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Responding to Characters: A Study of French Learners' Interpretive Skills and Affective Responses to Literature Miranda

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Responding to Characters: A Study of French Learners' Interpretive Skills and Affective Responses to Literature Miranda I. Kentfield Ph.D. Candidate Department of French Original Research Objectives:

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Responding to Characters: A Study of French Learners' Interpretive Skills and Affective Responses to Literature

Miranda I. Kentfield

Ph.D. Candidate

Department of French

Original Research Objectives:

I. Evaluate students’ ability to read and interpret literary texts as they pass from the intermediate to the advanced stages of language learning

  • How successful are French learners at comprehending and interpreting literary texts?
  • What types of interpretive skills do they master at different levels of language learning?
  • Can they identify formal elements of prose narratives and evaluate the relationship between form and ideas/meaning in a text, or are they more comfortable with thematic analysis?
II. Learn about students’ affective responses to characters in prose fiction
  • What sorts of attitudes do students adopt in relation to fictive characters?
  • Under what circumstances do they identify with characters in a story?
  • What traits or dimensions of characters are most appealing or interesting to students?
I developed two separate studies based on excerpts from Hugo’s Les Misérables:
  • A written response task to measure reading comprehension and interpretive skills
  • An oral interview procedure to measure affective response to character
  • I completed the first study on comprehension and interpretation, using a written response protocol.
  • The affective response study was not completed due to time constraints and a lack of upper-division subjects.
Reading Les Misérables: A Study of French Learners’ Developing Ability to Comprehend and Interpret French Literature
research design
Research Design

Two Subject Groups:

27 Intermediate Language Learners

  • Subjects were enrolled in French 4, the fourth semester in Berkeley’s lower-division language sequence

7 Advanced Language Learners

  • Subjects were enrolled in upper division literature courses for which an introductory course, French 102, was a prerequisite.
Assessment Vehicle: A Three-Page Written Task

Students read short paragraphs from Les Misérables

Eight questions to answer

Students may respond in English or in French

At the end, an optional feedback sheet to fill out

Testing Procedure

Time frame: 45-75 minutes (no limit imposed)

Dictionary Usage:

17 Intermediate Subjects did not use a dictionary

10 Intermediate Subjects used a dictionary

Advanced Subjects did not use a dictionary

results of the written task

Results of the Written Task

Comparing the Performance of Intermediate and Advanced Language Learners

Three types of skills were evaluated:

Reading comprehension

Interpretation I: Thematic Analysis

Interpretation II: Formal Analysis

Reading Comprehension

General Definition: An ability to understand and accurately reproduce factual information conveyed by the text.

  • Recount events described
  • Describe traits/characteristics of characters
  • Explain character’s evolution
intermediate learner performance reading comprehension results based on four questions
Intermediate Learner Performance: Reading Comprehension(results based on four questions)
  • Mastery in responding to basic, factual questions.
  • Developing mastery with more complex comprehension questions (less than 50% achieved full success).
  • For complex questions, students often offer justifiable, but incomplete answers.
  • Conclusion: Student show intermediate skill. Some results suggest partial comprehension, or difficulty attending to the specifics of the questions asked.
advanced learner performance reading comprehension results based on four questions
Advanced Learner Performance: Reading Comprehension(Results based on four questions)
  • Mastery in responding to basic, factual questions.
  • Developing mastery with more complex comprehension questions.
  • Performance was stronger than that of the intermediate group:

Increased knowledge of vocabulary words.

Higher rates of success with complex questions.

  • Conclusion: Intermediate to advanced skill. Students still had some difficulty providing complete answers to the more challenging questions, suggesting that some students have not fully understood the passages they are reading.
A Reading Comprehension Issue of Interest: Question 4

Quelle est la « lutte colossale » qui a lieu à l’intérieur de l’esprit de Jean Valjean ? Qu’est-ce qui la provoque ?


What is the « colossal struggle » that takes place within the mind of Jean Valjean ? What provokes it?

Findings from Question 4:
  • Vocabulary problems blocked reading comprehension for many students: only 26% produced a complete and justifiable answer.
  • However, 26% admitted to not knowing what “lutte” meant but still mentioned relevant ideas by relying on context.
  • A dictionary helped: the success rate on this question increased from 18% (without dictionary) to 40% with dictionary.
  • Even with a dictionary, over 50% did not provide a complete and justifiable response. In addition, the use of a dictionary did not influence performance in significant ways for the rest of the test questions. Thus vocabulary problems do not appear to be the primary factor blocking reading comprehension.
interpretation i thematic analysis
Interpretation I: Thematic Analysis

General Definition: An ability to offer a justifiable interpretation of the themes, ideas, or implied meanings in a text by relying on the use of textual evidence.

  • Take a specific textual example and generalize from it. For example, identify what is representative about a family or a character.
  • Identify the ideological or philosophical message of the text.
  • Identify and interpret literary symbols, such as symbolic images, and explain how they relate to the content and themes of the passage.
intermediate learner performance thematic analysis based on response to four questions
Intermediate Learner Performance: Thematic Analysis(Based on response to four questions)
  • Success in generalizing from specific textual examples (a basic interpretive task).
  • Difficulty identifying the ideological/philosophical message and interpreting symbols (Success ranged from 22%-37% by question)
  • The majority of students produced justifiable, but incomplete answers to the three more complex questions.
  • For the more complex interpretive questions, a significant number (at least 25% for each question) of students produced problematic or very insufficient answers, or did not respond.
  • Conclusion: Students are developing their interpretive skills, but are still far from achieving mastery of these skills as a group.
Advanced Learner Performance: Thematic Analysis
  • Students outperformed the intermediate learner group.
  • Mastery in generalizing from specific textual examples (the most basic interpretive task).
  • Developing ability to identify an ideological or philosophical message – strong success on one of the two questions .
  • Strong performance (7/8 students succeeded) on analysis of symbolic imagery.
  • Conclusion: Students show considerable skill with thematic interpretive tasks, but have not yet reached full mastery.
interpretation ii formal analysis
Interpretation II: Formal Analysis
  • Motivating Questions:
  • Do undergraduate students of literature learn to attend to the formal features of prose fiction?
  • Do students have an awareness of or express interest in the how of fiction-writing?
an attempt to measure formal analysis two questions
An attempt to measure formal analysis(Two questions)
  • Formal interpretive analysis can be conceived of as having two steps:
  • Identify poetic or figurative language, use of imagery
  • Interpret how such formal aspects contribute to the meaning or ideas conveyed by the text – i.e., what effects are produced by poetic/figurative language?
results part i identify poetic or figurative language use of imagery
Results Part I: Identify poetic or figurative language, use of imagery

Response from both learner groups was similar:

  • Success in identifying imagery
  • Partial success in identifying poetic/figurative language
    • One third of intermediate learners succeeded
    • Nearly half (3/7) of the advanced learners succeeded
results part ii connecting formal elements to meaning ideas
Results Part II: Connecting formal elements to meaning/ideas
  • Both learner groups were partially successful in linking imagery to the meaning/ideas. Advanced learners did a better job of responding specifically to the question posed (question 3).
  • Both learner groups had difficulty connecting poetic/figurative language to meaning/ideas (question 8):
    • Intermediate learners achieved 15% success, 70% ignored the question
    • Mixed success among advanced learners, but all attempted to respond
summary of results
Summary of Results:

Intermediate Learner Group: French 4 Students

  • Reading Comprehension: Success with basic questions and developing skills with more complex questions.
  • Thematic Analysis: Partial success – students are developing their skills.
  • Formal Analysis: Some skill with interpreting imagery. About one third of students succeeded in identifying poetic and figurative language in the text. Very few students successfully linked these formal features to the meaning/ideas.
advanced learner group upper division students
Advanced Learner Group: Upper Division Students
  • Reading comprehension: Success with basic questions. The majority of students achieved mastery of more complex questions and all are developing their skills.
  • Thematic analysis: Many students show mastery, and all are developing their skills.
  • Formal analysis: Considerable skill with imagery. Partial success in identifying poetic or figurative language. Students are beginning to develop an ability to connect such language to meaning/ideas in a prose narrative.
limitations of this study
Limitations of this Study
  • Small sample size of upper division group
  • Limited number of questions designed to measure formal analysis
  • Lack of two raters to establish inter-rater reliability
  • Variations in the difficulty of literary texts makes it hard to generalize findings
implications and applications of this study
Implications and Applications of this Study
  • Findings are relatively predictable: students show noticeable improvement from intermediate to advanced levels of language learning.
  • Utility of findings.
pedagogical applications
Pedagogical Applications

Students at both learning levels might benefit from:

  • Discussions of what makes prose narratives literary. In general, how does literary writing differ from other types of writing?
  • More explicit instruction about formal aspects of prose narratives and how they contribute to the establishment of meaning in a text.