A Simple French Curriculum for Homeschoolers
I wanted to learn French when I was in school. I mean, I really wanted to learn French.
I took French all the way through high school, right up through (the now defunct) Grade 13. At the time, I thought I was okay at it. I got good grades. I could read French novels and write French papers and conjugate French verbs. Sure, I could barely hold a conversation, but that was okay — it wasn’t something that I needed to do in order to pass the class.
When I went to university — a fully bilingual school — I kept trying to improve. I dutifully took the mandatory language proficiency exam — and I accidentally nailed it. The exam was a fill-in-the-blank kind of test where we were to write down what we heard the professor read out at the front of the class. All the choices were also listed at the bottom of the page, so I completely ignored the professor and picked the most grammatically correct answers. Big mistake. The school placed me in a class that was far more advanced that I actually was and it took weeks of begging to be downgraded to an easier class. I’m pretty sure that I only succeeded because the French department was tired of having me come and reschedule my classes, which I messed up at least three times because I wasn’t able to remember the days of the week, en français. Clearly not proficient.
Despite the rough start I made the most of my year at the school. I took my French classes happily, and I asked the many French students in my residence to practice talking with me. In exchange, I helped them edit their French papers for grammar mistakes.
Rather than returning to university the second year, I headed off to Europe to explore. My French came in handy in countries like Italy, since many Italians had the same basic knowledge of French that I did, allowing us to have simple conversations. My French did not come in handy in France itself, where my clumsy accent seemed to cause the Parisians actual, physical pain.
My French education continued a few years after I returned home. I took French classes in the evening, and In eve landed a job where I regularly corresponded with people across Canada, including the French-speaking people in Quebec and out East. I did my best to keep all French conversations confined to email, but once a week I had to call people to let them know their accounts were overdue. You think it’s hard asking “where’s my hostel” in French? Try telling someone that their account is about to be deactivated unless they give you their credit card number, s’il vous plaît.
Teaching My Children French
I left that job when I had my first child, River. From the beginning, I assumed that she would go into a French Immersion program when she started school so that she would learn the language more easily than I did. At our local school board, kids start French Immersion in Grade One and they don’t get another chance to join the FI stream.
Grade One came; we chose to homeschool. No French Immersion.
So then what?
For the first couple years, French wasn’t really on my radar. It wasn’t until Grade Three that I started to worry about not doing more. I mean, from time to time, she took homeschooler Art/French classes at my friend’s house, but was that enough? No, I needed to do something at home, I decided.
I was so nervous though. I really didn’t want to saddle my kids with my bad French accent. I mean, it doesn’t sound horrendous to me, but many, many Francophones have assured me that it’s more pleasant to listen to a rabid goose fighting a donkey. Well, I don’t think those are the exact words that they used, but I can’t tell, given that the feedback is rarely given in English. Do geese even get rabies? I dunno, maybe in France.
Despite my doubts, I researched curriculum and found one that I was excited about. On the first day of third grade, I sat my girls down and we began. And it was like pulling teeth. Not for me — I still think it’s a good program. My kids, though, couldn’t have cared less.
“Why do we have to learn this?” they whined.
And you know what? I had no idea why. Despite the fact that I had wanted to learn French for so long, I couldn’t come up with a good reason to force my girls to learn it yet.
I know the argument that speaking French will give you more job opportunities as an adult. But in reality, there aren’t a lot of jobs in my area where French is a requirement, beyond working for the government. And in that case, my kids won’t have much of a chance competing against the hundreds of kids graduating from the French Immersion system. Seriously — the FI schools are packed here.
Of course, my children might move to a place where French is more important. But I could argue that by that logic, I should be teaching them Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, and Danish too. You never know — they might end up in Denmark.
I know too that language learning is good for brain development — and so much easier when you’re young! I 100% agree — so when we geared up for SK/Grade 4, I asked the girls if they’d be interested in learning another language. Maybe Spanish? They were surprisingly enthusiastic — even Harbour! Thanks, Dora.
Teaching My Children Spanish
I went ahead and ordered the same curriculum as before, but this time in Spanish. I also signed the girls up for a free weekly Spanish night course offered through our local school board. I was happy. They were happy!
And then they weren’t.
“Why do we have to learn this?” they whined.
“Because when you’re in class, I get to go out for tea with my friends,” I responded. That didn’t impress them. After a few months, we ended up dropping the Spanish class. It interfered with another activity that River was in, and the evening was really too long and too late for my kindergartener. Our home study fell to the side too.
And then … Latin?
I wasn’t too upset about dropping Spanish though, because at about that time River and I had started Latin for Children from Classical Academic Press, and we loved it. Loved. The lessons are short, the computer games are fun, and the grammar lessons perfectly mirror the grammar we’re covering in our English classes. And it’s Latin — what’s not to love? The word nerd in me is delighted every time we pull out the DVD.
I originally bought the curriculum because River had asked if she could study the origin of words. I didn’t intend for it to be our foreign language choice — that just sort of happened by chance. Regardless, it’s been four months and we are happily plugging along, memorizing our verb endings and chanting along with our CD in the van.
Everything was going great.
And Back to French Again
And then, French.
Lisa from the Canadian Homeschooler asked for posts about French curriculums and I suddenly panicked. Like, completely out of the blue. Why am I not teaching French? I love French! Should I be teaching my kids French?
Time for a Parent/Teacher Conference.
“Relax,” I told myself. “River just started another 10-week Art/French class, so she’s getting 45 minutes of French instruction.”
“Don’t be ridiculous”, I responded. “45 minutes isn’t nearly enough.”
“But we do Latin!”
“That’s not practical in anyway.”
“Tell that to Indiana Jones.”
“You think River is going to grow up to be Indiana Jones?”
“I just don’t want to rule it out and prematurely shut any doors.”
“Then you should probably try teaching French, too.”
This led to a frantic coffee-fueled night of research on the Internet, reading up on French language instruction. I read curriculum reviews, downloaded samples, and watched videos. Then I expanded my research to include the pros and cons of French Immersion, given that Harbour will be in that crucial Grade One window next year.
In the midst of my surfing, I stumbled across this article called Why We’re Failing at French:
“The provincial exams … don’t provide any incentive to become fluent either. Although there are some plans to change this in the future, the current exam is entirely written and based on grammar, vocabulary and reading. There is no spoken or listening component. So, students can graduate with As and Bs, without ever having engaged in a real French conversation.”
That was exactly my experience!
The Accelerated Integrative Method
The article went on to talk about a new teaching method called Accelerated Integrative Method (AIM). AIM’s creator, Wendy Maxwell, says that with her program, students can be speaking fluently with as little as 30 minutes of instruction a day.
At this point, it was well past midnight, but of course I had to know more. From what I read, the program starts off by using a combination of actions and stories to teach children French, rather than using the more traditional method of memorizing lists of nouns and verb conjugations. I watched videos of the lessons in action. It was all very cool.
Of course, I’m under no illusion that I can use a program like this at home. I don’t speak French nearly as well as the teachers in the videos, and I certainly don’t have $1000 to shell out for the program. But I kept reading, because I was too tired to get ready for bed at that point.
Apparently there are school boards here in Ontario that are eagerly trying the program out already. The Toronto Star reported that some teachers are so excited about the program that they’re paying for it out of pocket so they can start right away.
I started to wonder how I could apply the ideas behind AIM to our own language study, particularly actions and storytelling. Maybe I should start taking out French books from the library?
Charlotte Mason and the Gouin Series Method
Suddenly I remembered reading about the Gouin Series method that Charlotte Mason used in her PNEU schools. Could this new trendy French program that I read about have anything in common with a teaching method that was developed 100 years ago? Maybe the Gouin Series would give me a more cost-effective, homeschooler-friendly way to apply some of those key AIM principles. To learn more, I headed over to the Cherrydale Press website, publishers of an inexpensive curriculum that sticks closely the CM way of language instruction.
Though the two methods of teaching are different, I found it very interesting that both advocate the use of:
1) actions along with the words, and
2) narrative rather than lists of nouns and verbs.
Charlotte Mason certainly seemed to think that the Gouin Series method worked; in fact, her students were studying one to two languages a day, covering French, German, Italian, and Latin each week by Grade Seven.
OK, forget AIM. I wanted to know more about the Gouin Series.
I learned that Francois Gouin was a Latin teacher who lived in the 19th century. According to the Volume One of Speaking French with Miss Mason and François,
“He was a Frenchman who tried unsuccessfully to learn German. He took classes, then he memorized words from a dictionary, but he still couldn’t speak German. One day he asked German children to teach him how to say the steps to opening a door. He found that if he said the German sentences and acted them out, he could remember them! He was so excited that he created sets of sentences to describe everything he saw and did in German. Each set described a single activity: how to get water from the well, how to light a fire, how an acorn grows into a tree, and even how the shepherd walks by with his dogs.”
Learning lists didn’t work. Learning grammar didn’t work. It was learning phrases as part of a narrative that did the trick as he did the actions. And it makes sense, right? When a child reaches six months old, we don’t sit him down and review verb tenses. We just speak, describing our actions as we go about our day.
I emailed Cherrydale Press immediately and asked for a sample of the French curriculum. I quickly received both a sample of the textbook and the optional mp3.
Once I had the samples, I sat down with River and I asked her to pass me a book.
“I take the book.” I said as I took it from her.
“I open the book,” I said as I opened it up to the middle.
“I close the book,” I said as I closed it again.
River looked at me like I had lost my mind. I told her to do the actions with me while I said the phrases again.
“I take the book.” We both took a book from the pile.
“I open the book.” We both opened our books to the middle.
“I close the book.” She ignored me.
“I close the book,” I repeated.
“I like this part of the book,” she replied.
Once she had the English phrases and actions down pat, we reviewed the verbs: take, open and close. Then, I had her pantomime the actions while I switched to French: prends, ouvre, ferme. No sweat. She pantomimed again while I said the French phrases in full: “Je prends le livre. J’ouvre le livre. Je ferme le livre.” Then we ended off by saying the phrases together.
And not once during that whole lesson did a single Francophone slam his breaks outside my house, bang on my front door, and insist that I stop butchering his mother tongue. Though if that happens, we can always go ahead and purchase the optional mp3 file.
We have not been at our lessons long at all, but I already feel like this is a curriculum that we can stick with, at east until the end of the year when we can reevaluate. Unlike our old French curriculum that I had a hard time fitting into our schedule, these short lessons slide easily into our day. The actions give us a bit of a break from our written work, but the lessons are so short that they don’t stop us from doing other subjects.
In the introduction of Speaking French with Miss Mason and François, Allyson Adrian recalls how her mother said that you know you’ve become fluent when you can think and dream in another language. I remember when I first dreamed in French. It was back in my first year of university. I sat up in my bed and looked over at my roommate, who was already up and studying at her desk. She laughed and asked if I was okay; I excitedly told her that my dream was all in French.
“What did you dream about?” she asked?
“I have no idea!” I responded. “It was all in French!”
Flipping through our new French curriculum has made me so excited. Gouin’s story is so similar to mine, don’t you think? He learned the lists of words and he learned all the grammar, but it wasn’t until he changed his entire approach that he could finally hold a conversation.
Maybe I need the same kind of shift in learning. Maybe my own conversation skills will improve while I teach my own kids. Maybe I’ll even start dreaming in French again.
I just hope my kids pick it quickly enough so they’ll be able to help me translate when I wake up.