6 Decisive Areas to Focus On to Teach French More Efficiently to English Speakers
As a French teacher, you want to share your knowledge and passion for the French language to your English-speaking students.
And you are in luck: anglophones are at a great advantage when it comes to learning French.
Trouble is, they usually do not know this!
All you need is to develop the right attitude and focus on the right approach to enable your students to learn better, and they will speak French like natives in no time.
Here is how to get it done.
How to Teach French to English Speakers
As I was saying, teaching French to English natives can become a piece of cake if you focus on stimulating discussion about six essential learning topics with the right attitude and methods.
1. Debunk common myths about the French language
There is a widespread misconception in the English-speaking world that French is difficult compared to other European languages.
Sometimes, perception makes reality. Students often feel that French is one of the most challenging languages to learn, so they cannot possibly expect to advance far or master it.
Now, I am sure you can see how this attitude can lead them to not put in as much effort as they would if they believed that learning French was very achievable.
For Anglophones in particular, French is actually one of the easiest languages to learn—nearly as easy to learn as Spanish or Italian!
According to the Foreign Language Institute, the Federal Government’s primary training institution for officers and support personnel of the U.S. foreign affairs community, mastering French only requires between 575 and 600 class hours. That might be only a couple years’ worth of classes!
The misconceptions about the difficulty of learning the French language comes from two sources.
First, the fact that French was the language of predilection for high culture and diplomacy in Europe for centuries. This association may have led to the faulty belief that French is more complex and difficult than other European languages.
Second, the French spelling system may take some time to learn.
For example, French and Spanish are very similar from a linguistic point of view, but Spanish has a rather more transparent spelling system while French may seem more opaque. In other words, Spanish is a more phonetic language where you can pronounce everything exactly how it is written once you know the rules (double l is pronounced “y,” h at the beginning of a word is silent, etc.), but this is not the case in French. For example, French incorporates silent letters at the end of a word: the c in blanc (white) is silent; the t in petit (small) is not pronounced.
There is no way around remembering these rules to ensure accuracy of French pronunciation. However, learning pronunciation does not have to be difficult (as we will see below) and it does not mean the overall language is much more difficult than any other.
How to make French seem less complex and intimidating to English speakers?
Shy away from old-fashioned textbooks and methods that place a heavy focus on grammar rules and endless vocabulary lists.
Instead, focus on immersion and make your classes interactive and enjoyable.
Watching authentic French videos in class can be an effective tool to help them learn while having fun. Aside from stimulating listening and pronunciation, they do a great job keeping your students motivated and engaged while also exposing them to the French culture.
For maximum efficacy and efficiency, choose FluentU!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
With this method, students will be shocked at how much French they can understand just by listening and reading subtitles, even if they have limited experience with the language. This will make French seem much less scary!
2. Focus on vocabulary similarities to build confidence
English and French have more in common than your students know…
Students often feel that French is an elitist language that is hard to master for English speakers.
Common areas of complaint include the gender-based system and words that look the same but have different meanings and are pronounced differently.
From a linguistic perspective, our languages are rather closely related.
Both belong to the same family of Romance languages, which means that they share a similar sentence structure and that many words have a common etymology. This gives your English-speaking students a significant head start when it comes to learning French.
In addition, our shared history and the influence of French on the English language after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 has had a considerable impact on vocabulary, idioms and more.
And if that is not enough to convince your students, let them know that a third of all English words (or more!) have a French origin according to linguists.
To teach vocabulary more effectively, avoid long lists of vocabulary that are hard to remember.
When students are disheartened by vocabulary, take some time to focus on fun games that teach real and false friends.
Introduce words in context using fun activities to maximize results.
Play the “True Friend or False Friend?” game! Using pictures, ask your class to shout out the names of the objects in French. For example, display a picture of raisins (raisins secs in French, not to be confused with raisins, the French words for “grapes”) and wait for your students to tell you what it represents.
There may be students who make mistakes, and that is okay. Ask them to repeat themselves, and if they still make a mistake, ask your class: “true friend or false friend?” Play the game every week, focusing on new words and tricky words your students have had problems with week after week.
3. Tackle word gender early and often
English is not a gendered language, so getting the genders of words right can be a challenge for English speakers.
You will need to adopt a strategic approach to teach word gender. There is no foolproof way to know genders for an Anglophone. It is all about memorization and practice.
Honestly, this is a legitimately tough one—but your students do not need to know that!
After some time spent practicing, English speakers will start to get a sense of how to designate gender. While there is not an immediate reason why every French word belongs to a certain gender classification, there are some patterns and rules that students can pick up with time.
As long as gender is part of your lessons, they can develop a great gut instinct for which word is which gender. It can even become second nature!
Be sure to teach words with their associated genders from the beginning, using adjectives to make memorization easier.
Adding an adjective can help students associate the gender more quickly, considering that the adjective is modified based on the gender of the word, and is pronounced differently if the noun is feminine or masculine.
For example, teaching the entire groupe nominal (nominal group) is more effective than simply listing the noun or even the noun and its particule, which can be easily forgotten. When giving them word lists, add adjectives to help them remember the gender of the word with greater ease: un petit chapeau (a little hat), not just chapeau (hat) or un chapeau (a hat).
Another great methods is to teach the rules that can help give indication of a word’s gender (e.g., -tion and -té for feminine words).
Focus on the most common endings that help determine a word’s gender and encourage your students to memorize them. Learning simple rules may not seem like the most exciting part of language learning, but sometimes there is nothing like knowing essential elements to be effective.
Make it fun by turning it into a classroom game. Write common endings endings on pieces of paper, fold them, and place them into an urn. Then, ask your students to take turn and come to the urn and draw a piece of paper, read the ending out loud, and let you know whether they believe it is a feminine or a masculine ending. Ask them to give you one example of a word to illustrate their ending, and create a sentence using the chosen word. Keep track of scores: give them a point for a correct answer, and no point for an incorrect one. Whoever scores the most point, wins the game!
4. Involve French pronunciation in every lesson
French pronunciation is not always your student’s cup of tea…
Your students may often complain that the French accent is difficult to mimic. Some words just seems to be too hard to replicate, and don’t get them started on r, u and the differences between é, è and ê…
Granted, there are a few sounds in French that do not exist in the English language, but all your students need is a little practice. Regular exposure to authentic French audio and video can greatly improve your students’ pronunciation skills.
Beyond this, take the pressure off by making it clear to them that communication matters more than a perfect accent. If they are still unconvinced, let them know that the French-speaking world does not end with France. With 29 countries using French as their official language and many more where French is used alongside the official language, it should bring them comfort that there is more than one accent in the French-speaking world!
First, make sure your students, in their effort to do well in class, are not overly shy and afraid to speak.
To this effect, make pronunciation part of a fun classroom activity as often as you can, and do your best to get everyone involved.
A good way to do this is to practice French speaking using tongue twisters. Turn it into a mini contest! On a given day of the week, pick seven tongue twisters that your students will have to repeat. Write your students’ names on pieces of paper and place them into a hat. In another hat, place pieces of paper with tongue twisters written on them.
Ask a student to come up to the hats and pick a piece of paper from the first hat (the name hat) at random. Then, ask the student whose name is on the paper to come and pick a piece of paper from the second hat. Then, they have to repeat the tongue twister at least five times! Give them a reward if they are successful, such as a French pastry, a piece of chocolate or a book. Pick another student’s name from the hat and repeat this process until all tongue twisters have been correctly spoken and all rewards have been given!
Another clever way to teach French pronunciation is to use songs. Especially when you choose one with a fast pace and a memorable melody, one simple song can do a great job helping with pronunciation and building speaking confidence. Here are some great resources to teach French using songs. To make songs work for you, the best approach is to incorporate them into your lesson plans. Every week, introduce a new song to the class and let your students sing a portion of the song every class over the course of the week. You could either print out the lyrics or select karaoke-style videos, with lyrics playing at the bottom. At the end of the week, your students should be able to sing the entire song with ease and panache!
Lastly, encourage them to watch videos and listen to podcasts every day. This fun activity can greatly increase familiarity with the sounds in the French language as well as build exposure to the French culture. Pick authentic French content and ask them to take notes of unknown words, structures and even interesting facts.
Watching authentic videos will demonstrate to them that understanding authentic content is not as hard as they imagined. TV5 Monde has a great selection of videos and clips from their own TV channels. If you are on FluentU, this platform makes assigning daily French videos—and tracking student progress with them—a breeze! The idea is to arouse their curiosity and show them that understanding French native speakers is within reach.
5. Get organized with grammar
Teaching French grammar is not as hard as they say if you have the right method.
Students often struggle with French grammar rules and complain about the numerous exceptions to the rules in question, which makes it challenging for teachers to know how to help them master French grammar at all.
As part of the Indo-European language family, both French and English share a common grammar and sentence structure. They are accusative languages and maintain syntactic equivalence. That means that both languages have a very similar word order and sentence pattern.
In broad terms, the structures of both the French and English sentence follow the SVO pattern or “Subject, Verb, Object.” This is different from Korean or Japanese, which follow the SOV pattern, or even ergative languages, such as Basque or Iranian, which follow the Agent Verb Object structure.
Also keep in mind that, generally speaking, once your students understand a rule and memorize it, they rarely make mistakes. The focus therefore should not be on blind memorization, but on comprehension and assimilation. It is not because a student can recite a rule by heart that they actually know how to apply it, and vice versa!
To teach grammar more efficiently, be organized and do not be afraid to appeal to visual memory.
When studying a new function, it can be helpful to start by laying out the structure of the sentence so your students can see and understand how the pattern works in French. Draw lines on the blackboards with sentence elements readable at a glance.
Comment + (Verb) + (Subject) + (Object) ?
Then fill in the blanks by writing words and examples underneath each structure so that they are able to customize and create their own sentences using the model.
In one example:
Comment + (Verb) + (Subject) + (Object) ?
Comment va Pierre aujourd’hui ?
(How is Peter today?)
Comment trouves -tu mon dessin ?
(How do you like my drawing?)
Then be proactive and be sure that students have not just learned, but understood the rules.
The best way to do this is to radically change how you teach the rule. Rather than giving them a complex rule to memorize, start by using examples and asking them to identify what is special and unique about each sentence.
For example, if you are studying négation, introduce sentences using a variety of negation adverbs. Then ask them questions that would point them in the direction of the rule they should learn. What do they notice about where these words are located in the sentence? Can they identify a pattern with these adverbs? Do they alter the overall structure of the sentence? Ask the class to carefully review the model examples and deduct a rule based on that. There is no set rule, just personal observations that enable the students to understand it.
Then have a follow-up session after you’ve introduced the rule. Ask students to recap the rule they studied previously in their own words. Make it a fun activity, asking students to interact and share observations. The goal is to come to a conclusion after a process, not recite something they do not understand!
6. Make conjugation fun!
The difficulty of conjugations might just be the most common complaint from French students. In English we’ve got our conjugations, but nothing quite like this.
Memorizing conjugations is a laborious exercise, especially considering the irregular stems that come with it. Students often complain that there are just too many exceptions to the rules, which can make it challenging for you to know how to best teach it in the first place.
In addition, tenses in French and English tend to be used differently. For example, French uses imperfect tense to express past, which is translated in English in various ways (I used to be, I would, I did). This can make it difficult for your students to establish a direct connection between a French tense and its English equivalent and really understand its meaning.
Well, your students will be (very) happy to know that there are fewer tenses in French than in Spanish. That’s right!
Still, learning the value of tenses with no direct English equivalent, like the imperfect, takes time and regular exposure. There is no sneaky way around it, but trust that eventually your good effort will pay off and that, yes, things will just click.
Also, do not be afraid to put things in perspective. Learning the value of tenses is important, but there are not that many tenses to remember to communicate well in French. For example, in modern French, the passé composé is by far the most frequently used past tense construction. It is a compound tense composed of the auxiliary avoir (to have) or être (to be) followed by the past participle of the conjugated verb. Follow these student-friendly language exercises to reinforce passé composé.
First, make sure that your students know the basics and understand the uses of fundamental tenses and build up from there.
Make it a point that they have the right equipment from the start: encourage them to invest in a “Bescherelle conjugaisons,” if they do not already have it, and to browse it regularly. Alternatively, direct them to the Bescherelle’s online verbe conjugueur if they prefer to use technology tools to learn French.
Then focus on developing comfort with essential past tenses such as the imperfect and preterite. Do not despair: the best way to let it sink in is to expose them regularly to a variety of content using the tense so they start getting a feel for its meaning.
Reading books in French is generally a great way to build familiarity with the imperfect and preterite considering that they are the tenses of choice for literary descriptions (imperfect), past recollections of events (preterite) and overall writing.
Complement any reading assignment with writing workshops. Asking your students to regularly take the time and write their own stories using past tenses will dramatically boost their understanding of each tense. In your prompts, ask them to write a story of their choice and alternate storytelling with descriptions of the characters and settings. The action of putting pen to paper will enable them to develop an intimate relationship with these tenses and familiarize themselves with their respective usages.
Lastly, it could be helpful to decorate classes with colorful verb billboards. Seeing them displayed can help build familiarity with each tense while also making them fun and approachable. Hang them in strategic places across your classroom and do not forget to hide them on test day. No cheating allowed!
Now that you know how to best teach French to English speakers, all you need is to get started!
Bon courage ! (Good luck!)