Foreign Languages for Everyone

As a teacher in training at Calvin College in 2004, I had the opportunity to work as a tutor for the French department. I spent time working for Professor Irene Konyndyk, tutoring students for a new class she was developing called “Multisensory French.” The idea is intriguing: find students who traditionally struggle with learning a language, who have previously failed, or who would normally be exempt from a foreign language requirement, put them all in the same class, and design a course to meet their specific and diverse needs. Konyndyk has spent the latter years of her career designing this program, and has now published her ideas, methods, and recommendations in Foreign Languages for Everyone.

Konyndyk sets a positive tone in her book. She begins with the wonderful assumption that teachers want to see their students succeed and that students also want to be successful. She believes that struggling students will succeed when given the right tools and attention, and frustrated teachers will have energy and enthusiasm to motivate and guide these students. She argues that the problems teachers face with struggling learners occur because students “face special challenges that very few educators have been trained to identify and address” (2).

The positive tone for learners and teachers (yes you can!) is also met with high expectations (yes you will!). Students are expected to sign a contract indicating their commitment to showing up, doing the work, and putting in maximum effort. Organization is paramount—all students organize their binders in the same way, and all handouts are color-coded. Students are given regular, consistent feedback, which is designed to keep them trying and continually revising their work. In order for the students to give maximum effort, the teacher is required to give timely feedback. Konyndyk suggests it is essential to return corrected daily homework and tests to students the next day. She also insists that teachers write scripted, detailed lesson plans so that students can follow carefully: “When it comes to teaching a foreign language to at-risk learners, however, overly vague planning is a recipe for disaster. If a teacher doesn’t plan details, students will have to fill in the details for themselves. This is simply too much to ask of most at-risk learners” (49).

I enjoyed reading this book throughout the fall of the 2013–14 school year, when I was teaching a grade 10 French class with thirty students of varying needs, goals, and talents. My students were not all struggling with a learning disability, and because grade 10 French is an elective, many were there because they had achieved success in grade 9 French the previous year. I found myself both convicted and overwhelmed by Konyndyk’s constant drive to see her students succeed. I wondered, given a typical teaching load of a high school teacher, how much of this method was possible. I wondered also, if I would ever convince the administration of my school to cap a foreign language course at fifteen students!

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