Teaching French to Adults: 5 Smart Strategies for Impressive, Memorable Learning

Businessmen do it to jumpstart their careers.

The culturally curious do it to better understand the French way of life.

And romantics do it as an act of love for their French-speaking significant other.

No matter their reasons for taking your class, adult learners are generally quite motivated to learn and understand the language of Molière.

And lucky for you, teaching French to adults is an incredibly rewarding experience.

However, it can also prove challenging. Unlike children, most adults may not as easily absorb a new language—and some ot the techniques for teaching kids won’t work so well with older students.

But, fear not! These five strategies will help you tailor your lessons to adult learners, helping you become a more effective and versatile teacher.

5 Vetted Strategies to Teach French to Adults the Right Way

1. Know Their Expectations and Deliver

Before starting your class, you should ask your students what they hope to get out of it.

Most adult students tend to take French classes for the sake of learning. If they’re beginners, be sure to give them the tools to express themselves from the start as you cover the basics.

Meanwhile, business professionals will prefer to focus on specific and technical vocabulary so they can discuss key topics and ideas with their French partners—and see immediate results. Your business French learners will also want to study up on French business phone etiquette and business writing.

If you teach actors, they will usually prefer pronunciation coaching and appreciate limited conversational French tutoring. For them, the focus should be on phonics accuracy and spontaneous communication—in the event that the casting director wants to verify their French speaking skills further.

Be relevant to their needs

Don’t budge from the end goal. Adult students want to see results fast, and they will tend to judge their (read: your) performance based on how it affects their overall objective. Keep in mind that some of your learners will have a time constraint, too. So don’t overwhelm them; get to the point.

For example, if you are teaching a senior executive who works in biotechnology, you probably won’t want to teach about theology or the French schooling system. Keep the lessons centered to the topics that are most relevant to his industry. In this case, you might read biotech news in French, debate on the value of a drug price hike, or ask the student to host a mock press conference to announce a breakthrough discovery.

Remind them of the end goal

Don’t be bashful about using a carrot to help adult learners stay on track. Adult students always appreciate the occasional reminder to keep them motivated! A great way to do this is to let them visualize their desired objective on a calendar posted on the wall.

For example, the student with a French girlfriend may want to reach the next level of French before his sweetheart’s birthday, Valentine’s Day or her parent’s pending visit. The business student may have a big meeting or relocation ahead. Most students with no particular connection to France may just want to challenge themselves: Speak French at a conversational level within 6 months or speak French fluently by the time they take a trip to France.

Circle these key dates on your class’s wall calendar and display it prominently so students are constantly reminded of why they’re here in the first place.

2. Be Organized

Adult learners tend to prefer structure when they learn French. It helps them understand the skeletal composition of the language and ease into it with increased comfort, especially if they’re under the false impression that there’s a “language gene” they weren’t born with.

The organized manner of teaching can also prove rewarding since most adults also juggle work and numerous personal activities outside the French classroom.

Lessons should be progressive

Start with the basics, and move on progressively. French can be an overwhelming language to learn, considering the numerous rules and subtleties of the language, so try to help students build familiarity and comfort with a simple rule first before introducing a more elaborate one.

For example, when teaching the passé composé for the first time, it’s never a good idea to list all the uses of this tense. Focus on one specific use to give your students the opportunity to understand how passé composé conjugations work. Introduce more usages and more intricate spelling rules gradually over time, once your students have mastered conjugations.

Teach key structures

Rather than teaching with ready-made sentences, help learners identify and memorize simple patterns so they can express themselves with confidence. Don’t hesitate to give them the English equivalent as well, so they can fully grasp the grammatical differences at play at first. This allows adults to use the patterns in a way that makes sense.

Feel free to borrow from some of these common French sentence structures, hand it out to your adult students, and be ready to practice! For example, if you are teaching question patterns, pair students into groups of two. One team member should ask a question based on a basic pattern, and the partner should answer accordingly, and so on.

Over time, your adult students will be able to identify how the French sentence works, and ultimately be able to free themselves of these little “tricks” to form their own, more complex sentences.

Require a notebook

If you hand out a lot of loose copies, make sure that your students have a notebook and take notes as well. Adults tend to be reluctant to taking notes in class, but the act of writing is helpful when learning a language, as it boosts memory and develops cognitive functions.

It’s also a great way to keep them engaged during class. So to make this happen, make a notebook mandatory and include this information in your classroom guidelines/syllabus.

Encourage use of flashcards

Studying outside of class won’t be your students’ favorite part of your classes, but that reinforcement is critical to help take them to the next level. And when it comes to studying, the old-school method of using flashcards works wonders.

Show your adult learners what an optimized flashcard looks like: They should summarize key grammar and conjugation rules, introduce fundamental structures, or capture technical vocabulary on a given subject.

Remind students that the purpose of a flashcard is to enable them to study what is most relevant to them—wherever they are. Encourage students to review new their flashcards multiple times a day, and older flashcards every week (and then every other week, based on progress).

For example, your advanced students may have no use going over their beginner flashcards, but they may benefit from reviewing their early advanced flashcards every once in a while as the year progresses.

3. Focus on Similarities with English

French isn’t as hard as they say. Your students may not realize it, but we know there are numerous French words and expressions that they already know. So begin their French journey on familiar turf to grab their attention and make them feel confident that fluency is within reach.

Here are some topics to help you do this:

  • Cognates (vrais amis). Teach cognates early on in your lessons. Words like admirable, active or blouse are quick examples of French words which share the same spelling and meaning as their English counterparts. Teaching cognates first will boost your students’ enthusiasm while providing them with a solid base of words that they can use with ease immediately.
  • False cognates (faux amis). A smart way to teach false cognates is to use various French magazine articles, hand a different article to each student, and have them identify all the words in their article that look similar to an English word. Then, students should exchange their articles with a partner or work in a group, asking “What does it mean?” for each circled word. If it’s a false cognate, the student should write the word on a colorful post-it and pin it to the wall. Drawing a picture next to the word of the actual meaning will make for a great visual reminder on your classroom wall.
  • Spelling equivalents. These words, prefixes and suffixes will help your students master French quicker! Teach spelling equivalents progressively and as you encounter them in your normal lessons. For example, when you read an article where the writer uses the word adipeux (adipose), use it as an opportunity to introduce the French counterpart of this common suffix. Then, have students think of English words with their French equivalent.
  • English phrases with the word “French.” Another fun topic to use are English words that contain the word “French.” French fries (frites), French toast (pain perdu) or French bean (haricot vert) have one thing in common: Their French translations don’t have the word “French” in them. Use pictures to teach these words and ask students to try and guess the word in French. Adult students get generally very competitive and engaged—especially when they realize this game isn’t as easy as it seems!
  • French words used in English. These tend to be your students’ favorite words to learn, because they’re both vaguely familiar and largely unknown. Most non-French speakers use words like je ne sais quoi, ménage à trois, c’est la vie, BCBG or bon appétit without really knowing their meaning, so teaching these words may come as a revelation and can serve the basis for interesting discussions.

Move beyond linguistic similarities

You can also discuss with your students the reasons why French and English share so many similarities. It’s a great way to build a connection with the French language, as well as focus on the cultural aspects of language learning.

Start by asking students how they account for these similarities, and then introduce them to the numerous elements that make up for our shared historical, cultural and civilizational heritages.

4. Stir Their Curiosity

Being curious is the key to making dramatic progress when learning French, and adult learners are no exception to the rule. Developing genuine interest is no easy task, but is incredibly rewarding. Curiosity encourages your adult students to go the extra mile when learning a lesson. It also has a snowball effect; the more you learn, the more you want to learn.

Keep students engaged with insightful content and discussions

More than a French language teacher, adults expect that you be on a par with them intellectually. Business professionals will appreciate your business acumen, including your understanding of French business customs and knowledge of the French market and trends.

During your lessons, it can be interesting to bring these cultural differences to their attention, and give concrete examples based on what you’ve observed during your travels.

For example, you might want to share your experiences working in a French and in an American company, comparing management styles, corporate cultures and legal systems. It may be fit to read “Le Monde” on a regular basis to keep up with French news as well, so your adult students are confident that you are fully informed on the matters you discuss.

Broaden their horizons to a new culture

French classes are popular among adult learners because they provide an escape from the day-to-day grind. If you can’t take your students to France, you should at least try to transport them to a place that is close enough to the real thing.

Don’t hesitate to decorate your class with authentic vintage movie posters, fill your shelves with French books and novels, and bring the occasional French pastry to reward your students for their hard work.

The idea is to use these elements as a support for a discussion. Encourage your students to take it a step further by asking them to do some research on the subject if it’s relevant to them.

5. Deliver a Memorable Learning Experience

Many adults are prejudiced against going back to the classroom. Some might be traumatized from old-fashioned teaching methods from their childhood which focused on memorizing rather than practice and communication. Show them that learning French can be a magical, fun experience. This will make a world of a difference with their participation, motivation and results.

Structure is great, but don’t be rigid

Adult students tend to be straightforward with their needs and questions. Encourage them to participate and ask any questions they may have, even if it’s not directly connected to the topic of the day.

That’s because most adult learners tend to spend more time self-studying than children. If they engage in this type of behavior, that’s great! It means they’re on the right track and have the motivation and enthusiasm to succeed.

Use engaging tech tools

In the amazing world of technology that we live in, you’re no longer limited to just a marker and a dry-erase board. Bring some engaging tech into the classroom, whether you’re working with one person or 20. Games aren’t just for kids, especially if they can be adapted to the content that your students are working on. A well-placed quiz show day can be a welcome reprieve from scouring the textbooks.

Even more serious students can welcome a tool that’s geared toward them. For example, FluentU is a learning tool that helps students watch and understand authentic content in a way that adults will appreciate. Students can watch native French videos like movie trailers, inspirational talks and news segments, to name just a few.

Each video has interactive subtitles that show definitions at a click or tap. Students can build their own vocabulary flashcard decks from these words, by clicking to save a word—which can be done without leaving the video player.

Videos and flashcard decks are accompanied by quizzes that reinforce vocabulary and adapt to student progress. There are even questions scattered throughout these quizzes that ask learners to speak their answers. FluentU can be used in a browser or in the iOS or Android app, making it a pretty versatile tool that students can use in the classroom and continue their learning from anywhere.

At the end of the day, adult learners will appreciate that they’re able to engage with the language on the level of a native speaker.

Use tests, but don’t make language learning about grades

Tests are important to track progress, but there’s obviously a lot more to language learning than passing tests with flying colors. Similarly, grades can be disappointing and discourage motivated learners from studying if they “fail” too often.

When passing back a corrected exam, make the review fun and engaging. Rather than asking a student a tough question on the spot (which may feel to them like yet another test!), remind them of the rule first, practice together using simple examples and then address the exam question. Make it a group effort where every student contributes. Move on quickly and don’t hesitate to let students ask for clarification if they still struggle with a concept/question.

Build memories

This is perhaps the best way to raise the level of participation and overall energy of your class. It’s also a great way to get to know your students better and to increase their connection to France.

For example, you could take your class to a French restaurant, an exhibition of French painters, a French movie or to watch a soccer game in which France is playing. Use it as an opportunity to build long-lasting relationships with your students so they’re enthusiastic about their class.

Alternatively, you could host a French breakfast or afternoon tea in your classroom. Give them advanced notice and ask your students to participate by bringing typical French goods, homemade or not, and traditional French breakfast beverages, such as croissants, brioches, baguettes, jams, financiers, tea and hot chocolate. If you have a budget at your school, this can be a nice activity to use some of the class funds. It’s a great occasion for your students to mingle in a relaxed manner, and for you to introduce them to the French food culture.

Hosting French movie nights is another way to make class memorable. Start by selecting your favorite French movie (Netflix has a great selection!) and invite your students to watch with you. They can bring their friends or significant others (and snacks of course). This lets the rest of the class mingle with new people, and allows you to expose potentially new students to the French culture.


Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the best methods to teach French more efficiently to adults. Learning French can be a fun, rewarding and mutually enriching experience for both your students and yourself.

There’s nothing like seeing real results and taking your adult learners from absolute beginners to effective communicators (and beyond). Bon courage à tous ! (Good luck to all!)

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