How to Teach French to Beginners: Getting Your Students Pumped to Learn the Basics
Want to get your students psyched to learn the basics of French?
Easier said than done, right?
Your beginning French students may feel like first-time skiers having second thoughts.
After all, the language can certainly look intimidating from a distance.
But while plunging into French for the first time can feel daunting, it doesn’t have to play out that way.
It’s completely possible to introduce activities that keep the enthusiasm level high, and to make your students feel confident and excited about learning more.
The trick is to keep their attention on what’s fun about French while also giving them the chance to start using the language right away.
In this post, I’ll share some resources that are handy for easily engaging your students, and then move into some interesting activities for students who are new to the French language.
Getting Started: Multimedia for Introducing French to Beginners
There’s a lot of available, engaging media out there to infuse a bit of life into your lesson planning as you prep your students for a new world of French text and sound—it’s just a matter of knowing where to look for it!
To use some of these resources in the classroom, you’ll need a laptop with Internet access that can be hooked up to a monitor, and a TV with DVD or streaming video capabilities.
However, many of these resources can also be shared with your students in online classroom settings.
The easiest way to share level-appropriate and entertaining French video material with your students, both in your classroom and virtually, is through FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
While it’s great for your beginners to start out with, there’s also tons of higher-level content waiting for them whenever they’re ready.
Of course, watching movies is a fun, engaging way to get your students to dive into the French language with a multicultural focus. The idea here is to expose your class to “real-life” settings (well, not really, but I think you know what I mean), where they can witness French being spoken in practical ways, outside of a “textbook” context.
I highly recommend films with multi-dimensional storylines such as the foreign exchange student romp “L’Auberge Espagnole,” the tender, groundbreaking “Ma Vie en Rose” and “30° Couleur,” about un Martiniquais educated in France who literally and figuratively journeys back to his roots on the heels of a family emergency. Or if you want to take your students back in time for a bit, there’s the disco-era, coming-of-age classic “La Boum.”
Even if the film comes with an option to activate subtitles, you may want to turn them off so that your students can zoom in on general French comprehension.
As beginners, they may not understand most of what the characters in the film are saying, but the idea of showing movies at this point is not necessarily to dissect all the dialogue, but to get them used to hearing and seeing the language in context. They will most likely pick up on body language and other non-verbal communication, which should bring much of the dialogue into focus.
Soon after I first learned French, I was introduced to everyone’s favorite vintage video French-learning program with Yale University’s Pierre Capretz, Mireille, her little sister Marie-Laure and their family and friends: the French in Action series. What can I say? Guess my French teacher liked to keep it old-school. I think I even caught a French in Action reunion special a couple years back. But I digress…
Nowadays, there are lots of (free!) options to choose from to learn and teach basic French. A plethora of tutorials for beginners exist out there…almost too many! But here are a couple of the best:
- Fluenz is a great video learning series, especially for English speakers, because the narrator breaks down French phrases and vocabulary into bite-size chunks on the screen, mirroring real-life situations (e.g., what to say when you get off the plane, arrive in a French-speaking country and need to grab a bite to eat). Fluenz’s learning method is cyclic in that it recaps all of the material taught in one episode, so that beginners can get a better grasp on the “building block” concepts around basic French.
- The Ouino series is another great video tutorial option, because its interactive features allow French-language beginners to navigate phrases and vocabulary based on their needs. The Ouino learning method is primarily grounded in French text presented in the context of images, and the phonetics are slowed down enough for even the most timid beginner.
Easy (and Semi-easy) Reads
Listed below are books, magazines and other reading materials that may help your students contextualize French on the page.
Intended to engage the younger, elementary set, these beginner-level reads will be easier to digest for those new to the French language:
- “Le Taxi-Brousse de Papa Diop” (Christian Epanya) is a beautiful meditation on the hustle-bustle life in the city—from Dakar to St-Louis, Senegal—told through the eyes of young Sène as he embarks on exciting adventures from the interior of his uncle’s taxi cab.
- The “Les Copains du Coin” (L. D. Brimner) series for children is not only great for students learning the basics of French, but also promotes themes around patience, teamwork, mindfulness and ecological stewardship.
- “Poésies Pour La Vie” (Gilles Tibo) is a great beginner-level book that opens up the possibilities around what happens when we marry le quotidien (the everyday) with the power and magic of art and words.
As for young adult books that kick things up a notch, you could start with any of these:
- “Aya de Yopougon” (Marguerite Abouet) is a graphic novel, concerning Aya—a young woman living and loving in Yopougon, Côte d’Ivoire—and the world of family and friends around her. Abouet crafted this decidedly warm, funny series outside of the war-and-famine tropes that tend to saddle so many narratives taking place within Africa. In 2013, a film by the same name was released in France.
- “Le Chat du Rabbin” (Joann Sfar) tells the story of Zlabya, her rabbi father and their talking cat (yes, you read that right) in a colorful Jewish community in 1930s Algeria. Destined for an overseas journey, the three find themselves mired in drama and adventure in this colorful graphic novel.
I also recommend presenting your students with teen and tween French-language magazines. Sounds questionable, I know, but teen magazines are chock-full of juicy info on the secret lives of pop stars, the latest fashion and useful advice for young readers…plus beginner-friendly French!
Girls. and Closer seem to be all the rage for French-speaking teens these days.
Of course, if you’d like to offer more cerebral options for your students, this online collection of French-language newspapers and journals from all over the world will sharpen one’s reading comprehension skills through current events.
Again, some of these materials are specifically geared towards students new to French, while with others, the idea is just to get your students excited about learning by exposing them to Francophone culture. So try not to be too concerned about handing out issues of Le Monde during the first week of class.
Other Engaging Ways for Your Students to Grasp Basic French
As noted above, coming up with engaging ways for your students to grasp French can be fun, but also challenging at times. Here, however, are some powerful teaching ideas for building your students’ confidence and getting them excited about diving into the language!
I highly recommend creating “real-world” scenarios where your students can use French in practical ways. Having your students act out common situations, skit-style, at the front of the class—complete with props and imaginary walls!—so that everyone can engage, is a great way to have them embody exactly what they’re learning. Here are a few examples.
Au Café (At the Coffee Shop)
Grammar: Conjugating verbs prendre* and coûter
Vocabulary words: le café, le croissant
Student 1 (acting as a barista): Qu’est-ce que vous prenez ? (What would you like?)
Student 2 (acting as a customer): Je prends un café et un croissant. Ça coûte combien ? (I’ll have a coffee and a croissant. How much would that be?)
Student 1: Huit dollars. (Eight dollars.)
Student 2 (giving the barista “money”): D’accord. (Okay.)
Student 1: Merci et bonne journée ! (Thanks, and have a great day!)
Student 2: Merci ! (Thank you!)
*Prendre is an irregular, more advanced verb. But for this particular lesson, you can inform your class of the correct conjugation for the pronouns je and vous.
À l’École (At School)
Grammar: Conjugating verbs étudier and aller
Vocabulary words: les classes, les sujets
Student 1: Salut, [Student 2’s name]! (Hey, [Student 2’s name]!)
Student 2: Salut, [Student 1’s name]! (Hey, [Student 1’s name]!)
Student 1: Où vas-tu ? (Where are you going?)
Student 2: Je vais en classe. On étudie beaucoup aujourd’hui. (I’m going to my class. We’re studying a lot today.)
Student 1: Moi, aussi. J’étudie beaucoup de sujets cet après-midi. (Me, too. I’m studying lots of subjects this afternoon.)
Student 2: Alors, on va en classe, hein ? (Well, off to class, huh?)
Student 1: Oui, on y* va. (Yes, let’s go.)
*Here, you can alert your students as to why the y replaces en in the line above it.
À Table (At Dinner)
Grammar: Conjugating verbs manger and préparer
Vocabulary words: le plat, les légumes, le pain
Student 1: Que mangeons-nous ce soir ? (What are we having [for dinner] tonight?)
Student 2: J’ai préparé un plat de légumes. (I made a vegetable dish.)
Student 1: Ah, bon ? (Oh, really?)
Student 2: Oui, et on peut aussi manger du pain. (Yes, and we can eat bread [with it].)
Student 1: Alors… bon appétit ! (Well…bon appetit!)
En Ville (Going Out)
Grammar lesson: Conjugating verbs danser, espérer and trouver
Vocabulary words: la boîte, la bibliothèque
Student 1: Qu’est-ce que tu vas faire ce soir ? (What are you doing tonight?)
Student 2: Bah, je vais danser avec mes ami(e)s en boîte. Et toi ? (I’m going to dance with my friends at the club. And you?)
Student 1: Moi, j’espère trouver de nouveaux livres à la bibliothèque. (Well, I hope to find some new books at the library.)
Student 2: Ah, d’accord. Amuse-toi bien, hein ? (Oh, okay. Have fun, okay?)
Student 1: Merci ! Toi aussi. (Thanks! You too.)
…And so on.
Let your students unleash their inner thespians and have fun with the exercise! As long as they’re following a logical pattern of thought with the verbs and vocabulary words, they’re already on the right track. If they end up adding in more verbs or vocabulary, even better!
To help your students with some of the phonetic aspects of French, you can use rough English-language phonetic equivalents to help them sound out French words.
I once tutored an English-speaking student from the US who wanted to tighten up his “French accent” before departing for a long-term trip to France. He repeatedly pronounced feu as “foo.” So I urged him to say the English word “foot” a couple times, and on the third time, to drop the “t”—that seemed to work!
Keep in mind that English and French phonetics function very differently (which is why I noted the equivalents as “rough”), and should only be used as a guide for the student who may struggle with pronunciation as they dip their toes into the French language.
Try giving your students the opportunity to create “self-portraits” of themselves to help them learn basic French vocabulary around hair texture, eye color, personality traits and other physical and emotional characteristics. You can infuse a bit of art into your classroom by getting out the colored pencils, markers, paint and paper so that your students can come up with images that they create themselves, of themselves.
On a separate sheet of paper, your students can describe what they see and feel. For example:
Moi, j’ai les cheveux bruns avec les yeux marron. Je suis un peu timide, mais j’aime bien danser et aller au café avec mes ami(e)s.
(I have brown hair and brown eyes. I’m a bit shy, but I like to dance and go to the coffee shop with my friends.)
Once everyone has completed their art project, you could even allow your students the option of presenting them to the class.
Encourage, Praise, Repeat!
Practice makes, not perfect, but progress. As you allow space for your students to make mistakes as they learn, be sure to encourage them to keep trying if things don’t quite stick (yet).
Also, keep in mind that any new activity will take time to catch on. If any of the activities or materials you present to your class don’t quite go over, feel free to obtain their feedback to see what other ideas might speak to them.
Learning a new language is a pretty big deal.
Be sure to remind your students that it’s all a journey, a collective process from which we can all learn and grow.