Sunday, March 25, 2007

So you don't speak French, but you want to help your children to learn it? Part III: Books and textbooks

While it's getting easier to find children's books in French at big box bookstores and online (,, and I even find them at public library book sales and in some used bookstores--often they are picture dictionary-type books with a picture of an object or person labeled with the English word and its French translation, or a story printed in French and English on facing pages. Some include simplified pronunciation guides (which are occasionally wrong, like Carol Watson's Let's Learn French which insists that "est-ce que" is pronounced "es-ker" and "je" become "jer," which is not the case!). For example, Barron's Bilingual First Books publishes short paperback books on different themes (transportation, food, etc.) illustrated with simple drawings with the English word, its French translation, and an approximate pronunciation. Other vocabulary books are more involved with complicated pictures, like Passport Books' Let's Learn French Picture Dictionary, which boasts 1550+ common words.

But if you don't speak French, books that are just illustrated vocabulary lists aren't going to help you much! You might find the Usborne books a bit more useful; some of them are Internet-linked so that you can hear the proper pronunciation and then imitate it. Usborne also sells French flashcards (the girls I tutor love to play with them, even though the words are completely decontextualized, which the teacher in me frowns upon), a book with an animated DVD, a sticker book that teaches French, and a great French songbook. (Moreover, Usborne carries books in Spanish and other languages as well.)

Hmmm. Books like these are a good start, but not enough. It seems to me that we're doing kids a disservice to teach them that every word in English has an equivalent in French (or any language, for that matter). Learning vocabulary involves understanding the appropriate contexts for the word, what other words collocate with it, what idiomatic expressions it appears in, where its meaning overlaps or doesn't overlap with the English translation, how it interacts with grammar and syntax, and more. It's the depth of knowledge, not the length of the vocabulary list, which matters. Plus, if you train your kids to expect to hear the English translation each time you say the French word, then they learn to tune out the French and wait for the English.

(To be fair, some picture dictionaries, like McGraw-Hill's, offer phrases and expressions and verbs in addition to lists of nouns, which will help kids learn to communicate in addition to labeling. Additionally, some bilingual story books do exist. The one I recommend most--and even use with my college students when we study the imparfait verb tense, is Marcus Plaisimond's Haitian Days: Ti Djo Remembers. Illustrated with gorgeous colorful paintings by Haitian artists, it tells the story of a little boy's daily life growing up in Haiti--going to the market, telling jokes with his friends, watching his aunt go fishing, going to church. Each page is written in English, in French, and in Haitian Creole, and a cassette with the narrator speaking all three languages is also available--what a fantastic resource!)

What I would recommend most are books that tell a story in French with clear enough pictures, cognates, and glossed words (key expressions translated or explained in the margins) that kids can get the gist of it without needing word-for-word translations. Here's my favorite: L'Alphabet: A Child's Introduction to the Letters and Sounds of French from Passport Books, illustrated by Roger Paré (no author listed). Each page focuses on one letter; each page has one sentence with several words starting with that letter. A very silly picture accompanies the sentence. For example, "Un boa fait des bulles dans son bain." The image of the large snake in a bubble bath is eye-catching and doesn't require a translation! Here's another one: "Un dinosaure danse avec un dauphin," with a happy green dinosaur waltzing with a dolphin. Unfortunately the book appears to be out of print, but I bought it only a couple of years ago. Try to find your own copy!

You can even find French board books in the US that will be easy for anglophone kids to understand, such as Mon papa and Ma maman, available online. (My nephew will pick up Mon papa and say "Daddy!")

Another great Usborne book is the French Songbook, which provides the sheet music for children's songs, simple illustrations, and summaries of the lyrics (without actually translating them word-for-word).

But if you can't access good storybooks in French, try this: find French translations of your kids' favorite stories, fairy tales, and picture books. Since they'll know their beloved stories inside and out, they won't need a translation when they listen to or read the story in French! The following are definitely available in French here in the US, for example: the Madeline books, Goodnight Moon, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. If you can't read them the French version to the kids, find someone who can (have them record a cassette tape) or buy the audio book in French. (I have tapes of fairy tales with picture books from France, but they're old and also out of print so I won't even bother to list them here. I'm sure you can find some newer ones by searching online bookstores!) In addition to picture books and story books, look for simple nonfiction. At a yard sale, I picked up some board books in French on nature themes--animal homes, animal babies, and seasons. Since the information is universal and each page has illustrations, you and your kids can figure out what the sentences are saying.

You can also consider sharing books about France and francophone countries with your children, even if they're written in English, like the charming Madeline books. Then there are also books and activity books designed to expose children to French language and culture. Coloring books, for instance, would be a good start. I like The French Culture Coloring Book because it has explanations in English which tell more about the topics (including French geography, history, and holidays, bakeries, the Concorde, and Notre-Dame). Usborne, as I mentioned earlier, sells a French sticker book. I've also purchased--but not used yet--the French Fun Book and CD Pack from McGraw-Hill which includes activities like crosswords, punch-out paper dolls, dot-to-dots, and puzzles. (By the way, they also publish a Spanish edition of this, and I've seen several different Spanish coloring books, even at my local Walgreen's.)

Don't forget about comic books, which seem to appeal universally to children. In France, comic books are considered literature; adults read them as fervently as kids (though not always the same ones). Many of these--Tintin, Astérix, les Schtroumpfs (the Smurfs)--are available in English translations. Kids could read them in English first, then in French. Maybe you can even find the animated versions on video or DVD in French!

Finally, I'd like to mention a couple of French textbook packages that are available for anglophone kids. French for Children is a kit published by McGraw-Hill which includes an activity book, two CDs that lead kids through the songs and exercises in the activity book, and a CD for parents/teachers. It retails for $29.95, which is quite reasonable compared with the next two programs. I personally find the songs and activities pretty stultifying, but then I'm a grown-up with years of practice speaking French. The six-year-old I tutor has no trouble sitting through one lesson and, say, matching a child's name to his age, though the four-year-old doesn't pay attention. Their mom tells me that she has learned quite a bit of French just by listening to the CDs in the car with them. Of course, repetition is essential for learning a language, and kids tend to like repetition!

Another package of materials designed for young children (pre-kindergarten through grade 2) is the Wright Groups's Oral Language Builder kits (which can work for English, French, and Spanish, since the text of the story isn't actually printed in the books). These ten kits consist of a storybook with songs, flashcards, and more--including a teacher's guide--to teach a language to children and encourage them to speak it. While this set is intended for classroom use (with three-foot tall books), I imagine it could be used at home as well. I saw a demo of these materials at the CCFLT conference, but haven't investigated them further as each unit is $180.

Another kit for teachers of French in the elementary schools comes from the National Textbook Company: Vive le Français: The Complete French-Language Development Program. This huge kit centers on two stories ("The Three Little Pigs" and one about a French family) that the teacher slowly presents to the kids, sneaking in grammar along with vocabulary. (The 344-page teacher's manual gives detailed directions and even explains French grammar for teachers who don't speak French themselves.) There's two big books, huge flashcards, blackline masters, five cassettes of songs and stories, an animated video of the two stories, posters, and an animal puppet. There's so much stuff it's a bit intimidating to look through! Some of the lessons described in the manual are not particularly communicative, but others propose ideas that never would have occurred to me. Apparently you can also buy individual workbooks for kids at $12 apiece. I'm very lucky that my friend Cynde won this package at a raffle at the CCFLT conference and passed it on to me since she's a Spanish teacher: according to the publisher's website, this kit costs $861!!! But it's the most comprehensive of anything I've described so far in these three posts about French learning materials, and it's designed to be user-friendly even for those who are learning French along with their kids (which is, after all, the target audience for these posts!).

Finally, why not consider making your own books with the kids? Take pictures of people, places, and things, put them in an album (or print them from digital files), and label them or write stories about them. Kids can also write and illustrate stories (fiction and nonfiction) themselves.

By the way, you'll notice that some of these books aren't easily available through Amazon; instead, try Sosnowski Language Resources, a Colorado company that provides materials in French and Spanish, or Continental Book Company, also in Colorado, which carries books in many languages. They offer tons more books than I could ever detail here on my blog!

My final post (part IV) in this series will cover materials other than music (part I), videos (part II), and books. These posts are taking hours and hours to put together, though, so it may be another week before I get it written and researched and posted. In the meantime, please let me know if this is useful or if you have any additional suggestions of materials!


  1. Very helpful!! My son is 6 months old, and I want to begin teaching him French consistently. Great resources!! Thank you.

    1. Well, you are very welcome! But re-reading this five years after it was written, I realize that it needs an update. (For example, I didn't even mention YouTube, which is a marvelous free resource for language learners, or children's book apps for the iPad.)

      What I can definitely recommend now, though, is a course delivered via email for six months, designed for parents who want to learn French along with their young children: Plus it's very inexpensive.

      Bonne chance!