Academic Exchange Quarterly      Spring    2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  1

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Studying Le Ballon rouge with False Beginners


Jacqueline Thomas, Texas A&M University-Kingsville


Jacqueline Thomas, Ed.D., is Regents Professor of French



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” (IG-7). 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.  Le Ballon rouge is, therefore, both attractive physically and at an appropriate reading level for second-year students.  Thus the novella makes a perfect bridge between studying French grammar and “learning to read” and reading a full-length, authentic French text written for native speakers (albeit those who are still developing their reading skills).


The collaborative approach

In their book  Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom, the experts on collaborative/cooperative learning Johnson, Johnson and Smith describe the following paradigm of teaching. They assert that

  • Knowledge is constructed, discovered, transformed, and extended by students;
  • Students actively construct their own knowledge;
  • Learning is a social enterprise in which students need to interact with their instructor and classmates;
  • Faculty effort is aimed at developing students’ competencies and talents;
  • Education is a personal transaction among students and between faculty and students as they work together;
  • All of the above take place within a cooperative context.  (1:9-1:11)

According to Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, cooperative effort exists “when there is positive interdependence among students’ goal attainments; and students perceive that they can reach their goals if and only if the other students in the group also reach their goals” (1:13).


For cooperation to work well, the instructor has to make sure that positive interdependence exists; in other words, one group member cannot succeed unless everyone in the group succeeds.  In addition, each group member has to be accountable for achieving the group’s goals and for contributing his or her share of the work.  Moreover, group members share resources and “help, support, encourage, and praise each other’s efforts to learn, preferably face-to-face.”  As the students learn academic subject matter, they also learn interpersonal and small group skills.  Careful analysis of how well  group members are working together is essential for determining how group effectiveness can be enhanced (1:22).


Following training in the techniques of collaborative/cooperative learning, I modified the way I teach the second year French class (French 2311), which focuses on reading and writing skills. I devised group activities that would create positive interdependence while holding each student accountable for the group’s success.  All of the activities, including the analysis of how well group members work together, are conducted in French. These activities are described below.


Collaborating to read and write about Le Ballon rouge

The first day of the second-year class I randomly assign students to groups of four and have them answer questions about their prior experience with French.  According to their replies, I assign the students to new groups of four based on their previous language study: those who have spent more time in the classroom are matched with those coming directly from their first year of study.  Students with stronger foreign language skills find themselves in groups with students who have more limited skills. 


As an ice-breaker on the second day of class the students must find interests they have in common and choose a name for their group; this helps them to form a group identity.  As an initial pre-reading exercise, the group members answer questions about activities they engaged in when they were the age of the main character of the book (about 7 years old).  The activities reflect the actions of the story: an only child, whose mother would not allow him to keep stray dogs and cats he found, one day finds a magic balloon that becomes a loyal friend to the lonely boy.  This exercise is designed to activate vocabulary and grammatical structures that students will need to recognize in order to understand the first page of the text.  One member of the group is designated to report on which group members brought home stray dogs and cats, and who liked balloons when they were small, for instance.


Once the group identity has been formed, the groups work—at their own pace—through the packet of activities that I have developed. The packet contains lists of words that are presented in the order in which they appear in the text and are accompanied by their English translation (one list for every one or two pages of text).  Grammar exercises reflect grammatical elements that are presented in the text.  For example, the students review reflexive verbs after reading a page that contains seven examples of reflexive verbs in one paragraph.  Comprehension questions challenge students to read between the lines, analyze and evaluate the story and its characters, and forecast what will happen next.


The groups develop their own strategies for reading the book together (without my help unless they ask for it), answering comprehension questions, reviewing grammar, and writing sentences to describe the photographs in the book.  For example, the first page of text describes the main character, Pascal, and begins the narration of the story.  This page consists of two paragraphs in the imperfect tense (to describe Pascal’s life up to this point) and two paragraphs in the past historic tense (to describe what happened to him one morning on his way to school).  The previous page shows a photograph of the boy climbing a lamppost to reach a balloon that is attached to it.


In their respective groups, the students analyze the differentiated use of the two tenses, and use the vocabulary of the first page to write a sentence describing the photograph.  Their answer sheet (one per group) is put into a folder with the group’s name on it and handed to me to review.  I return the folders at the beginning of the next class and ask them to discuss any corrections and comments I have made.


After they have read the first four pages of text, I test the individual students over their knowledge of the vocabulary and their ability to put verbs from the novella into the imperfect tense.  Groups whose members all score 80% or above on the first test are given a bonus of 5 points for each member.  They are thus encouraged to study together and help each other master the required skills. 


This process is repeated for the remaining pages, including pre-reading exercises and prediction questions such as “How do you think Pascal’s mother will react when he arrives home late from school?”  In response to a stimulus, the students periodically give their personal reaction to events in the story, such as when the school principal locks Pascal in his office and leaves him there.  I also encourage the students to discuss their reactions with the other members of their group.


After the students have read the complete story, answered all the comprehension questions, and completed all the grammatical exercises, they review together for a major exam. Given definitions that I provide, the students are asked to identify characters, objects, and places from the book.  For example, “The person who had neither brothers nor sisters, and who was sad to be on his own in the house” (Pascal).  In their groups, they in turn collaborate to write definitions for their classmates and their teacher to identify.


Before the students take the final exam, they watch the film.  Because the film has virtually no dialog, I can ask them to identify characters from the book as they watch.  For example, pointing to Pascal’s mother as she throws the balloon out of their apartment window, I ask them, “Qui est-ce?” (Who is this?), and they answer without hesitation, “La maman de Pascal.”  By this point in the semester, the gap between the students’ ability has closed measurably, and their confidence has soared because of their collaborative experiences. 


The final assignment, which is individual, requires students to compose dialogue for any ten scenes from the film.  They imagine, for instance, the conversation between Pascal and his mother when the boy arrives home from school (late) with a large, red balloon.  Some undergraduate students of French have proved to be amazingly creative and have enjoyed illustrating this activity with drawings, collages, PowerPoint presentations, and posters.  It is hard to imagine this amount of enthusiasm for an assignment from a traditional second-year text taught non-collaboratively.


The students’ grades are individual and based in part on their dialogue and their performance on the final exam in which they use the vocabulary and grammar they have studied to write about the text.  Students are also rated on their social skills: their ability to cooperate to achieve each goal set for the group.  While this rating is somewhat subjective on my part, I regularly have the students note on their group papers how well each member of the group is contributing.  This activity usually has the effect of making them conscious that they have to show their interdependence.  Rarely have I had to change group members because the dynamics did not work.


Hidden benefits

I have found that the structured group work in which students share resources and help each other understand the authentic text translates into good grades for almost all of the students.  Furthermore, I have seen an improvement in attendance and a better attitude towards the difficult tasks of reading and writing about a French novella.  Particularly gratifying are improved student ratings of instruction that I enjoy at the end of the semester.  Students often write about their sense of personal satisfaction at having undertaken such a challenging task.  The false beginners in particular are proud to become the “experts” in their respective groups because their prior knowledge is activated as they interact with the text and assignments.



Students feel empowered reading Le Ballon rouge.  They understand a complete, authentic text and observe the grammatical constructions that they have previously studied being used in a natural context.  Because they collaborate, even those students who have only previously completed six hours of French successfully read the text with understanding and write about it with confidence. 


My role is to make sure the groups stay on task and to answer questions as they arise.  Sometimes I lecture (for example when they must use the future tense to complete an assignment), but the rest of the time I circulate from group to group, facilitating learning.


The collaborative approach used with an authentic text allows students with differing knowledge and command of French—particularly false beginners—to help each other improve their reading and writing skills.


Works Cited

Bernhart, Elizabeth B, Raymond J. Rivera, and Michael L. Kamil.  “The

Practicality and Efficiency of Web-Based Placement Testing for College-Level Language Programs.”  Foreign Language Annals 37 (2004): 356-66.

Bragger, Jeannette D. And Donald B. Rice.  Quant a moi: Temoignages des Francais et

des francophones.  Instructor’s Annotated Edition.  Boston: Heinle, 1996.

Johnson, David W., Roger T. Johnson, and Karl A. Smith.  Active Learning: Cooperation

in the College Classroom.  Edina, Minnesota: Interaction, 1991. 

Lamorisse, Albert.  Le Ballon rouge.  Paris: L’Ecole des loisirs, 1956.