearly and appropriately, demonstrating a sense of audience.
  5. Manage information effectively in a range of media.
  6. Act in an ethical manner, demonstrating political, social and cultural awareness.
  7. Produce output that is literate, numerate and coherent(in whatever form is appropriate).

Additionally one might argue that some sort of contribution was also made to outcomes 2, 3, and 6. It will be seen that the depth of contribution made by this sequence varied from heading to heading but that at this stage the students were by no means at graduate levels. Much work needs to be done to pull this contribution together with students' other learning experiences during the degree course in a way which is meaningful for students, the institution, and other stakeholders including employers. Although such work is often conceived as a sort of written composition exercise for teaching staff (drafting statements of outcomes in documents such as portfolios, learner profiles, module descriptions, level descriptors, generic graduate outcomes), this will not be sufficient even if it is entirely necessary. Meaning ful discourse involves negotiation of meaning: we have to translate a bloodless, interdisciplinary skillspeak into an understanding of what happens when university students study a second language to advanced levels. This requires not just more study of module design and delivery, but also ongoing efforts to promote a common understanding of purpose at all sorts of levels: subject centre, university, department, field, and (lest we forget) within the classroom.

4. Next steps

4.1 Research

Research hypotheses arising out of this study include:

  1. That students' learning will benefit if more systematic attention is paid to metacognitive learning strategies. It may be possible to design a pilot control/experimental group study where the control group are explicitly taught about cognitive and social strategies and only incidentally about metacognitive strategies, while the experimental group receive instruction about cognitive, social and metacognitve strategies.
  2. That some students' learning will benefit if ways are found of equalising conversational turn-taking opportunities in groupwork. This may be through task design (e.g. all students have to explain bits of the text to some other students who are not familiar with it) or through quotas (e.g. you have to wait until your turn comes round again).
  3. That some students' learning will benefit if they are taught a wider range of communication strategies to deploy during spoken interaction in class.

Studies 2 and 3 could be implemented via control and experimental groups once one had identified students who seemed to be losing out in less regulated group contests. In all 3 types of study, introspective data from students would be needed to supplement more objective data from e.g. pre- and post-testing or measures of fluency.

4.2 Improving teaching and learning

Improvements one might make to the Advanced French 3 module include:

  • Greater clarity in the presentation of cognitive, social and metacognitive strategies to students, together with a rationale;
  • Greater definition of the range of portfolio activities;
  • Encouragement of self-regulation and monitoring in the portfolio journal section;
  • Provision of more models of performance, particularly by native speakers. This follows from our reading of O'Malley and Chamot;
  • More exposure to alternative learning styles while avoiding learner self-stereotyping. Perhaps a fashionable topic, but a logical extension of the previous point;
  • Greater attention to the acquisition of lexis, particularly relating new to prior knowledge (definition, association, etc) and classifying items (by meaning, by form, by location etc). Recordings showed that students' lexical acquisition strategies were social as well as inferential; enquiry might be more productively channelled through reference materials made available in the classroom or via other students;
  • Greater use of information and communications technology, particularly internet searches as a means of anchoring new subjects in students' experience. For example, students could have been asked to search for le marché Richard Lenoir on the web (it has been affected by developments to the quartier);
  • Embedding these developments more securely within departmental and institutional contexts. They are a contribution to students modern language degrees, which are a collegial enterprise.

5. Conclusions

Although this study is non-replicable, it perhaps affords certain insights into the notion of transfer as it affects language learning. Though we are urged to teach for transfer (e.g. Haskell 2001), there is little in the general literature to tell us what transferred knowledge actually looks like. The evidence from this classroom however is that as the second language learner moves into an unfamiliar domain, and is forced to deploy learning and communication strategies, linguistic knowledge interacts with other knowledge structures and heuristics.

We may contrast learners' skills (defined as unconscious, proceduralised knowledge) with their strategies (defined as conscious attempts to apply a procedure to a challenging situation). If transfer surfaces as a conscious strategy, this is likely to be in the early stages of task mastery and to reflect only a transitional competence. If on the other hand transfer is successful, it is likely to be sufficiently adapted to the context to have become behaviour which is unmarked to an observer, while from the learner's point of view it will have reverted to the status of unconscious skill. The learners in this study appear to have been engaged in activities that were challenging at that moment in their intellectual and linguistic development, while their later examination performances tend to show that they did not fossilise at the performance levels seen in the body of this paper. Language learning at university may have masterful, unconsciously skilled behaviour as its aim, and assured, linguistically-proficient graduates as its ideal, but its pursuit is a complex, conscious, social and cognitive enterprise. Proficient speakers may or may not be empty-headed, but successful second language learners are not.


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