It’s possible to see WAC elements in introductory foreign language courses. Three-quarters into the semester of a 101-level French course, pair up your students to write a dialogue such as the following: the two speakers discuss how they view certain characters in a French painting from a nearby museum. You, the professor, will have chosen a dozen paintings that are meaty enough to work with, and on the back of each image that you randomly hand out to students it would be good to have background information that the museum provides for that painting. Even if the students end up not having time to visit the museums, the fact that they know that these objects are close by helps to reduce the gap that they may feel between themselves and a culture that is new to them. Back to how this writing assignment can work: each speaker must ask his/her classmate a few questions (to practice the different ways of forming questions), use the negating construction ne…pas to disagree at least twice, and provide a new way of seeing XYZ each time that there is a disagreement. For example: “Non, cet homme n’est pas fatigué ! Il ______________ !” Creating follow-up questions using the interrogative adverb pourquoi (why) would deepen the dialogue. The students’ explanations for what they see will often be creative, but you can tell your students that if their statements are too silly, then that would most likely invite follow-up questions that they may not be able to answer in French, given that only a few chapters of the textbook have been covered so far. The 101-level students will of course not have enough vocabulary to provide in-depth arguments for their viewpoints, but this kind of dialogue in which each speaker defends his/her way of seeing something differently can move students past William Perry’s “middle stages of multiplicity” (Bean 22) and closer to that point when “a real need for reasoned argument begins to emerge” (Bean 22). Thus, students in introductory level foreign language courses are not merely learning to write. They are not limited to filling themselves with data. Writing a dialogue in which a piece of artwork is interpreted from different angles can be seen as a way of writing to learn. Assigning a dialogue that will be collected at the end of class can also make peace between the idea that learning French should be a more conversational type of activity and the idea that students need to be more conscientious about their writing. That each dialogue is being looked over by two students before they hand it in can help to reduce the number of grammatical errors.
When students see themselves able to write comprehensible albeit short paragraphs and dialogues in a language that they have recently learned, this can serve as a kind of support for them when they become frustrated with writing long papers (in their native or near-native language) for their other courses. If students catch themselves writing convoluted paragraphs for their other courses and can’t seem to find a way out for the time being, then thinking back on the short paragraphs and dialogues that they wrote for their introductory foreign language courses can be a reminder of how they have the ability to write clearly. That memory can be what gives them the push to take another stab at revising their convoluted papers for other courses. Happily remembering those short paragraphs and dialogues can take the edge off the stress momentarily, which is not a small thing.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.