Teaching French to kids can be a real challenge.
They’re not your most focused learners, to say the least!
However, kids can also become your most successful students.
They’re natural language acquirers who can easily pick up a language without much conscious effort, unlike teenagers and adults.
Yet to be effective, early French language teaching needs to be mindful of the particular needs, behaviors and skills of children.
Here are some tested and proven strategies to successfully teach the language of Molière to kids.
New School: 4 Effective Strategies for Teaching Kids French Today
Strategy #1: Don’t Make It Too Formal
Don’t overwhelm your young students with complicated information. Keep it simple, keep it playful, and they should be able to use every new structure, vocabulary and idiom with ease after a class. Structure is important, but flexibility, interactivity and fun are the best ways to keep them engaged.
Rigid thinking and teaching can prevent students of any age from learning a language effectively. Mix it up and be sure to focus on practice over grades and textbooks! Here are some effective games and activities specifically targeted to young learners.
Favorite games and activities for young learners
Songs are a fantastic tool to develop intuitive learning and stimulate memorization. Fun, upbeat and colorful, they’re particularly good for helping your shyest students leave their shells and express themselves with confidence.
“La Danse des canards” (“The Ducks’ Dance”), “La Chenille” (“The Caterpillar/Chain Dance”) and “À la Queuleuleu” (“In Line”) are popular songs that are always a hit with young French students. Beyond teaching them new words through the lyrics, you can help them immerse themselves in a cultural element that usually only natives would know.
A great way to teach songs is to start by playing the tune first: Let your students enjoy it and, hopefully, connect emotionally to the song through the rhythm, pauses and voice of the artist. Then, ask them what they felt and what they believed the song was about.
Repeat the song again, this time focusing on a particular verse and asking them to repeat it—by singing along! It may be helpful to also hand them a transcript of the song once you’ve gone over it, or to write down the lyrics you’ve just reviewed on the blackboard.
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Let them ask you about unknown vocabulary and let them try to make sense of the song. And don’t forget to end the activity with another confident round of singing!
Word games are a playful way to enrich your young students’ vocabulary. Rather than giving them a long list of words to learn, have them guess the words!
Children need to be challenged when learning French vocabulary and get easily bored with seemingly endless word lists. A good way to challenge them is to build an information gap. Give them a few clues, act the word or even draw it if possible, and let them come to the meaning on their own. Raise the stakes by keeping score of who’s guessed the most words and reward them with a small present, such as a picture, French postcard or homemade French cookie.
Have confidence that they can put the puzzle together and will thank you for it.
Also, feel free to check out this post for alternative word game ideas!
Kids absorb knowledge like sponges, so use every occasion to stimulate them.
Learning shouldn’t be restricted to the classroom—actually, children are more inclined to learn when they’re in a relaxed environment.
A cultural outing, like a trip to a museum, could be a great opportunity to teach them about the vocabulary of art, including famous French painters or popular painting movements like classicism.
Alternatively, a visit to a fun place like the zoo can also be a time to teach them about specialized vocabulary, like that of the animal kingdom, animal species, etc.
Maximize these activities by preparing for the trip ahead of time. Start with a lesson going over what you’ll see—get them excited!
Here’s an idea of how you could get the most out of a trip to the zoo:
Use a map of the zoo you’ll be visiting (or draw a simplified one yourself on the blackboard to give it your personal touch), and start by outlining the various sections of the zoo using French vocabulary. Ask your students which animals they can expect in a particular area using pictures—or miming skills!
Then, describe the various people working at the zoo and write key words to describe their responsibilities.
Don’t forget to give your students homework: Assign an animal per student and ask them to do some brief research about it, including where they come from, what they eat and their personality traits.
On visit day, review what you’ve learned during the class—let them identify the animals and ask the student who has researched each animal tell the class what they know about them!
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Strategy #2: Enroll Them in a Pen Pal Program
Having pen pals helps young students leave their shells and interact with people from various cultures at an early age. It also puts their French language skills into practice directly. Having a connection to the language matters.
Let’s quickly take a closer look at some advantages pen pal programs can offer.
Advantages of pen pal programs
- It’s more motivating to learn a language when you have some connection to it. Help them build this connection early on by searching for a French learner who is learning English. It can be a fantastic and powerful way for both of them to develop their language skills—and ultimately, perhaps, a friendship.
- It’s an interactive and social way to learn French. This interaction will help them activate their knowledge of French culture, express themselves in a fluid way using words that they know and broaden their vocabulary. It will also teach them about how to interact with people from various backgrounds, a skill particularly helpful in a global era.
- It will fast-track their understanding of French culture. Having pen pals will open your students to the French world and stir their curiosity about French customs, history and more. Because common topics of exchange include daily routines, food, habits, etc., your students will pick up on numerous cultural elements without even realizing it—and will hopefully spontaneously want to learn more about France.
Finding the right pen pal program can be a challenge, but fear not, we have some great resources for you!
Favorite pen pal programs
- International Pen Friends: This is perhaps one of the oldest pen pal programs around. It has helped over 2 million language learners find and correspond with a new friend from their country of interest since 1967, and has over 300,000 current members on file. If you’re willing to pay for a pen pal program, this is the way to go!
- PenPal World: Entirely free, PenPal World enables you to connect with people from all over the world for a language exchange. As a safety feature, the site gives children the option to block adults entirely and only search for age-appropriate correspondents.
- PenpalsNow!: This is another incredible free pen pal program that enables students to post information so they can search for their desired pen pal. Alternatively, the site allows them not to post anything publicly but connect with their favorite members directly.
Strategy #3: Include Objects, Colors and Crafts
Teaching has to be interactive, but keep in mind that we all learn differently. Some of your young learners may have a better capacity for retaining information if they make a visual association with the word they’ve just learned.
Despite the effectiveness of visual aids in the French classroom, too much visual stimulation can backfire with younger learners, so first, here are a couple things you’ll want to be careful of doing.
Pitfalls to avoid with visual teaching
- Don’t distract them. Again, visualisation can be a helpful method to stimulate memory. Keep in mind, however, that the focus should always be on the language. If you believe that your students are distracted, bring the focus back to the lesson immediately. Drop the visual aid and move to a neutral environment. The blackboard, for example. Write the word you’re teaching and ask them to focus on the letters and spelling.
- Don’t overwhelm them. It’s not helpful to the learning process to have too many things going on. For example, you should only use and display one object at a time while teaching words or discussing a particular theme. Similarly, give students ample time to absorb new elements before moving to another one. A good way to do this is to ask them questions individually in a way that forces them to build an answer using the word or elements you’re discussing. For example, if you’re using a doll to teach them the word poupée (doll), ask them if the doll has blonde hair, and to start their answer sentence with La poupée… (The doll…).
Ways to integrate visual stimulation into your classes
Create an empowering vision board
Use photographs, magazine cutouts, objects, flowers, inspirational words, quotes, thoughts and whatever represents a concept you’re discussing to create a vision board for the classroom. Images don’t have to come from French magazines, but text should be in French only.
If your school library is subscribed to some French magazines, it could be appropriate to request that the librarian set aside old issues of various news sources that you believe are age-appropriate, and to hand them out to your students so they can make their selection.
Take the time to collect elements based on a given theme and arrange them in a way that showcases your and your students’ favorite pictures and also highlights key French text. If you’re unable to find specific words in French, feel free to write them yourself using bold-sized letters and colors.
An alternative resource is the Internet. Feel free to print select articles from free French online resources for children, such as Mon Quotidien (My Daily), Sciences et Avenir (Sciences and Future) or Le Journal de Mickey (Mickey Magazine).
Decorate the classroom with this board and ask your students to create their own board based on a topic they love, such as their favorite band, movie or athlete. Ask them to bring it to class and give them the choice to either take it home, where they can hang it in their bedroom, or to leave it as a class poster.
Decorate your class with French signs
Use maps of France, French vocabulary charts, conjugation boards, etc., and spread them throughout the classroom. Make sure they’re colorful and large enough to draw (and retain!) attention. Also, make sure they match what you’re teaching. And don’t forget to hide them on test days to make sure your students don’t cheat!
Use fun puppets and other objects!
Puppets, as well as images, dice, clothes, maps and other real-life objects can be particularly helpful for your students in acquiring new vocabulary. Start by describing familiar attributes of the object, such as color, shape, use, texture, etc. Make this a collaborative effort and let every student participate.
A great way to make sure they’re involved and enthused about this game is by giving each student the chance to touch and look at the object while you ask them a question about it. For example, if Jenny gives the puppet to Max, ask Max a question about the puppet, and then let Max give it to another student, and ask that student a question, and so forth.
Strategy #4: Appeal to Their Passions
Tapping into your young students’ passions is a clever way to get them naturally involved and motivated. It’s also a great way for them to potentially connect with like-minded French natives, as discovering common interests can help bridge the language and cultural gap. Make your classes relevant to their needs and make sure they have fun in the process!
Here are a couple ways to do that.
Teach what and how they want to learn (with video)
One way to cater to your students’ interests is almost obvious: Children love TV, so don’t hesitate to bring videos to class. Give them some context and describe briefly what the story is about so it’s easier for them to follow.
Rather than playing the video in full, pause regularly and replay every scene to make sure they catch every detail. Keep them engaged by asking questions about the storyline. This will give you an indication of whether they understand what is happening and if they’re following the movie or show actively.
Also, don’t forget to use this activity as an opportunity to discuss new words, idioms and useful sentence structures. Write key vocabulary on the board and ask your students to take notes.
Create a fun environment in which they can participate
Create a playful environment in which your students are comfortable learning and interacting. Here are a few activity ideas to get you started.
- Introduce “passion sharing” activities. Give each student the opportunity to share before the class their favorite hobby, game, sport, etc. This is a great way to bring what they love to the classroom and offers an opportunity for them to build French vocabulary related to a subject they like to talk about! Ask them to create a 5-to-10 minute oral presentation about their favorite subject. Let them be in control—don’t give a predefined format, and encourage them to be creative. For example, they could dress as their favorite athlete and tell their classmates why they love this particular outfit, what it represents, what the colors mean, how long the sport has been around, etc. Let them use the blackboard to write key words—kids love this particularly!
- Schedule French breakfasts and tea times. Have your students participate in food-based activities, and use them as a tool to discuss French eating rituals and favorite foods. Turn it into a special occasion: Give them at least a month’s notice to get them excited and give them ample time to look up recipes and dish ideas and discuss possibilities after class. This website offers a great selection of French dishes for kids—all in French!
- Host mock TV shows in which they are the stars. Kids love to play stars! There are numerous TV shows that are easy to imitate in class and that give the impression that they’re on TV. “Une Famille en Or” (“Family Feud”) is a great one. Start by preparing a list of questions and answers ahead of time. Use topics you’ve studied together previously, or new ones, such as French comics characters, Christmas in France or French literature. Then build teams, and get ready for some fun! Begin by playing a video of the French version of the game and discuss it with your young learners. Get their feedback and get them enthused—they’re about to experience it themselves! Finally, host the game using your own questions, keep track of the score manually using the blackboard and refer to the game’s rules when in doubt.
Now that you know how to teach French to children efficiently, don’t hesitate to put these tips into practice—and don’t forget to have fun with it!
Teaching French to students early on is an incredibly rewarding experience.
Young students grow up having fond memories of their first French teachers, and often admit that they’ve been critical in their early development.
Bonne chance à vous ! (Good luck to you!)
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