Sixth Grade French Students Thrive with Immersive Language Teaching Method

For the first few days (or first couple of weeks) of Scott Kelly’s French class, sixth grade students felt like they were transported out of the Moorestown Friends campus. From the very first lesson, the middle schoolers were completely immersed in the French language, with no English allowed. As the students entered the classroom, “we had to take the English out of our head, put it in our pocket, and then put French into our head.”

The majority of students had no prior exposure to French, apart from being able to say bonjour, so it was striking to see the sixth graders conversing fluidly with each other after one 8-week quarter of lessons. Noticeably absent from the middle schoolers’ conversations were any signs of hesitation or nervous pauses of typical new language learners; the students easily spoke to one another with confidence.

The impressive abilities developed by the sixth graders, in a relatively condensed timeframe, were a result of Middle and Upper School French Teacher Scott Kelly’s shift in his approach to teaching.

“The method is called the Accelerated Integrative Method (AIM), and the philosophy is focused largely on using stories and action as the basis for an immersive language experience,” said Mr. Kelly. “The program is definitely focused on oral communication in the first phase, and the driving force is the story/play that we learn. We do not do any explicit grammar, so if you asked a student to identify a subject pronoun or to conjugate a verb in the present tense, s/he would not know what you were talking about. But if you asked a student to tell a story in French or to answer basic questions, s/he would be able to do that. The goal in the first phase is to have students acquire a good accent/pronunciation and to get them thinking in and using the language from day one, without always needing to translate in their head.”

Presented in the classroom, the AIM method produced activities and lessons such as:

  • Mr. Kelly instructed a student in French to mimic an action (jumping) he was performing, while the rest of the class would excitedly chant the French word (saute) repeatedly.
  • Students dressed up in silly props, such as a tiny green hat or oversized coat, and students were required to describe the items worn by a classmate.
  • Each student in class needed to ask if they could have a drink of water and Mr. Kelly would bring in jugs of water and pour every student a cup.
  • The students studied a short play based off of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” that they then performed live to an audience of fourth graders. They also acted and filmed scenes for the Lower School French Club to watch.
  • Students also frequently used props and hand motions while reading aloud texts.

Through those types of engaging activities, the students were exposed to hundreds of new verbs, nouns, adjectives, and more in the first few weeks, but all vocabulary was introduced in context. Students were not studying a vocabulary list that they needed to memorize through translation.  

“In many language programs, progression is dictated by grammatical concepts and the ‘need to know’ almost seems like an afterthought,” said Mr. Kelly. “The AIM program introduces a wide range of vocabulary that isn’t necessarily related in theme or connected through grammatical concepts. But by having them absorb and use the language as much as possible in a fun way, students see the purpose of what they are learning and they are engaged with what they are learning.”

Many sixth graders offered praise for the teaching approach, unanimously describing French class as “really fun.”

“One of the first things I noticed was that it was a different style of teaching than most classes,” said Olivia. “Because class was interactive with fun games and we repeated words a lot, I was excited to practice and the challenge became easier. Normally I’m the type of person that if I don’t know an answer, I won’t raise my hand. I also can’t pay attention as much when I’m super nervous, but I felt confident to speak in French. Mr. Kelly pushes us and learning French is not easy, everything at first was gibberish, but I learned so much this quarter.”

“One activity we would do was Monsieur Kelly would have mixed up sentences and we had to reorder the words to make sense,” said Annika. “I think that helped us get used to making up our own sentences. Even though we didn’t know every word, we could find a few phrases we did know and infer what was being said.”

“French class also taught me a better way to study, not just for French but for all of my classes,” said Andrew. “We never knew when we would have a quiz or test, but we were always allowed two more chances to retake them again. Since I never knew when I was going to have a pop quiz, I practiced French for a little bit each day because you just cannot cram and study if you never know when you’ll have a test. We all realized that the more we participated in class too, we wouldn’t be so nervous when we had quizzes because we would learn what we needed to know in class. Not having so much pressure to be perfect on the tests and quizzes helped a lot.”

Mr. Kelly introduced the AIM program to his sixth grade classes last year and was pleasantly surprised by how his students absorbed the language.

“This program has produced by far the best results of any first-year/introductory program I’ve ever used in my ten years of teaching, especially with producing excellent, and I mean really impressive, accents and pronunciation,” said Mr. Kelly. “The cyclical progression allows space for all types of language learners because we keep building upon a foundation. There is a lot of cycling back through words and in different contexts as a lot of literature on education and learning tells us that we don’t learn things until the eighth or ninth time of being exposed to it — I mean really learn it and embed it in the long-term memory. But what I think this program does best is it helps kids find meaning for learning the words. That helps them find a spot in their busy heads for French.”

Aside from French, each sixth grader will also have the opportunity to learn Mandarin and Spanish. Students rotate through each of the three world languages, then select one language to continue with and to further study in their Middle and Upper School years.