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Fun and games in the dolls' house

Typical literacy activities using popular stories make a great way to teach French, Joanne Jones has discovered

Teaching French in our primary school this year I have been particularly inspired by a dynamic Frenchwoman, Hel ne Vanthier.

Last summer, I spent two weeks in Besancon, France, on a course about teaching French to young learners, which was sponsored by the British Council under the auspices of CILT, the NationalCentre for Languages. Hel ne shared her ideas for "transparent" language to start children off. For example, when introduced to colours the children will immediately understand bleu, violet and orange, and allowing children to demonstrate their comprehension in ways other than speaking, eg using picture books, exposes them to language in context.

The following ideas have all been used with seven to 11-year-olds who attend a French club for 50 minutes once a week. In essence, the approach taken is one that many infant teachers would use in their normal literacy lessons. We focus on one tale for several weeks, using a simple picture book as a starting point each time. The stories chosen all have plenty of repetition and are well known to the children, such as the Little Red Hen, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Three Little Pigs. Activities then follow as might be found with the same stories in an English reception class - matching pictures to words and phrases, sequencing chunks of the story, acting out with puppets or masks.

The first book we started with was Ours Brun, Dis-Moi?, Eric Carle's classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? which enables us to practise colours and animal names.

Grammar was introduced very quickly with children playing games where they had to find their partner, who carries the same colour - "Je suis rouge - et toi?" Once they had assimilated this structure we were able to form a rainbow circle and perform short rhythmic chants accompanied by simple dance steps or gestures; extending the structure each time - "Nous sommes un arc-en-ciel" as a chorus; "Nous sommes rouges"; "Vous etes rouges"; "Ils sont rouges" etc, depending on who was speaking. Also of great use were the CDs produced by Carol Nichols of The Language Factory (reviewed in TES Teacher, see These consist of songs, chants and raps on different subjects and help the children to absorb the rhythm and sound of the language almost effortlessly. "Les couleurs" was immediately a favourite.

La Petite Poule Rousse (The Little Red Hen) was the first traditional tale to be used and by the end of the first reading the class were confidently joining in with the repeated refrain "'Pas moi' dit le cochon" etc. After just two readings, the children were able to take 10 simplified sentences and arrange them in the correct order. These were then used to create a short play with puppets helping to tell the story; children were able to act it out in a simplified form using one of the most confident of them to narrate the text. Using puppets to speak gives confidence to even the shyest children, as they don't feel as if they are speaking themselves.

The next book we introduced was another reception class favourite, Goldilocks and the Three Bears - Les Trois Ours. The children know the tale well enough to comprehend the language and once more the repetition had them joining in to announce that Little Bear's belongings were "Juste bien!" Children were invited to bring in their teddies (and all eagerly did so) to join in the story the next week. This time the children produced their own books of the story - with pages ranging from simple labelled pictures to sentences to go with each stage of the story. The children were now able to answer questions on the pictures, mainly with single word answers, but with some sentences, on colours, numbers, names etc.

As a follow-on from this story, out came the plastic Duplo furniture and doll's house, Duplo animals and people, and prepositions were introduced. A small figure named after the headteacher soon found himself in all sorts of places and the children couldn't wait to speak if they were allowed to put him in the place they suggested - "M Jones est dans la toilette" was of course a favourite (especially head down!).

Cats found themselves on beds, dogs on the cooker, the baby in the fridge, etc.

Developing French by Madeleine Bender provided some excellent photocopiable worksheets for this kind of activity.

Grammar was used almost without the children realising it when they were allowed to take the puppets to different parts of the classroom and speak - "Je suis sur la table"; "Il est sous la chaise"; "Elle est dans la boite".

The most recent book we have introduced is Les Trois Petits Cochons, (The Three Little Pigs). Again, the children had no difficulty in comprehending the language and were soon joining in with phrases such as "Petit cochon, petit cochon, laisse-moi entrer" or "Non, non, par la barbiche de mon petit menton, tu n'entreras pas". Matching sentences to pictures was no problem and the more confident began adapting sentences from the story to their own needs.

French websites such as have provided lots of extra materials for the children to use. Further activities are the classic French song "Monsieur Loup, y-es tu?" which introduces clothes, "le Petit Chaperon Rouge" (Little Red Riding Hood) for parts of the body, and a non-fiction dictionary of animals to fill in charts of animal habitats, colours, size etc.

The children's confidence is amazing and they are now quite used to picking out the words they do know to make sense of a whole phrase. They all enjoy their French club and we hope to eventually use the methods to teach the language during curriculum time.

Developing French by Madeleine Bender. AC Black pound;14.39 CILT courses and materials

Joanne Jones is teacher and literacy coordinator at Gipsey Bridge School, Lincolnshire

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