Written to the song: Say you’ll be there — Spice Girls

“To be upset over what you don’t have is to waste what you do have” — Unknown

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

This past month I have been in reflective and action mode regarding my language instruction, and the needs of my students. As the name “French Immersion” implies, the curriculum states that French should be taught in an immersive second-language environment, with the goal of students absorbing and learning the language rather than memorizing verbs. While I love immersion and consider it to be the best way to learn a language, I find that there isn’t enough direct instruction to fix the “minor” language errors. I have students in my class who will be going to middle-school next year, and are misspelling common words such as, for and because, do not comprehend the meaning behind French homophones, and are unaware of how to conjugate common verbs. What would you do in this situation?

I decided to take my French instruction back three steps. While immersion is the very best way to learn a language, common mistakes need to be corrected, or they will last a lifetime. My students did not understand the difference between masculine and feminine French words, kept on saying “j’ai a” (meaning ‘I have have’ — a redundant sentence due to not understanding verb conjugations), and say “je suis fini” rather than “j’ai fini”, a common error meaning I am finished (dead) rather than I have completed my work.
Here are some strategies that I dreamt about and applied that helped correct these simple but powerful language errors.

  1. Chalkboard corrections. While marking my students’ work, I started taking note of common errors. Initially, before morning announcements I put up a sentence with multiple errors that I create based on their spelling and grammatical errors. I tell them how many mistakes to look for, set two minutes on the timer, and the students give me a thumbs-up once they find the errors. We take it up as a class, going through the reasoning behind each mistake to better understand the concept. I have recently jazzed-up this activity by purchasing four adhesive chalkboards which I put on the doors, shelves, etc. I split the class up into four groups and we have a competition to see which group works the best as a team to solve the problem as quickly as possible. It gets so intense, I had to purchase a referee whistle.
  2. Homophone work. French is made up of many homophones. One example of this is vers/verre/vert/ver, meaning “towards”, “glass”, “green”, and “a worm”. I select common homophones such as mais/mes (“but” vs. “mine (pl).”) and à/a (“there” vs. “to have”), and provide them with exercises and creative writing activities to really understanding the meaning. Fluent French writers need to convey a meaningful message. Getting stuck with homophones is a skill which needs to be perfected and understood.
  3. Guerre Dictionnaire. Learning the difference between masculine and feminine words in French take time…and so does learning how to use a dictionary. To learn how to use a dictionary quickly, we play a game which translates to “dictionary war”. I select two volunteers, and give them a word which they have to tell me is masculine or feminine. The whole class cheers on the contestants who are scrambling to find the gender of word. It’s pretty simple — and they beg me to “play” this game.
  4. Pronunciation/Reading Centres. This may sound surprising, but kids are really interested in learning how to pronounce words properly. A few times a week I read in small groups with my students, and they ask me specific questions about pronunciation. When you work in a small group, it makes it easier and less-intimidating to ask questions. We work on specific sounds which I challenge them to use and practice throughout the week.
  5. French Word Wall. Spelling is hard, especially when beginning to learn French. Having a visual dictionary with common words is great, so that students can memorize these words (by looking at them daily), and easily proof-read their spelling.
  6. Morning Meetings. At least once a week, we have our classroom morning meetings, where I ask them a question (ex: how do we know it’s winter outside, or who inspired you this year?), and we go around in a circle to answer the question. During this time, the students are asked to answer the question in a full-sentence in French. Although during this time, I find that a lot of my students will speak franglais (a mixture of French and English). We developed a system where the students in my class encourage others by helping them with their translations if they don’t know a word, and catch them on their grammatical mistakes. This allows them to encourage each other and pay attention. We even created a cool symbol to say “I have a comment or question” about someone’s point.

Language is the absolute best, but bad language habits need to be corrected and cared for. The overall goal of achieving fluency in a language can only be achieved when the “minor” mistakes are accounted for.

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