Equipping Your Students to Ace the AP French Exam: 4 Helpful Teaching Methods
The AP French Exam awaits.
Time to prepare your students and make sure they all get a 4 or 5!
The AP French Exam is a great way for students to demonstrate their knowledge of the language to college admissions officers, their peers and themselves.
As teachers, we’ve all been in our students’ shoes, and if there’s one thing we know, it’s that the exam is anything but easy.
We also know that one factor invariably makes a difference in how students perform on D-Day: their teachers.
Too often, high school French classes can be busy, disorganized and just generally not ideal for putting students in a position to excel on the exam.
But by teaching our classes with the exam in mind and using the proper methods to prepare and encourage them, we can give our students everything they need to pass with flying colors.
Familiarizing Your Students with the Exam Format
According to the College Board, the AP French exam is a 3-hour-long test broken into two parts. The first part of the exam is multiple choice and the second part is free response. Each section is worth 50% of the final exam grade.
Here is the official information on the different parts of the test.
Familiarizing your students with the exam is a critical step that makes all the difference: Understanding the exam and knowing what to expect from the get-go will automatically help make their study more effective.
Start by having a full session for your students who are taking the exam devoted to explaining the format and the questions.
Guide them to the College Board website, which includes a lot of insights, tips and practice to prepare for the test.
Encourage them to invest in exercise books that include specific material for the exam with sample questions. This will be helpful for them to study on their own time. A must-have resource is “Barron’s AP French Language and Culture,” which comes with an audio CD.
Start by reviewing past exams and answers together, and then encourage them to test themselves regularly using real AP exams.
They should do so by blocking three hours at a time on weekends. The idea is to see how well they perform on a deadline, get more familiar with the exam’s questions and improve their time management skills.
To replicate the exam’s conditions, suggest that they isolate themselves in a quiet room at home (students should tell their parents what they’re doing so they’re not interfering with the self-exam!), keep a watch or a clock on hand (phones can be distracting!) and not cheat by using the Internet, books or any other resources.
If they’re not able to block three hours, advise them to take just a portion of the exam, but they should be mindful to stay under the recommended time limit for each section of the test (see above).
If you’re having AP French Exam sessions for your students, keep in mind that this should be an opportunity to practice taking the test. Be mindful of the format when you create your own questions, have regular tests and have at least one full mock test (three or four is best) to make sure your students are familiar with exam-like conditions.
But What About Your Students Who Aren’t Taking the Test?
Now, we all know that not all of our students in a given class will take the test, and that’s all right. Prepping for the exam can be done even in the regular French classroom, not just the AP French classroom. It can be fun and beneficial to all.
Below, we’ll discuss some methods you can use to be mindful of your students who are taking the exam, even during regular class time. A lot of the things you can do to focus your students’ efforts around the exam will also just make for a more focused classroom environment. Just make sure that all of your students participate actively.
For discussing the exam and doing activities more closely focused on the test, you can host optional study sessions after school that are only for the students taking the test.
Here are a few things you can do to ensure that you’re being as helpful as possible in preparing your students for the exam.
Equipping Your Students to Ace the AP French Exam: 4 Helpful Teaching Methods
1. Work on the Foundation
Good preparation starts well before the AP test—and it all begins with the proper consolidation of the basics. Before creating mock tests, for instance, you need to equip your AP students with the tools to identify and remember the tricky parts of the French language.
Grammar is probably the most challenging aspect of the language of Molière. Make sure they know the essentials: the multiple uses of présent simple (present simple), the differences between passé simple / imparfait (preterite / imperfect), la concordance des temps (sequence of tenses), l’impératif (imperative), le subjonctif (subjunctive), etc.
Simply instructing them to buy and regularly read the right book (a “Bescherelle Grammaire” will do the trick) can make a big difference. You might also consider compiling a mini booklet of all the rules of grammar they should know and handing it out to them.
Another point of importance is focusing on key French sentence structures that they should be able to identify and use in an essay or a presentation. These include common and more complex expressions that will give structure to their writing, such as tout d’abord (first of all), il va de soi que (it goes without saying that) and quoiqu’il en soit (whatever the case).
You will also want to use effective vocabulary-building techniques, starting with getting your students in the habit of looking up all new words and using a thesaurus.
A good way for your more visual students to build vocabulary is to keep a notepad of spider charts, where a common word is placed in the middle and many other synonyms surround the word on “branches” (the spider’s many legs!).
It can also be helpful to ask your students to keep a “word directory” and start inputting new words and their synonyms in the directory as they encounter them.
A great way to teach new and more complex words that your students will love (regardless of whether they’re taking the exam) is to begin your class with a “Word of the Day” activity. In this activity, you introduce a new word and then discuss uses in context, synonyms or important idioms in which this word is used.
For example, if your word of the day is zèle (zeal), you might want to first make them guess what it means. Give them the French definition, show them examples so they can see how to include it in their own writing (the Larousse online can help you there!) and discuss idioms like faire du zèle (to have zeal) and un excès de zèle (an excess of zeal).
Make sure they get proper exposure to and develop an understanding of French culture: This is a major component of the AP Exam, so don’t neglect it. Encourage them to further explore culture-related topics at home, and even include authentic French videos to assist with learning.
2. Teach Them to Study Strategically
More than anything, the AP French Exam is about understanding le moule sur lequel l’examen est construit (the structure on which the exam is built).
Concretely, that means that teaching your students how to study strategically is far more effective than attempting to cover everything before AP Exam week: This is just not doable and…it’s actually borderline suicidal.
Here are some ways you can help them manage their studying:
- Teach them a method: Your students should know how to read and analyze data when presented with a news article or a text and what to watch out for in articles and audio content. They should know how to take notes and what to mark down first. More specifically…
- Teach them to read the test questions first: They should never read a text without first knowing what the exam is asking of them. Similarly, they should never go into an essay or the presentation without understanding the question properly first. They’ll lose precious time!
- Teach them to be organized: Teach them to create charts when they read an article and organize it into key facts. If they’re writing an essay weighing pros and cons, they should split their scratch paper in two so they can make notes for each side.
- Teach them to take flashcards to the next level: Teach them to create cards on French sentence structure, sophisticated and useful vocabulary organized by topics and French quotes organized by subject. Have them make cards incorporating key facts and anecdotes on French authors. (Important and quirky facts make all the difference on the oral part of the exam!)
- Encourage them to start keeping track of the French books they read so they can use this information: Whether these are novels you assign them to read in class or books they read in their own time, they should use them to their benefit! A great way to do this is to summarize each novel by noting what makes it noteworthy, where it fits into the world of literature, what it offers by way of historical context, what it expresses, key quotes and of course their own opinion. The goal is to be able to discuss it with an examiner just in case an opportunity comes up. If it does, they’ll have a chance to really impress!
3. Build Classroom Activities and Exercises Around the Exam
Now, here’s the fun part! The exam will test your students’ reading, listening, speaking and writing skills, so you want to make sure that you have it all covered.
First of all, make sure that you switch to a full French-speaking classroom! That’s a great way to expose your students to the language.
Multiple choice is probably the most straightforward way to test students: They may not like it, but it’s still effective. One way to make it more interactive (and to make it fun and relevant for your students who aren’t taking the exam, too) is to turn the activity into a game format à la “Questions pour un Champion.”
If you’re reading an article or discussing a book extract, for example, start by asking a question on the material, and whoever raises their hand first gets to give an answer. If the answer is incorrect, you move on to another student. If the answer is correct, that student scores a point, and whoever gets the most points wins.
To prepare students for the audio part of the exam, you may want to try to replicate the exam format with recordings you use in class. For example, if you play a recording that students will be questioned on, make sure you play that recording twice (but only twice!).
To prepare students for the simulated conversation part of the exam, it can be helpful to start organizing one-on-one speaking sessions with those who are taking it. Make yourself available to speak with them for at least 10 minutes at a time every week or every other week (at least!).
If you can’t manage this and/or your students want some more hands-on practice, recommend that they work in pairs and have regular meet-ups where they can practice speaking French together.
Another good idea is to encourage and help your students to find pen pals. (Often, they’ll realize that this turns into a great relationship with French students who want to learn English for the same reasons, and might want to chat online, also).
To help prepare students for the presentation part of the exam, you may want to start including mini-presentations during class time. One idea is to ask students to compare aspects of an area of the French-speaking world to U.S. or English-speaking culture.
You can make this a daily presentation that rotates between students. This way, each student may be presenting multiple times a year.
You can help simulate test conditions by asking your students to keep presentations to two minutes exactly (students should be on the clock, no exceptions!). The entire class will benefit from this activity, both as a learning tool and as practice in speaking and presenting a subject.
Some great subject ideas include “To what extent has immigration affected the local cuisine in France and in the U.S.?” and “How have recent scientific innovations affected people’s lives in France and in the U.S.?”
The entire class should be involved in this presentation: In addition to a Q&A session with the presenter, encourage your students to give their own views on the subject. Ask them to respect the following format: idea, example, comment.
A common problem is students failing to compare cultures, rather giving unbalanced presentations on one of the cultures. The purpose of this activity is to make sure that your students develop the habit of comparing both cultures—without using stereotypes! Encourage them to make fact-based comparisons: It’s about bringing perspective to the issue and, above all, answering the question!
4. Help Them Build Confidence by Keeping the Focus on What the Exam Is Really About
The AP French Exam is challenging. However, fear of the exam can create more likelihood of failure for your students than the exam itself! Make sure this doesn’t happen. After all, your students should know that taking the test is already an accomplishment on its own!
Make sure that your students have a clear understanding of what the exam is about. It’s a communication exercise that revolves around culture. It’s about demonstrating a proper ability to write and express one’s opinions, understand ideas and share thoughts in an effective manner.
Many students have the wrong idea about the AP exam. Often, those who are desperate to do well don’t perform as well as the ones who simply study strategically for the test.
Make sure they also understand what it’s not about. Grammar matters, but what matters most is their ability to keep things simple and express their ideas. They shouldn’t shoot themselves in the foot by using overly complex sentences they’re not sure about. The exam is not about showing off skills by using sophisticated structures!
The AP French Exam can seem overwhelming, but if you implement the above methods into your teaching, your students will be well-equipped to succeed.
Keep in mind that it can be done: Every year, a significant number of exam-takers get a 4 or 5.
Pourquoi pas vos élèves ? (Why not your students?)