Tuesday, May 15, 2007

fun and games with English and French

Teaching languages to children, I'm finding, usually requires a very different approach than teaching languages to college students and adults. It's taken me a semester and a half of working with a four-year-old and her six-year-old sister for me to realize that I don't have to knock myself out by creating, say, an elaborate three-round Jeopardy-style game pitting different teams against each other one day, then a rousing game of "flyswatter" where students race to the board to hit pictures of words that I define in French the next day, like I might do to help my college kids practice French vocabulary. (Not that I don't enjoy activities like those--especially once I've developed them and then can just adapt them the following semester. Email me if you'd like a handout detailing my favorite vocabulary activities--I used it for a conference presentation and gave it to the graduate student teachers I supervised.)

Anyway, the girls I tutor don't need complicated games, and they don't care if we play the same game more than once--in fact, they seem to prefer the repetition! This is refreshing. It means that as a tutor I don't have to come up with brand-new games for every session, and more importantly, playing the same game over and over builds the girls' confidence and gives them more exposure to comprehensible input in the language.

So I thought I'd share some of the activities that they've liked the most. The first ones are in English, because I'm also tutoring a first-grader who's struggling to learn to read in school, but the games we play could also work with children learning a second language.

Here's our first hopscotch game. We meet in the public library--no drawing on the sidewalk allowed--so I used a cheap plastic tablecloth. I wrote a simple sentence about what we had done the previous lesson (reading a book about making pizza and then actually doing so ourselves) and included two possibilities for two of the words. As she hopped, she read the sentence aloud.

Now here's the extreme hopscotch version with thirty different circles to choose from; to make a logical sentence you pretty much have to jump all over. Sometimes we take turns, and sometimes we have stuffed animals do the hopping. Either way, she has to read aloud and it has to make sense! I like these two games because they get her up and moving around. A solid hour of reading tutoring after a full day of school would be hard on anyone, but especially a six-year-old with a short attention span.

Hopscotch offers all sorts of possibilities for language learners. In this example, all the subject pronouns are third person singular, as are the verbs; but you could practice verb conjugation by using different subjects. For pre-literate students, you could always draw pictures, use different colors, or make other modifications. And I bet a Twister game with words could prove interesting, too!
Next, I adapted a Candyland game board by writing word families on each square (such as "eet" and "ump"). When you land on a square, you have to say a word that belongs in that word family (like "feet" and "jump"). Repeating words is not allowed.

We also worked on word families with the card game Go Fish. I took cards and taped one of her spelling words on each card, then three other words in that same family. We then played the game, asking "Do you have a word that rhymes with 'street'?" and so on. She had to read the cards she received and the cards she laid down.

I also used the same deck of modified cards to play Memory. With the cards all turned over, we took turns flipping two over. If they were from the same family, they were a match. If they weren't, they turned them back over and the other player tried. (Thanks to my mom, a retired remedial English teacher, for many of these ideas!)

I've also played Go Fish and Memory with my French tutees using purchased French flashcards (published by Usborne).

As with most language learning activities, first we start with recognition, demonstrating their passive knowledge of the words. The cards are set out on a table, I ask "Où est la chaise?" and they point to the picture of a chair. Only after they've heard the word many times do I expect them to produce it on their own, as I point to pictures and ask them "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" Then I might ask them--still in French--to show me animals, things in a house, things in nature, something they like, something they don't like. After a couple of sessions like this, we play Memory (I have a double set of these cards, and I have also made my own flashcards with other words I've taught them) or Go Fish (they have to find four cards in the same category).

We've also been working with a book-and-CD set called French for Children by Catherine Bruzzone, published by McGraw-Hill. Each very short unit includes a simple song using the target vocabulary and structures, a simple game or activity (matching, fill-in-the-blank, Chutes and Ladders, etc.), cute pictures, French cultural notes in English, and a cartoon called "Superchat." While it's a good introduction to topics in French that interest children, each lesson is too short on its own to really make an impression on the kids I tutor.

For example, in unit two, kids learn to say what they like and don't like. On this sample page, the directions for "I like" say "Listen to the tape. Draw a line between Oui and the things you like and Non and the things you don't." There are pictures of cats, pizza, strawberries, soda, ice cream, witches, monsters, and spiders. Well, this is a good start, but I don't think it's enough practice. Plus, once the child has drawn a line, it's hard to repeat the activity. Here's the game I made to supplement the book:

As you can tell, it's very simple (both in concept and for a non-artistic person like myself). The pictures are color copies from the book, but they include vocabulary from some of the other chapters to recycle it and reinforce the "j'aime" and "je n'aime pas" structures with expressions from outside of the examples. I also wrote in the words for family members (since I didn't have pictures of them). To play the game, we review the words for all the pictures first. Then we roll the die, move the marker the appropriate number of spaces, and say in French whether or not we like the person or object in the square. This is the type of game that my college students would scoff at--I would never try this, or hopscotch or Memory, with them--but the girls adored it and still clamor for it!

It's been fun trying to figure out how to help these kids enjoy learning so much that they forget that it's educational! Bingo has also been popular, both in English and French, with words and pictures and numbers. (Click here to read about other language-related activities that don't require game boards.) Please share your ideas for language enrichment and easy reading activities--just click on "comments." I'd love to hear from other teachers and parents!


  1. Ohmigosh! You are so awesome. You truly outdo yourself, lady. (Or at least, you outdo the rest of us.) I'm going to do that Candyland thing with the Reading Buddies... as soon as I get my hands on a game board.

  2. Check yard sales! That's where mine come from. I pick up secondhand Scrabble boards and letters whenever I can find them too. You're welcome to borrow my materials, by the way.

  3. Hi! I found your blog through Multilingual Living Magazine. I speak German, and have just started doing daily German times with my 3 little children, a 3 year old and 1 1/2 year old twins, all boys. I know I will be using MANY of your ideas, with them and with my older children, who are 10 and 8 year old girls. I am very encouraged by your nephew's progress with just one day a week of French!!! After just a short time, my 3 year old is responding to my questions in German with appropriate English responses! It's so much fun! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Hi Jeanne--Thanks for writing in! I'm glad that you're inspired to share your German with your children. Would you be willing to let me profile your family on this blog? Please email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com!

  5. A reader asked me how to adapt the hopscotch idea for kids who are pre-literate. Here's my suggestion (but I haven't tried this yet myself): What about putting simple pictures/drawings in the squares so that the child makes up a sentence in the target language using the pictures as prompts? You could even include representations of adjectives like colors, big/little, etc. For example, the hopscotch might start with a picture of the child, a smiley face, then her room and the park side-by-side, then a picture of a sibling or friend and a pet side-by-side, followed by a color or two and finally a picture of a doll and a toy side-by-side, to elicit a sentence like "She was happy. She went to her room (or to the park) with her brother (or with her dog) to play with her pink elephant (or green kite or whatever." Other ideas?

  6. Very nice suggestion, Sarah. This is on a different vein, but how about picture or word bingo? If you google "word bingo" there are many options for both English and blank bingo cards (didn't look at other languages). For picture bingo, this site http://www.dltk-cards.com/bingo/ is pretty cool. http://www.nwt.literacy.ca/famlit/bingo/picture/howto.pdf has several pre-made cards.

  7. Thanks for the sites, Estela! Yes, I really like bingo games too--I've used them in French with my college students, in English with the struggling reader I tutor, and with pictures with the girls I tutor in French.

  8. By the way, here's what Estela and I did with board games for Reading Buddies at the public library: we took Chutes & Ladders games from thrift stores and modified them like I did with the Candyland word families. One game board has a word family on each square, one has blends (like cr-, cl-, sp-, st-, etc--the beginnings of words), and one simply has a letter of the alphabet (children have to say a word that begins with that letter).