Wednesday, December 07, 2011

outgrowing French class? vive la difference!

"D'accord, maman, you can take a picture of me with Gwyneth, but I need to concentrate on my iPad game.  I'm too busy to smile right now.  I'm wearing my Tintin t-shirt and have my arm around ma petite soeur--that's as good as it's going to get."

For almost a year now, Griffin and I have off and on attended a small French class for preschoolers taught by a native speaker.  To my delight (and relief), he finally grew comfortable and confident enough to join in on the songs and dances and rhymes that the teacher led.  (My independent garçon has always resisted doing what people--namely his parents--want him to do, especially if it involves any sort of performing.   A shame, since he's quite the singer and dancer with us at home!)  But how much did he learn?

Here are my impressions of the first class, by the way.

The classes met once a week for 40 minutes for six weeks, and we signed up for four separate sessions, which means he's attended twenty-some classes, starting just after he turned three.  Although I grew less excited about them as the year progressed, I'm still glad we had the experience.  My decline in enthusiasm comes from the fact that each set of classes was more or less identical, not just in format, but in content as well.  It seems like each session had a class on clothing, on family members, on farm animals, on zoo animals, and on food.  Each time we "studied" farm animals, for example, we played with little figurines and did the same two puzzles (a barn and a cow).

And if Griffin hadn't already been a French speaker, this would have been fine, because we all need repetition to learn.  But since he already knew his numbers, letters, colors, and vocabulary for everyday life and what interests a toddler, he definitely didn't need the direct instruction with flashcards or the frequent repetition.  Moreover, he was usually the oldest child in the class, which meant he was more verbal to begin with.

We took about four months off class when I was massively pregnant and then after Gwyneth was born.  (But every now and then, Griffin would ask to have a French class at home!)  Coming back at the end of the year, we expected the class to have evolved and changed some.  However, I realized that the first class in November was going to be more or less a copy of the farm lesson, which meant the rest of the classes would probably be the same too.

Nevertheless, I wanted Griffin to keep attending, because having him listen to and interact with a native speaker for 40 minutes is so valuable to me.  (Plus, at four months, Gwyneth has been paying more and more attention to the world around her, so it wouldn't hurt to expose her to the teacher's words and songs!)

"If I could talk, I'd tell you that I love life and that the words on my onesie mean 'kisses'!"  

When I taught first-year French classes at Colorado State University, my classes would frequently be a melange of true beginners and people who had studied French or lived in a francophone country years before and students who had recently finished as many as six years of middle and high school French (and either failed the placement exam on their own or deliberately threw it so as to ensure an easy A in one of their courses).

My colleagues and I  would try to get the students who already knew the basics enrolled into other classes, but it didn't always work, leaving us with the challenge of keeping the experienced students interested but not intimidating the new ones who were pronouncing "hors-d'oeuvre" as "horse devour."
The solution?  Differentiated instruction.

Let's let Dr. Wikipedia tell us about this approach:

  • Differentiated instruction involves providing students with different avenues to acquiring content; to processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and to developing teaching materials so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability.[1]
  • Differentiated instruction, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson (as cited by Ellis, Gable, Greg, & Rock, 2008, p. 32), is the process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he/she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he/she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning”. Differentiation stems from beliefs about differences among learners, how they learn, learning preferences and individual interests (Anderson, 2007). "Research indicates that many of the emotional or social difficulties gifted students experience disappear when their educational climates are adapted to their level and pace of learning."[2] Differentiation in education can also include how a student shows that they have mastery of a concept. This could be through a research paper, role play, podcast, diagram, poster, etc. The key is finding how your students learn and displays their learning that meets their specific needs.

Full disclosure: This is hard as hell, I never did a very good job of it, and I deeply admire those who have learned how to meet their students' needs in this way.  Can you imagine doing this in, say, a class of 35 middle school math students, or a high school English class where the assessments include multiple-page essays to grade, when the teacher has four different classes to prepare for each and every day?  Chapeau, teachers.  They don't pay you enough.  Not nearly enough.

Anyway, back to Griffin's French class.  After watching, for the fourth time this year, Griffin give the plastic chicken figure back to the teacher when she asked for the poule,  I asked the teacher if she could modify how she spoke to Griffin in class.  Basically, I suggested that she use circumlocution and richer vocabulary when she addressed him--and she did!

For example, when she distributed colored cloths to the kids and then asked them to return them one color at a time, she would name the colors for the others ("donne-moi le tissu rouge") but say something like "donne-moi le tissu qui est la couleur des feuilles" [give me the cloth the color of leaves] when Griffin was holding the green one. 

While I'm still not sure that he acquired many more words and expressions in French this way--she still used vocabulary he was pretty familiar with--it did take his input from i+0* to i+, say, .25.  And I'm proud of myself for recognizing that something needed to change and finding a concrete solution that the teacher was receptive to.

The kiddos' Halloween costumes had nothing to do with French:
Griffin was a space shuttle and Gwyneth a chile pepper.

Here's my next idea: contact her to see if she would offer a class for preschoolers (ages three and four, rather than younger toddlers) who hear French on a regular basis.  I picture something more like a typical preschool class or playgroup, just with the activities, songs, and books in French, where the teacher can assume that the kids already know a lot of the lexicon, so that she doesn't need to explicitly teach the words for shoes, dogs, bread, and so on.

And if she can't, maybe I should....after all, that's basically what my francophone maman friends and I are doing with our French storytime!

* "i+1" is shorthand for "comprehensible input," e.g., input in the target language that includes some information that the student understands but is still challenging enough for them to stretch and thus learn new stuff.  "i+2" would be way over someone's head and thus very frustrating, while "i+0" indicates nothing new.  


  1. Wow, I learned lots from this post.

    I think that's amazing that the teacher was so receptive first of all. Good for you for speaking up and her for implementing.

    Differentiated learning is something I have to use with my own kids, even just at storytime. I want to use easier words for the 2 year old and more complicated stuff with the 4 year old.

    I have been so worried about what will happen when they introduce English in school to my son, but maybe I don't need to be. Hopefully I'll be able to ask the teacher to do something similar to this.

  2. Good point--as parents, we do "differentiated instruction" with our kids naturally! We want them to, say, do their chores, but we explain and demonstrate them differently depending on the child's age and adjust our expectations accordingly. I agree--that's exactly how it works when you're discussing a story with the kiddos too!

    And I hadn't thought much about what it must be like for native-speaking children to be put into a class for beginners in school. No wonder you've been worried--they could get really bored or unmotivated. But yes, the teacher could adapt how she addresses the native speakers in the class, and even give those kids more of a leadership role helping groups of their peers, presenting ideas or concepts (a la show-and-tell), reading aloud, storytelling, singing, and so forth.

    With older students--teenagers--this approach with language teaching is probably even more challenging. (Funnily enough, they don't jump up and down waving their hand hoping the teacher will choose them to do something!) I know that here in the US, some high schools and colleges offer "Spanish for Heritage Speakers" classes, designed for students who grew up hearing and probably speaking Spanish at home, but who haven't had any formal instruction in grammar, reading, and writing in Spanish.

    I wonder if "heritage language classes" exist in elementary schools (in this country or others)? Or maybe the kids could get the same sort of treatment that ELLs (English Language Learners) frequently receive in the elementary schools here, where an ESL teacher takes a small number of kids out of the mainstream classroom and works with them on acquiring English for a short time every day.

    Does anyone have experience with any of these situations? It's all hypothetical for me at this point.

  3. Where we are almost all ELL's are mainstreemed with a classroom teacher providing the extra support (I am an ELL teacher and have had 7-13 ELL's on different language levels out of 25 kids on average per year) The pull out method is not used at all where I am anymore. Research supports the method you are suggesting for learning and maintaining the native language! It is just not a highly supported idea in the public school system. The big term now is "comprehensible input" meaning making the education standards accesible to all learners and differentiated instruction is a big key. I could write hours - so feel free to ask any questions and I can try answer them. We don't have any local programs that teach Russian, but have attended music class with my children and I can attest to the routine and "growing out of" music class feeling. As for situations, I have worked as a classroom ELL teacher in a school that also offered a bilingual program both for native speakers and English families that wanted their children to learn Spanish. This type of school seems to be an exception rather than the norm. I grew up in MN and heard there is an excellent French emmersion program.

    On a different note - I went to e-mail you and cannot find your e-mail address. Would you send me a message? Our e-mail address is

  4. Hi Amanda! Thanks for weighing in on this situation--it's good to hear from someone who is actually there "in the trenches," so to speak. I'll probably have a lot more questions for you in a year or two, because we're hoping to enroll Griffin in our town's bilingual immersion elementary school (Spanish-English).

  5. Sorry that I'm anonymouse, can't figure yet how to post comments properly. I'm Lena and my native language is russian but I speak only English to my 2,6 son and he's doing well. Yor blog inspires me very much, keep it up!
    I need some help, do you know where I can consult English natives as for the language use? My English is good(at least so I flatter myself) but some phrases, words that can;t be found in any dictionary just drive me crazy.
    For example, when I wash my son, I say:
    -And now, let's wash yor penis?
    But in Russian we have some childish words for that part of a young gentleman. What about you?

  6. Hello Lena and welcome! It's always good to hear from other parents who are non-native speakers of the language they use (successfully!) with their children.

    I can empathize so much with you about not quite knowing what baby-related words to use. (Especially at bathtime! I sure didn't learn how to say, "Okay, now let's retract your foreskin and wash under there" in French class at school.)

    (Oh, when Griffin is a teenager, he's going to hate that I just wrote about his foreskin on my blog!)

    Have you seen I haven't used this site myself, but apparently it's a free language exchange website--you can chat with someone in English and then help someone with their Russian in return.

    And are you familiar with Solnushka at Verbosity She is a Brit married to a Russian raising two bilingual children and might be a great resource person for you.

    Or how about Skyping with some native speakers of English?

    As far as words that Americans use for a little boy's penis, we've got, let's see....pee-pee, wiener, ding-dong, dingus, with the first one being the most common. (Some families just use the formal term for it rather than the baby talk version, which is the route my husband and I have taken.) As a verb (to urinate), we have to go pee-pee, to wee-wee, to tinkle...

    Here's a wikipedia page with lots of other baby-talk vocabulary:

  7. Bonjour, I too am raising my three children en français despite living in a very anglophone city. Your blog makes me feel less alone, thank you!

  8. Good morning,

    me and my wife are Portuguese and we are for abot one year in Netherlands. We do not speak Dutch yet, we only use English to speak with others with no problem. She is pregnant and i do not know what to do, because i dont know how to speak Dutch, how will it be for the baby to learn the Dutch to go to School, talk with other children. Can you advise me, shoul we put the baby in a nursery really soon for her/he be able to learn the language and understand it.

    Best regards,


  9. Welcome, Jeanne! If you don't mind my asking, where are you located and how old are your kids? Do you have a French-speaking partner?

    Hello, Sergio! I'll try to answer your question by saying that it depends on how long you anticipate living in the Netherlands. If your child will eventually attend school there, you might want him/her to go to a Dutch preschool or daycare for a morning or two every week. She/he will pick up a LOT of Dutch that way. You could also try to hire Dutch babysitters and enroll the child in music classes, gymnastics classes, soccer lessons, etc. when a bit older.

    If the child will be growing up in the Netherlands, you will probably want to keep your home language exclusively Portuguese (or Portuguese and English).

    Good luck! Let us know how it goes. (And congratulations on the pregnancy!)

  10. Hi Sarah,happy new year :)

    I'm kinda late, I know, but I just saw your question about heritage language classes being available for younger kids. Our school board has such classes available. They are 2.5 hrs/week and run about the length of the school year. The cost is $20.00 for the year (compared to the German Saturday School at 3hrs/week (with no school on any long weekends) for I think around $400).

    I have thought about it for us already, since our experience with the Saturday School was similar to yours with the French classes - that school teaches German as a second language, which is really not right for our kids since they are both quite proficient. We are still taking a break from it, but I am looking at this whole thing again for the next school year. I'll have to do some more research on it, so I can't really tell you anything else just yet, but now you know that there really is such a thing :)