Think your students would fancy being a princess, a witch or a fairy?
It is no big secret that storytelling is a fantastic language teaching tool—but you may not realize that fairy tales are great for all ages and open the door to a magical universe (of greatly enhanced learning).
They have been around for thousands of years, beginning with the earliest oral traditions of mankind. Meaning that, deep down, we are all profoundly, intrinsically drawn to stories like these.
Fairy tales are a special part of all children‘s lives and adults always harbor fond memories of their favorite fairy tales.
So, I ask you: Why not use fairy tales to build French reading comprehension?
Why Work with Fairy Tales in French Class?
- They are familiar. Students already know many of the stories in their mother tongue, so they provide a link between that and the new language.
- They are connected with culture. Fairy tales add a wealth of linguistic and cultural knowledge to your students’ brains. New vocabulary related to myth, history and culture can be introduced, and tales from around the French-speaking world can add a great level of cultural diversity.
- They open the eyes of the imagination. There is a huge wealth of learning activities that can be designed to test and build on your students’ comprehension of the stories you are reading. What better way to inspire students than to ask them to imagine a different ending for a fairy tale or to imagine the fairy tale in a different era?
- There are many different ways to interpret them, their metaphors and their morals. Fairy tales may be used as interpretive exercises after you have established that students have basic comprehension of the text. Provide topics for discussion, so you can ask your students to debate things like “do you think that all fairy tales have certain recurring themes?” or “what made this fairy tale unique?”. They can dig into the text and draw evidence from what they have just read, to prove that they understood the text on more than a superficial level.
- They offer opportunities to compare and contrast. You can categorize many different stories under the title of “fairy tale.” Take multiple stories from within this category and discuss them together. For example, students can be asked to compare the princesses Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. What do they have in common? What is different about them? How do their differences shape their own personal stories?
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How to Introduce Fairy Tales for Reading Comprehension Lessons
To start off your lesson, ask the students to brainstorm what they think a fairy tale is.
This will then give you the opportunity to draw up a list of the characteristics of fairy tales with them, which might look something like this:
- Fairy tales have princes, princesses, ogres, witches, fairies and magical animals such as dragons, talking wolves and bears.
- They usually start off with the well-known formula, “once upon a time” (Il était une fois) and end with “they lived happily ever after” (Ils vécurent heureux).
- They have repetitive patterns (e.g. Goldilocks/Boucles d’or) which help students remember the phrases or constructions.
- They take place in a magical enchanted world (quite often a forest, a castle, etc.).
- Fairy tales often teach a lesson or have a moral.
- They illustrate the fight between good and evil.
- They often have a happy ending.
- They have magical or charmed objects such as Cinderella’s glass slipper, Aurora’s spindle and Snow White’s poisoned apple.
How to Get Warmed Up Before Reading and Talking About Fairy Tales
I have chosen five well-known fairy tales to help the students improve their reading comprehension in French:
- “Le Petit Chaperon rouge” (Little Red Riding Hood)
- “Cendrillon” (Cinderella)
- “Boucles d’or” (Goldilocks)
- “La Belle au bois dormant” (Sleeping Beauty)
- “La Belle et la Bête” (Beauty and the Beast)
Before you start the actual reading activities, you will need to do some warm-up activities.
First, introduce the vocabulary of fairy tales and any special formulas that they might find within them.
Then read each fairy tale with the students and ask them to summarize it vocally, making sure they point out the main characters, whether they be heroes or villains. You could also ask the students to research famous story writers, such as Charles Perrault, and bring in a written (French) summary of their findings to the next class.
Watch a video version of each fairy tale in French if it is available to you—be sure to check the FluentU French video library when in doubt.
Then ask the students to analyze the movie poster and how it relates to the tale (usually the Disney posters are great). This can help them become more familiar with the stories before putting their eyeballs to the text.
Lastly, review some of the key grammar that will be essential to understanding the readings fully, such as the past tenses in French: l’imparfait, le passé compose et le passé simple and categories of adjectives like opposites, possessives, demonstratives, etc.
These are all key for understanding, writing and telling stories. Of course, you will be the final judge regarding what your students do and don’t need to review based on their skill level.
Once that is all out of the way, then you can start the comprehension activities.
5 Charming Fairy Tales That Improve French Reading Comprehension
1. “Le Petit Chaperon rouge” (Little Red Riding Hood)
This fairy tale provides many opportunities to practice and improve students’ reading comprehension.
It may seem like there is a clear case of right and wrong, but we have the ability to see other characters’ perspectives if we dig a little bit into the text. This requires students to read more carefully and remember defining details of the characters and circumstances.
There are many activities that students can do, such as interview the wolf or the woodsman to get their points of view. Something like this will allow students to review their interrogative constructions and figure out how to respond accordingly. Ask them questions directly, or hand out a worksheet that reads:
- Quel est votre point de vue, Monsieur le Loup ? (What is you point of view, Mr. Wolf?)
- Que pensez-vous du Petit Chaperon rouge ? (What do you think of Little Red Riding Hood?)
A cool group activity that builds on this idea called Be the Judge.
In this activity, the students are divided into four groups (home groups) and each student is given a character, for example: the mother, Little Red Riding Hood, the huntsman and Lulu, Red Riding Hood’s friend.
With this setup, the mother from each group goes off and forms a group with the other mothers, and so do each of the other characters. These character groups then ask the pertinent questions and come to a consensus and decision for each.
- Who is responsible for the death of the wolf?
- Who is to blame for the situation?
- Who is the innocent victim?
- What is our character’s perspective about all this?
- What is right and wrong for our character?
Then they all go back to their home groups. There, each student has a turn being the prosecuting lawyer to find out who is guilty of causing the wolf’s death. They will need to use hard evidence from the text, quoting lines and indicating specific details, when possible, Everyone takes notes and, after all the questions have been answered, a verdict is reached.
The students can also be asked to write articles in which they report what happens in the story. For example. they might write something like:
“Le petit Chaperon rouge demande pourquoi la grand-mère a de si grosses dents.” (Little Red Riding Hood asks why the grandmother has such big teeth.)
This will allow the students to practice writing reported speech and review vocabulary such as dents (teeth), yeux (eyes), oreilles (ears), etc. It also encourages them to read carefully and report the story objectively.
Yet another fun activity to boost reading comprehension is to ask the students to imagine that Little Red Riding Hood is a student in Africa, captured by illegal poachers—or any other retelling of the tale. Get them to write this new fairy tale either as an essay or as a journalistic article—two ways to practice writing styles. Alternatively, you can ask them to imagine a different ending to the original fairy tale.
Regardless of which route you go, direct students to use specific lines, events, characters and vocabulary from the original text and work this into their writing well. This is the element that encourages them to read between the lines and pick up on things that might have previously slipped outside their comprehension.
2. “Cendrillon” (Cinderella)
Cinderella offers many great opportunities for comprehension activities, primarily because there are numerous characters and relationships between them.
To take advantage of this, you can ask the students to write a dialogue between Cinderella and the Ugly Stepsisters. This will help them review direct speech. They can compare and contrast Cinderella and the Ugly Stepsisters. For example: Cinderella has a pretty dreams while the Ugly Sisters have evil plans, or Cinderella has a beautiful face and the Ugly Stepsisters have ugly faces. This is great for reviewing adjectives, singular versus plural and how to describe people. Be sure that they are focusing on vocabulary and grammar used in the actual story text.
You can ask the students to write a story where they take what they read and re-imagine it all happening in the 21st century. For example, Cinderella is a maid in a hotel and loses her cell phone, which is found by a rich businessman. They must use vocabulary, character descriptions and major events in the text, as well as those special formulas used at the beginnings and ends of fairy tales.
It is a good exercise to get the students to take the original story whole and write a different ending for it.
- What if Prince Charming never found Cinderella?
- What if Prince Charming ended up marrying one of the Ugly Stepsisters?
- What if Cinderella never transformed back to her original appearance from before the fairy godmother cast her spell?
You can play Be the Judge with this fairy tale, too. This is similar to the group activity used for Little Red Riding Hood, but here the students ask whether Cinderella and the prince are a good match and should get married. The four characters are Cinderella, Prince Charming, the Ugly Stepsisters and the Fairy Godmother.
3. “Boucles d’or” (Goldilocks)
After reading this one, ask the students to be detectives researching the break-in to the bears’ house.
Have them write a story and imagine Goldilocks in a different setting or era:
- What would happen if Goldilocks went into the house of the Seven Dwarfs?
- What would happen if Goldilocks went into a normal house in the 21st century?
- What would you do if you found Goldilocks in your home?
- Is what Goldilocks did right or wrong?
As for the rest of the activities, the students need to copy the style of a fairy tale. Have them include a minimum of three to five vocabulary words.
Another fun activity is get them to write a Facebook post by the mother bear complaining about the intrusion of Goldilocks into their house.
Then, of course, you can play the group activity Be the Judge, where Goldilocks goes to trial. Have a proper trial with prosecutors and defenders in a court of law.
4. “La Belle et la Bête” (Beauty and the Beast)
“La Belle et la Bête” is a wonderful fairy tale, one of my own favorites—as much for personal enjoyment as for classroom teaching.
There are many activities you can get the students to do that demonstrate their comprehension of the text.
For one, you may get them to debate the theme of inner and outer beauty and appearances. This will link to the reason why the prince was cursed and then why the curse was broken. A debate is a useful tool to get students to discuss opposing points of view and to learn how to argue (pour ou contre/for or against). To help them prepare for this, have them take careful notes while reading the text in class, on things that will support their side of the debate.
You can get the students to describe the magic elements present in the story or to discuss the symbolism of the mirror. This allows them to practice description of objects and to reflect on their symbolism. This can be done by bringing the other fairy tales in too, and talking about things like Cinderella’s slipper, Aurora’s spindle, etc.
Ask the students to write a story in which the whole story takes place in the 21st century and Beauty can use a cell phone instead of the mirror. The students need to start and end with the usual fairy tale formulas but create a modern fairy tale based upon the original story’s events and circumstances. This will get students to use the past tenses as well as the adjectives for the descriptions that you introduced during your warm-up sessions.
5. “La Belle au bois dormant” (Sleeping Beauty)
For the activities on Sleeping Beauty, the students can interview Maleficent and get her point of view. How did she feel when she was not invited to the baptism of the princess? This activity can reinforce their use of the interrogatives (how, why, when, what, where?). This can be done by speaking amongst themselves or writing it out on their own.
You can also get them to describe the castle before and after the enchantment. This is great for practicing how to describe places and surroundings. It is fun to imagine and describe what Sleeping Beauty is dreaming about in her 100-year sleep.
The students can write a journal entry as Sleeping Beauty describing her ideal prince. Does he match up with the reality? This activity can teach them how to write in a journal, so slightly different from an essay. Or, they can imagine Sleeping Beauty in a modern setting:
- In a coma in hospital after the witch has cursed her, and she needs a prince to break the spell.
This can either be an essay where they practice their writing or a newspaper article where they practice journalistic writing.
These activities all contribute to a greater and improved comprehension of the texts.
They also get students reviewing grammar topics, such as the use of past tenses to tell stories and adjectives to describe people or places.
So, you now have five fabulous fairy tales which can help your students improve their French reading comprehension.
Hilda Thomas has a PhD in French and has French language and literature at all levels at a South African University for countless years. Her specialization is teaching French as a foreign language, and her passions are French and travel.
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