Beyond Conjugation: 11 Expert Tips to Teach French Verbs to Any Learner
What do you think first got your students interested in learning French?
For some, maybe it was their first bite of French food. For others, maybe it was a French movie or a week spent in Paris.
Chances are, you probably don’t have any students who first got hooked by French verbs.
That’s why verbs and verb conjugations can be so hard to teach. For many students, it’s a boring necessity. It’s eating your vegetables, when you’d rather be eating baguette and camembert with a glass of wine.
But as French educators, we know how important proper verb conjugation is to communication in French. So we’re always looking for engaging and effective ways to teach it.
Fortunately, there are tons of methods for succeeding in this effort. Below, we’ll look at 11 key tips, plus some fun activities, for getting our students to eat their vegetables.
Beyond Conjugation: 11 Expert Tips to Teach French Verbs to Any Learner
1. Don’t Overwhelm Students with Long Lists of Verbs
If you want to present new verbs in a list format, just make sure to keep those lists short and sweet. Focus on essential verbs, including those that your students should already know and are used very frequently for their proficiency level.
Therefore, you should keep your verbs relevant to the lesson you’re teaching. Be selective and strategic when introducing new verbs to memorize, especially if you’re teaching beginners.
Make your primary goal having your students learn and remember each verb’s meaning by letting them use it on their own during class. They should all strive to use the new verbs in complete sentences throughout the class period. If you’ve been selective enough when choosing your verbs, then this should happen organically during your lesson.
2. Highlight Patterns Between Verbs
Identify the similarities between new verbs when you’re teaching them. For example, you might highlight verbs from the same conjugation group, or verbs with similar roots and etymology, such as mettre (to put, to wear), démettre (to undo) and remettre (to put again).
You can also introduce verbs that are similar in meaning or come from the same vocabulary categories, such as cuisiner (to cook), préparer (to prepare) and mijoter (to simmer).
This is effective because students can better memorize new French verbs when they can rely on these types of connections. You can also highlight verbs that have opposite meanings.
3. Make Sure Verb Lessons Are Concrete and Not Too Theoretical
There’s nothing less productive than overwhelming students with verbs that they can’t apply in the real world. Avoid teaching obscure, archaic, lofty or otherwise uncommonly used verbs.
Be sure you’re choosing verbs that they’ll actually hear and read in authentic resources (such as news articles, TV broadcasts or magazine clippings in French). Better yet, track down authentic resources that put the verbs you teach into action.
You can even take the opposite approach and first grab an authentic French resource and then pull a list of vocabulary to teach from the authentic resource.
Make sure that your students use the verbs you teach in class immediately and regularly. Here are some methods for accomplishing this:
- Say each verb aloud and have students repeat the verbs until they get the pronunciations right.
- Have them write out all the conjugations of each verb when they first learn it.
- Ask each student to use a particular verb in a full sentence.
- Ask your class questions using the verbs and have them respond using those same verbs.
Through this kind of practice, your students will memorize the verbs quicker and will also understand how to properly use them in various situations.
4. Keep Your Explanations Simple
When teaching conjugation and tenses, it’s important to let your students come to conclusions by themselves. This will help them to absorb grammar principles more effectively than if they were to simply memorize rules.
The way to do this is to work by observation. Start by presenting your students with a text featuring lots of verbs in the tense you’re teaching. You may want to compose this text yourself so that you can better control what verbs they’ll encounter. Keep it simple and try to use verbs that they already know so they can focus on conjugation. Ask them to circle each verb they read.
Have students answer specific questions: what tense are the verbs in? What verb endings do students notice in the text? What verbs are irregular? Then, ask them to write a grammar rule based on their notes. Teaching conjugation rules through rote memorization, by contrast, is less engaging and therefore often more difficult for students to grasp.
5. Explain Complex Rules in English
Getting French listening practice is important, but grammar and conjugation can cause serious roadblocks to target language instruction. For one thing, your students may not yet be able to understand grammar terminology in French. Most importantly, they may not be able to properly grasp the nuances of your explanations.
Depending on your students’ French proficiency levels, an effective strategy can be to use English when explaining verb rules and answering questions about verb usage. Then, have your students apply the rules by having lots of practice time, in French!
6. Don’t Focus on Verbs, Focus on Communication
Remember that your classes aren’t exclusively about verbs; at the core, they’re really about communication. If you focus too rigidly on correct verb usage, students may become self-conscious about their French during conversation or written assignments and their learning progress can hit a wall.
To avoid this situation, don’t put excessive pressure on your students and don’t expect perfect accuracy from the beginning. Rather than immediately correcting students’ errors, ask their classmates what they think so they can give peer-to-peer feedback. This collaboration process will help the class learn and progress together.
7. Equip Students with Good Verb Reference Tools
Having a solid verb guide is fundamental to students’ progress and will help them to properly cover the basics and answer their questions about conjugation.
Having a verb reference also develops initiative and overall curiosity about the French language. That’s because your students will have to make an effort and be rewarded for it when they reach for the verb guide.
However, keep in mind than when recommending a resource, it’s up to your students to decide which one works best for them. Whether they opt for a digital or paperback tool, the key is that they embrace a solution that they’ll use frequently, which will keep them motivated to continue learning French.
Our favorite verb reference tools:
- “Bescherelle: La conjugaison” or “Le Bled.” If you’re opting for books, it doesn’t get better than these texts, both of which are used by elementary French students when they first learn verb conjugation. That’s right, we native speakers had to learn that, too!
“Bescherelle” is also available online. On the site, your students choose between orthographe traditionnelle (traditional spelling) and orthographe rectifiée (rectified spelling), so they can learn the right conjugation depending on which spelling you’re following in your French class. This article from the Académie française (French Academy) will help you understand the country’s recent spelling reform and its scope.
- The “Larousse” dictionary. This resource features an extensive conjugation section that’ll help students verify how common words are formed. The advantage is that it’ll also allow them to discover new words and various aspects of French history and culture. “Larousse” also has an online conjugation tool that your students can take advantage of.
8. Introduce French Verbs in Real-life Contexts
For maximum results, make sure that your students practice the verbs they’ve just learned immediately during the session for faster acquisition. This will also allow them to practice conjugation on the fly, understand their mistakes and hear proper pronunciation.
The idea here is to create a personal experience for your students with the verb so that they can internalize its meaning.
To do that, opt for a method that relies on verb introduction and instant usage. Your goal is to focus on immediacy and make it fun.
For example, start by writing a verb on the board. Ask students if they’ve seen this verb before and can guess its meaning. Most should be able to recognize the root and verb ending, but a few may have encountered the verb during their free reading and listening sessions at home. This is your time to reward them!
Then, give them the answer and start practicing pronunciation together. Create a basic question and answer model using this verb that your students can use to create their own sentences. Here’s an idea using the verb mettre (to put):
- Qu’est-ce que tu mets ce soir ? (What are you wearing tonight?)
- Ce soir, je mets _____. (Tonight, I’m wearing _____.)
Let students fill in the blanks using words of their choice, and let them practice some more by asking their own questions. Instead of “tonight,” encourage their creativity and write other question endings, such as “tomorrow,” “on Christmas,” or “at the beach.”
9. Link Conjugation to Pronunciation
Don’t take it for granted: students need to hear properly conjugated French verbs. Unless they grew up in a French household, spelling and pronunciation aren’t going to be obvious to them.
First, you should reinforce that even if verb endings are spelled differently, they’re not necessarily pronounced differently. This is the case for j’aime, tu aimes and ils aiment (I like, you like, they like), for example.
Second, you should stress the importance of proper pronunciation because it indicates tense, and therefore, the meaning of the sentence. You may want to play with the sounds of j’aime, j’aimais and j’ai aimé (I like, I used to like, I liked) to help them gain awareness of these nuances. They’re more likely to pay attention to verb ending pronunciation if they understand why it matters.
Saying and repeating these conjugated verbs out loud is critical for students not to be confused when they encounter them outside the French classroom. It’ll help to accustom their ears and show them how verbs change in a variety of situations, including the subject/participle, tense used and levels of speech.
Another reason why it’s particularly important is that French speakers tend to agglutinate letters while speaking casually or quickly, so it may be challenging for learners with minimal exposure to native speakers to recognize verbs and tense. For example, je suis often becomes j’suis (I am; I’m), je vais becomes j’vais (I go) and je n’aime pas becomes j’aime pas (I do not like; I don’t like).
10. Let Students Hear How Native Speakers Use Verbs
To help your students recognize these verbs not just when they’re written, but also during conversations, it’s important to opt for a diversity of authentic multimedia content and integrate them into your lessons. One great advantage of these resources is that you can replay sections where the speakers don’t enunciate clearly to check for understanding and to discuss together.
Here are some great sources of native speaker content to get you started:
The popular video streaming site hosts an almost endless supply of user-generated content from all over the Francophone world to enable students to hear how natives use French verbs spontaneously.
The site allows you to subscribe to your favorite channel and will recommend similar content based on what you like and watch frequently. Better yet, you can slow down a video to allow your students to understand complex verbs when they’re spoken, and with many videos you can put on subtitles.
This European news channel will equip your students with all the tools to learn advanced French verbs.
Here, you’ll be able to play short videos on a variety of subjects, including politics, the economy, sports and more. Content is updated constantly, and the real-life context is a great element to capture your students’ interest.
You can frame verb lessons around these videos, such as a debate where your students will have to express their opinion about the subject of a video by using as many opinion verbs as possible.
11. Make Learning French Verbs a Fun Experience
Making your lessons fun while teaching French verbs is the best strategy for boosting students’ proficiency levels. Students will be more engaged and will be more likely to think that lessons fly by if they enjoy them!
Increased engagement will create a number of learning benefits for your students, including boosted confidence for participation, faster acquisition, willingness to engage with others and communicate—and most importantly—love for French verbs!
Here are some exciting activities to practice and teach French verbs:
- French verb relay race. This very social game engages students’ whole bodies to help them learn the imperative (command) tense and enrich their verb vocabulary. The game is based on the same principle as the regular relay race, but with a twist: it features commands that students must understand and perform while racing to help their team win.
The rules are simple: divide students into two teams and ask them to brainstorm and write down commands in French, using the imperative for the other team. Effective commands include action verbs such as “run,” dance” or “spin” in French.
Take your students outside so they can properly run, or rearrange your classroom to allow students to have plenty of space. Use the board and classroom door as starting and end points, or bring markers if racing outside the classroom to mark your starting and end points. Start points should be where other teammates are, so a student will race back and forth to signal the other students to pick up from there.
The first students, chosen at random, will take a card, read the command out loud and perform the action from the start point until they meet the other team members, who will then pick up from there. Don’t forget to bring a whistle: the race starts when they hear the whistle blow and ends when all the students in a team have raced.
- French verb battle. This is a terrific activity to help students learn and remember French synonyms, and to communicate their knowledge quickly and under pressure.
The rules of this game are very simple: small teams of four students compete for the Verb Champions title in a fierce battle where they’ll showcase their knowledge of French verbs.
Ahead of time, you’ll prepare cards featuring infinitives in French. Give a timer or stopwatch to each team and ask non-participants to monitor the clock. The teams will take turns naming as many conjugations from the given infinitive as they can in 30 seconds. The team that names the most wins!
- My portrait through time. The idea of this game is to allow students to visualize their future, recall their past and describe their present using French verbs.
This is a fairly straightforward storytelling activity, but it’s also an incredible way to strengthen ties between students while requiring correct conjugation in a variety of tenses.
To get started, ask students to prepare an oral presentation telling a story about their past and present and imagining their future. Ask them to be creative and use visuals including PowerPoint slides and pictures to support their presentations.
There’s no limit to how much they can say, but ask them to make sure their presentations are at least five minutes long, and that they discuss these three moments of their history by using proper tenses. Then, recap each presentation by asking the class to interact with the presenter.
Ask the presenting student to name the classmate whose story they most want to hear until every student has shared their story with the class.
- Rumor has it… This is an engaging game to practice reported speech in French, including conjugation, verbs and structure patterns.
To start, write down common sentences used for indirect speech on the blackboard. This helps students understand and practice with confidence. Lewebpedagogique features a very helpful page to find introductory French verbs if you need inspiration.
Then, create teams of four and ask students to share various stories in front of the class. Problem is, half the team members have to cover their ears so they don’t hear the words. Only two team members per group will be allowed to listen to the story each time, ears uncovered.
Students will rotate after every story so that everyone gets to practice speaking and understanding reported speech multiple times.
After the storyteller finishes his or her speech, listening students will be responsible for recalling and discussing what they heard using reported speech. Recap each instance by asking listening students from various groups to tell the entire class what they heard. If their stories match, their teams gets a point. The team with the most points wins!
Now that you know all the secrets to teaching French verbs, what are you waiting for to get started? We’ve got no doubt your students will forever remember and love les verbes français (french verbs)!