Friday, April 25, 2014

homework from his Spanish teacher: practice writing in French!

At the urging of his teacher at his Spanish immersion school, my on-his-way-to-trilingual six-year-old son Griffin is now doing homework in French!

The teacher had issued a challenge to the kids at the beginning of the school year: to read 100 books in Spanish and write a couple of sentences responding to them in a sort of reading journal.  She even provided prompts to help the young writers get started--"my favorite part was...", "something new I learned was...", and so forth.

When Griffin brought her his completed journal a couple of weeks ago, she seemed a little surprised that he had finished the 100 books already.  She thanked him, took it from him, and said that she would keep it until she had collected the other students' journals.  

Just as she turned to go and Griffin started to dance with glee about having finished all his homework for the rest of the school year, I realized that not being required to read or write in Spanish at home until August was a bad idea.  I mean, he's a smart kid who loves to read, but he wants to read what he chooses and nothing else.  And as soon as he finishes a book, he's off and running to the next one--he's not going to take the time to write about it unless we bribe or threaten (or both).

And there's always a next one waiting.
Desperately, I asked his teacher if she had a new challenge for the students who finished their 100 books, like maybe to try to read another 100 before the new school year begins in August.  Griffin groaned; I winced.

But his teacher, wonderful lady, suggested that this time, instead of doing the 100 books in Spanish, he alternate among books in Spanish, English, and French!  So now, for the first time in his young life, he is starting to read and write in French.  And I get to watch it happen!

Actually, what I'm mostly doing is trying not to interfere.  He picks the text--one of his sister's board books, an easy reader from the Bidule series (downloaded to my iPad), an illustrated article from Youpi magazine--reads it aloud with my help, and then scribbles and scratches a sentence about it (while complaining that writing in French is harder than writing in English and Spanish).

An article from Youpi about a Frenchman who circumnavigated the globe in a sailboat decades ago
I know, I know.  Developing fluency in your third language is such a chore.

(But what a great problem to have, kid!)

While Griffin writes, rendering what he hears when he speaks French into consonants and vowels and the occasional feisty accent mark, creations that vaguely resemble French words, I sit on my hands or keep a mug of hot tea in front of my mouth so as to avoid telling him how to spell things or that he should add a transition word or just give me the pencil so that I can write what I want him to say!

And when he's done, and when I've found something to praise about the content of his sentence, and only then, do I pick out something to explicitly teach him about.  Tonight, for example, he asked how to spell "canoe" in French.  So I told him about the tréma, the two dots over the second letter in a pair of vowels that indicates that the second vowel gets pronounced separately, as in Noël, thus giving him canoë.
Griffin's writing journal entry about the Youpi article "Seul autour du monde": "Ma conexion est que je suis alle den une canoe avec ma maman.  et je vu un lacke."
And while where-to-put-two-dots is perhaps one of the least important rules to bother teaching someone who is learning to read and write in French, it's relevant to what he was trying to describe; he understood right away (comparing it to bilinguë in Spanish); and now he has an "Accents en français" page in his writing journal.  I hope that the next time we read together in French, we'll come across other words with that same diacritical mark, and he can add them to the list.

So I anticipate continuing this way for the next month or so--reading to him in French every day as usual, encouraging him to read to me more, and insisting that he write a sentence about it in his reading journal two or three times a week.  Each time, I'll find one thing to point out about grammar or syntax or spelling.  When appropriate, I'll make a new page of hints and examples and lists for his journal that we can add to.  (For example, "The Gazillion Ways to Spell the Sound 'Ay' in French," or "Consonants  at the End of a Word Which We Actually Pronounce, At Least Most of the Time," or "Hey, Look at That, What's That Adjective Doing in Front of That Noun?")

My notes for him about je vs. j'ai vs. jeu vs. G, which are all pronounced similarly but mean entirely different things
Over the summer, once he's out of school, I will try to increase gradually the amount and frequency that he reads and writes in French.  And the more we read and write together, the more I can point out how my previous teaching points appear in the texts.  And eventually--ideally--it will be Griffin who notices them and pays attention and incorporates them into his own writing.

So, no dictation.  No memorizing lists of irregular past participles.  No expecting perfection (or even coherence, in these early days).  Read what he wants to read, write what he wants to write, talk about it together, and hopefully develop in French the confidence and ease that he has in English and Spanish.  He's just a kid, an on-his-way-to-trilingual kid, and I want him to enjoy the journey.


  1. Wow that´s fantastic! Wwhat age to kids learn to read in the USA? Here in Spain I think they learn quite late some kids can only just read by 6 and books that I read when I was 7 or 8 (eg. Ronald Dahl) some of his books are reccommended to be read at age 10!!

    1. Typically in the US kids know the alphabet when they enter Kindergarten at age five and learn to read and write during that school year. A generation or so ago reading was more of a first grade (six-year-olds) goal.

      On the other hand, some educational approaches, notably Waldorf Schools, actively discourage children from reading until third grade or so.

  2. Wow, Griffin is doing so well. Its so great to watch him grown and develop. Are you familiar with ReadingA-Z? Its a literacy site that has leveled readers in English, Spanish and French. There are 27 levels: aa-Z that span from PreReader to about 5th grade. There are a few hundred books available in French and several hundred in English.

    1. Thanks for reminding me of that site! Griffin's teachers have occasionally printed out easy readers in Spanish for the students to take home and read and color. Since it's a paid subscription site ($100/year) I have only looked at their free samples in English and French--but now that Griffin is reading French I really ought to sign up for their free trial and get some examples of books at every level!

  3. What a great Spanish teacher! Trilingual kindergartener - wow. Thanks to you, Sarah, for all the great insights and ideas on how to help kids along their path to multilingualism. I have to laugh about Griffin's groans. I keep reminding myself that I'd rather have my kids mad at me now because I'm making them learn a foreign language than mad at me when they're grown because I didn't make the effort! Bon continuation, mon amie !

    1. Oh, so true! Especially good to remember when it's a struggle just to get them to reply to us in French....

  4. Well, a month and a half later, I have to admit that we haven't made much progress with the writing in French. Griffin is pretty resistant to practice it, so rather than force him to write about what he reads, I'm just trying to make sure that he enjoys listening to me read to him in French for now.