Sometimes, it seems like it would take a whole village to fill the spaces in your students’ French vocabulary.
Forget the numerous false cognates, complex pronunciations and spelling rules.
Just making sure they memorize a noun’s gender and plural form can be a frustrating affair.
But not to worry!
So read on.
By the end, the process of teaching new words to your students will hold no mystery for you!
But first, here are a few widely applicable tips to start you off on the right foot.
Tips for Teaching French Vocabulary
- Challenge your students: Expose your students to a wide range of vocabulary, idioms and technical words. Don’t limit yourself (or them) to one topic or to artificial “classroom” vocabulary: There’s more to French than your usual “colors,” “doctor’s appointment” or “four seasons.”
- Use a variety of content: From news articles to novel extracts, the options are endless. Think outside the box and include any formats that tend to be a hit with your students. Depending on their age and interests, these can include cartoons, video clips, stand-up comedy shows or even your favorite French movies. At FluentU, you can find great French video content for all students. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
- Be consistent: The key to teaching vocabulary the right way is to do it regularly. It’s more effective to include a short vocabulary activity in each of your lessons than to devote a full session to it once in a blue moon!
- Decorate your walls with words: At the very least, use posters! In addition to that, you can print vocabulary charts and pin them on your walls, set them up as your classroom computer’s desktop background, hand them out to the school’s librarian and ask them to put them up as well, etc.
- Encourage reading: Words are only useful if your students actually find them useful. The more they read, the more likely they are to view these words again, understand their use in context and gain increasing familiarity with them.
- Encourage looking up unknown words in a dictionary: And if your students aren’t wild about that, at least direct them to a good online bilingual resource.
- Test regularly: Involve students in periodic quizzes to check levels of vocab knowledge and pair students to correct each other for immediate feedback and explanation, if necessary. Encourage them to discuss the terms and words with one another, and check for misunderstanding during reviews.
8 Practically Genius Ideas for Teaching French Vocabulary Effectively
1. Language stories
Rather than giving your students long vocabulary lists to memorize, build an emotional connection between your students and vocab words. How? By explaining their etymology and taking your class back in time.
A detour through history is a great way to introduce seemingly difficult words and idioms using anecdotes and other quirky facts that make an impression. Trust us, they will remember the word if they associate it with a story that moves them. It’s also an enriching way to teach French culture and keep the attention level high throughout a class session: Pique their curiosity!
This activity also provides an opportunity to introduce the origins of the French language and show to what extent it was receptive to other civilizations and peoples, like the Gauls, Romans, Greeks, Arabs and more.
Using a dictionary of etymology can be helpful for creating your lessons—the best one being the “Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française” by the Presses Universitaires de France by far! Otherwise, this website provides a good introduction to the origins of certain French words—all en français (in French)!
Introduce new words on the blackboard and let your students guess their meaning first. Correct them if necessary and give the word’s background. Complete this introduction by providing examples of usage in context, synonyms, the root and similar words (words from the same family in their nominal, adjective and adverbial forms).
For example, the word baragouiner (to jabber) comes from the fusion of two Breton words, bara and gwin, which respectively mean in French le pain (bread) and le vin (wine). These words were commonly used in Breton taverns where people spoke French—and as you can guess, the word implies that once one has too much of the latter, they are unable to speak in an intelligible fashion. Today, the word is used to describe a person’s attempt at speaking a foreign language (and pronouncing words incorrectly), or to convey one mumbling in a manner that is hard to understand.
Keep it interesting and show your students how to use this word in context. For example:
Jean apprend l’anglais, mais c’est plus du baragouinage qu’autre chose !
(John is learning English, but it sounds more jibberish than anything else!)
Je les remerciais en baragouinant quelques mots d’italien.
(I thanked them and babbled a few Italian words.)
Introduce them to words from the same family. In this case, un baragouineur is “a person who jabbers.” Le baragouin is “a foreign language one doesn’t understand.” Le baragouinage has two meanings: It is “the fact that one is jabbering” and “the foreign language one doesn’t understand.”
This is a great activity to not only build vocabulary but also to activate current knowledge and show your students that they know more than they (sometimes!) give themselves credit for.
Start by printing out some appropriate articles, novel extracts or even comics. Highlight 10 words. Ask your students to replace them with absolute synonyms, i.e., words that mean exactly the same, while respecting the grammatical form of the word. For example, if the word is a conjugated verb, students have to make it “fit” so it reads identically in the sentence (vs. using, say, an infinitive).
For example, if your students need to replace satisfaits (satisfied) in the sentence Les Anglais sont parfaitement satisfaits des termes du contrat (The Brits are perfectly satisfied with the terms of the contract), your students could use heureux (happy) or contents (pleased).
Ideally, these should be recently-learned words, but new words or familiar words work as well. The goal is to encourage students to utilize more complex words to broaden their vocabulary going forward.
When picking the words to replace, keep in mind that conjugated verbs are more challenging than nouns, adjectives and of course, adverbs, the latter of which remain invariable.
This is also a good exercise to help your students develop methods for guessing the meaning of words that they don’t know without being unsettled. Teach them to look for elements that can help them understand a problem word and to focus on the context if they don’t know one of the words.
No dictionary is allowed, but do encourage your students to browse a thesaurus regularly in their free time to get better and better at this fun exercise!
3. Contraire ! (Opposite!)
This is the exercise you’ve been looking for to push your students out of their comfort zone!
Contraire ! follows the exact same principles as the copycat activity, except that students now have to replace highlighted words with antonyms.
More out-of-the-box but equally useful, it is a great way to test your students’ understanding in context and help them build vocabulary while having fun.
Make it playful and engaging by creating a full classroom activity around it: Tell your students that today’s class is all about “opposites” and lay out the following rules: Each student will have to participate today, and at random, you’ll interrupt some of them while they’re talking and say “Contraire ! [word]” (“Opposite! [word]”).
When they hear you say that, that’s a signal that they’ll have to quickly replace the word they used with an antonym on the spot. For example, if your student says “Ce n’est pas si simple !” and you say “Contraire ! simple” (“Opposite! simple”), your student will then come up with his best answer.
Like with “copycats,” students need to respect the grammar format and make words “fit” in a sentence so it “reads” well: A conjugated verb replaces a conjugated verb, a plural noun replaces a plural noun, an adjective replaces an adjective, etc. So to continue with the example above, your student would have to say something like difficile (difficult), dur (hard) or complexe (complex).
No cheating or dictionary allowed—and quick thinking is rewarded!
4. When in Rome
This is a great, fun, empowering activity that even your least active students will love. Why? Because of the power of the crowd! Read up and see why for yourself.
Start by telling your students that you’re no longer in the States or whatever the case may be, but in Ancient Rome, in a Word Arena. You, the Word Master, will introduce words and have your students decide whether what you present to them is “good” or “bad,” “true” or “false,” etc.
Have them indicate, using thumbs-ups or thumbs-downs, if they’d like to be called opportuniste (opportunistic), ingrat (ingrate), adroit (skilled), etc. Show them a peach and ask them if this is une fraise (a strawberry).
Pick a student at random, including those who gave a wrong answer, and let them explain why or (why not)…in French!
The rest of the group can vote whether the student made a convincing case or not—some of the students may change their minds. Then, give the answer—the students who are correct now can decide the “fate” of the mistaken students.
Nothing too dreadful, of course—just a penalty involving the word in question. For example, each of them has to make a sentence using the word you introduced!
5. Qu’est-ce que tu viens de dire ? (What did you just say?)
This is a fun activity centered on paraphrasing information: It’s a great way for students to wrack their brains to identify certain data and use their own words to reformulate it.
Why is this helpful?
Because beyond the fact that it tests their understanding skills, it imitates something that happens all too often in the real world. Whether it’s during a movie, while watching the news or during an actual conversation, it’s very likely that they’ll be asked this very question from their friends who missed a word (even French-speaking friends!): “Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit ?” (“What did he say?”)
Paraphrasing helps strengthen receptive oral language skills, the ability to understand what is being said and the ability to express things in a clearer manner.
Start by playing a video clip or have a student read a news article extract out loud. Then, pause and ask the question to one student you pick at random: “Qu’est-ce qu’il vient de dire ?”
Let the student repeat and/or explain the part he just heard to the class out loud. Get a peer to help if he is having difficulty. The goal is to make it fun, so tell students that there’s no right answer. All that matters is that they try to really convey what they understood.
While you’re at it, ask them to raise questions, predict what will happen next in the story, make up their own ending, come up with solutions to problems or tell the class what they like and dislike about what they just listened to. All in French!
6. Vocabulary detectives
This activity is perfect for building a classroom’s lexicon. Why? Because not only does it reinforce the newest words you’ve taught in class, but it involves a list that is built collaboratively by students as well!
Here’s how it works: Pick a theme for the class and give your students key vocabulary to use in conversation. Then, pick the day’s vocabulary detectives, two students whose duty it is to listen to the people talking around them—who are using the new words, phrases and idioms—and spot and jot down the new vocab in the class’s vocabulary book.
For example, if the theme of the day is La Paternité (paternity), some words you could introduce to make discussions more interesting include congé parental (family leave), paternel (paternal) or être père (to be a father). Students are more than welcome to use other words: Leave it up to their creativity!
Meanwhile, the vocabulary detectives have to walk around the various groups and simply shadow the discussions. Their duty is to keep track of what they’ve heard and document the words found: Their vocabulary log should include the word, who spoke it, in what context it was used, etc.
Before the end of the class, the vocabulary detectives should present their findings to the other students, who should take notes and discuss the words.
Feel free to print an organized list of the class’s vocabulary book, featuring the words of the week, and hand out the document for your students to review. Make it count: Don’t forget to include some of these words in your tests!
7. C’est tabou ! (It’s taboo!)
This is a clever way to practice vocabulary, as the activity encourages students to find creative ways to explain a word and convey its meaning without using it.
Here’s how it works: Have a student come to the front of the class and whisper a French word in their ear. Alternatively, you can prepare pieces of paper with words written on them, fold them, put them in a box and let students pick their own word!
The object of the game is to make their peers guess the word, and there’s only one rule: Never say the word! Add a 90-second time limit to make it more challenging, and let students try to guess the words as fast as possible.
8. Writer’s corner
This is a creative alternative to your usual “word of the day” activity—this actually expands on it by asking students to write a personal text about the word in question.
Every other week, tell your students that the “word of the day” becomes special—the word in question becomes the theme of their own writing. You have the option to either make one of the “words of the day” you introduced during the week the theme of the writing workshop, or to introduce a completely new word (and leave it up to your students to research it further and write about it!).
Let students pick the format of their choice and express themselves: It can be anything from a 400-to-500 word essay to a 4-minute song, a poem, a haiku, a diary extract, a satirical dictionary entry à la “Encyclopédie” (a great way to channel their inner Diderot!), or even a joke, a charade, a dialogue, a brief news article or a short story.
Some good words to use as themes include la paternité (paternity), comprendre (to understand), naviguer (to navigate) or marathon (marathon).
Encourage students to showcase their best work and share it with the class.
Now that you’ve mastered the art of teaching French vocabulary, you can spread knowledge while having more fun.
A très vite pour de nouvelles aventures ! (See you soon for new adventures!)
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