3 Pieces of Advice for Teaching French to Elementary Students
Struggling to keep your elementary school students interested in French?
Teaching French to children is no easy feat.
They’re often sitting in French class not by choice, but because their parents understand it’s a wise endeavor that will benefit the rest of their educational journey.
As a result, they may feel indifferent to the language, or even bored by it.
And yet teaching French to elementary school children can actually be a piece of cake, if you know how to proceed and have the right resources.
Are you ready to learn the secrets to rocking your elementary school French classes?
Here’s everything you need to know.
What to Keep in Mind While Teaching Elementary-aged Students
- They have a limited attention span. We all know it: elementary school children have a limited focus. Rather than fight it (and act as the police for the rest of the class), embrace it. Let them move when they get tired, break down activities into chunks and use a variety of content so they get inspired and re-energized.
But don’t be afraid to set up rules: for example, requiring that students ask permission to use the restroom in French when they need to excuse themselves is a great way for you to teach them proper classroom etiquette while being mindful of their need for movement.
- They favor fun activities. That’s no mystery, either. Children aged 5-10 and even older prefer to play rather than sit in the classroom for long hours. Again, embrace it and even use it to your advantage: use games as an opportunity to activate the language in a social setting.
Be sure to avoid complex, lengthy grammar explanations at all costs: children at this age retain information much better when it’s handed to them naturally and directly. So focus on speaking French rather than trying to explain how French works.
- They can absorb knowledge like sponges. But that’s provided that they’re properly stimulated. Don’t forget to use plenty of repetition to ensure that they memorize new words, include plenty of songs and mnemonics to make a lasting impact and use color and images to create word associations.
The 3 Keys to Teaching French to Elementary Students
1. Make It Fun
Adding Variety to Your Curriculum
- Introduce colored puppets. Elementary school students enjoy colors and objects, and puppets can become incredible French language ambassadors. Be mindful of the characters you choose: there’s a big difference between students based on age.
Younger children around 5 respond better to simple, colorful puppets with dramatized voices. Those closer to 10, however, tend to prefer characters like those they recognize from cartoons. Characters should have personality, but be a bit more realistic.
A good way to introduce puppets is to have a puppet show in class: ask students to work on a puppet theater to create anticipation and gather the class together when it’s ready. Ideally, create short stories that you can continue week after week. Make Friday “Puppet Day” (or name the day after the puppets starring in the show!).
While taking the stage, be sure that the puppets interact with students: ask questions about their days, summarize last week’s stories, have students name the characters and describe what they’re wearing, etc. This is a low-pressure way to get your students excited about the show and engaged.
- Use songs. They’re a great way to bring your classroom together and encourage your shyest students to open up. Most importantly, they’re a fantastic learning tool. That’s because songs provide an opportunity to learn French words and sentences through repetition, while rhythm and beat aid memory.
Again, be mindful of the type of content you’re choosing and only pick age-appropriate songs. Don’t hesitate to look for animated songs on YouTube when teaching younger students. This article features some fantastic options for this audience. Opt for videos with lyrics with older students: this will enable them to practice reading and increase their familiarity with French spelling. For them, a good follow-up activity is to have a dictation based on the lyrics of the song.
You can also find a variety of songs with corresponding lyrics on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
- Tell stories. Elementary school children become captivated when told stories. Stories capture their sense of imagination and allow them to dream and discover new worlds.
Be mindful of age and fluency level when picking a storyline: keep it simple for younger students and complexify your plot and vocabulary for older students. However, be sure to always engage your audiences properly.
Introduce new words and idioms before telling the story: write them on the board, use translations and pictures or act them out so students can understand them. Then, have students participate in the stories by frequently asking them what they believe the next “scene” could be. This way, you’re building the story together and introducing new elements that keep them enthused.
- Gros comme, petit comme (Big like, small like). This is a fun word game to teach comparison. To start, gather your class in a circle. Your students will have to complete the fixed sentence “Gros comme + noun, petit comme + noun,” filling the blanks with any word of their choice. This will push them to use their imaginations. Encourage them to change their voices to mimic the object or animal they mention to give the game more punch.
- Le Pendu (Hangman). As you probably already know, this is an exciting letter game to practice the alphabet and discover or activate words and sentences. If you need a refresher, this article details the rules and how you can draw the hangman.
Students need to guess missing letters to find the correct word. If they guess correctly, place the letter(s) in the appropriate blank(s). Don’t require them to specify accents: if your students select the letter “e,” you may consider it an acceptable entry for “é,” “è,” “ê” or “ë.” Any incorrect guess brings them closer to the gallows. Keep track of scores and reward the students who have guessed the most letters and words!
- Je vais dans la jungle et j’apporte… (I’m going to the jungle and I bring…) This is a thrilling memorization game to learn plenty of vocabulary and how to use “je” (I) in French. The game is simple but fun and challenging.
Begin by completing the above sentence (for example: a book). Gather students in a circle and ask each student to finish the sentence without stumbling. The student sitting next to the player must repeat each object that was previously mentioned and give a new one.
2. Manage Expectations
- Hand out small items to reward productive students and encourage their peers to participate. As much as possible, be sure that the rewards are aligned with their interests and what you’ve studied in class. For example, a great reward could be a toy version of the hero of your storytelling activities or their favorite French book. Don’t forget to congratulate them when giving them the prize: they’ve earned it!
- Place a different object on students’ desks when they’re not working appropriately or are disobeying classroom rules (being loud, chewing gum, being rude).
For example, you could use a stop sign with the words “pas autorisé” (not authorized) or “interdit” (forbidden). This will ensure that they understand that it’s all right to move around, but that they need to be mindful of the classroom etiquette. It will also teach them to respect you and keep the peace without you having to police them.
- Incorporate no-grade assignments into your curriculum, such as a book report to encourage reading or a classroom debate on a topic students have to research. These activities encourage student curiosity and self-study. That’s because they promote learning for the sake of learning while creating a safe environment where students aren’t “on the line.” This removes the fear of failure and encourages students to open up and take more risks. If you’re looking for them to speak and interact with each other, this is a particularly helpful strategy!
Breaking Complicated Ideas into Small Chunks
- Take small steps. Elementary school students tend to be quickly overwhelmed. Remove every complexity by making sure you’re presenting them with manageable tasks. Tasks should be simple, straightforward and understandable. It’s easier for students to be engaged in an activity when they can see the end and purpose.
For example, helping their team win a word game is more interesting to them than memorizing word lists, even though the result is the same: they’ll increase vocabulary. Playing a small game is fun and manageable, while memorizing lists seems tedious and endless.
- Ask questions. Don’t try to “show” or “teach” students French grammar: ask them to observe patterns and reach conclusions on their own. A good way to do this is by asking them simple, straightforward questions that can point them in the right direction.
Try writing a sentence on the board when introducing a grammatical concept. Use colors to create word associations or differentiate nouns, verbs and adjectives.
- Check for understanding. Again, asking questions periodically is a good way to verify that students remember what they’ve learned and that they’re still paying attention. When doing so, try to dramatize the question, using a higher-pitched voice or gestures that can help them understand the key words of the question.
3. Let Them Move!
Taking Students Outside
- Field trip. Take your class to the local French bakery, a museum that features an exhibition on a French artist or to the movies to watch a French film. These exciting activities will allow your students to discover new facets of French culture and deepen their connection with and enthusiasm for French classes. Be sure to discuss what they can expect to see and learn ahead of time: the field trip should be an opportunity to activate their knowledge.
- Herbier (herbarium). Creating an herbarium is a fantastic way to learn about trees and plants in French and to bring your students closer to Mother Nature. You don’t even have to go too far: take them to the playground if your school has one or to the nearest park. Discuss the local flowers and plant life in class ahead of time and pre-teach plant vocabulary. Let your students know what types of plants they can expect to find and have them draft a list of items they should collect on the field trips, such as a specific leaf of a flower species.
If going on a trip to a state or national park, make sure that taking samples is allowed. Students should put finishing touches on the herbarium at home as a homework assignment. Ask them to dry their pickings and assemble them in a notebook, the herbarium, with their own descriptions.
Make it more personal by asking them to include a foreword where they describe your field trip as well. Give them a week to finish this project, and regroup by asking students to bring and showcase their own herbarium in class.
- Chasse au trésor (treasure hunt). Elementary school children love treasure hunts: they’re fun and mysterious! To organize your hunt, start by hiding your “treasure” ahead of time. Create small teams of three and hand each team a map featuring the surroundings with locations and notable sights in French; this will teach them navigation skills as well. Write hints on pieces of paper to take the teams from one spot to the next. These can include rhyming clues or riddles, pictures, secret codes or even invisible ink.
Getting Students Moving and Learning!
Research shows that students learn better when they’re physically engaged. That’s because their brains become actively involved in learning, memorizing and understanding.
The Total Physical Response (TPR) method, developed by James Asher, adopts a comprehension approach to learning French: students learn by listening to a command and responding by an action. It’s a means for them to immediately internalize the language through experience and it removes the stress from the learning process. Use the imperative when doing these types of drills.
Here are some active learning activities that will delight your elementary school students:
- Acting. Children love to dream and do role plays: it’s a way for them to push their boundaries and be free. Acting engages the whole body by adding dramatization into conversations. Students are encouraged to take on a different personality and develop empathy: this is an intense way to trigger memorization.
Keep it spontaneous and ask students to improvise using a simple prompt. Bring two to four students to the center of the room and give them a theme for the play: for example, “Pain au chocolat,” “Merlin” or “Pizza.” Then, give them 1 minute to discuss the general direction they want to give their story, and let them act it. Give them 4 minutes to act, then ask the other students to comment. Then bring a new group to the center, using a different theme, and ask the class to vote on which group had the best performance.
- Exploring the classroom through stations. It’s important that students feel that the classroom is theirs. Moving around is a good way to remove formality and not stifle their curiosity. Create multiple active learning stations they can explore. These could include a book corner, a place for board games or an area where they can watch a cartoon.
Students will be attracted to their favorite medium and content. Let students explore each station at will and regroup after 30 minutes. Now, ask students to tell others what they’ve learned during the activities, which station they preferred, and why.
Now you’ll have no problem keeping your elementary French classes fun and engaging.