Foundation GCSE French candidates often reply in their speaking exams with monosyllabic answers, failing to demonstrate use of the present tense, let alone past and future, and unable to articulate simple opinions. They say "j'ai prefere" (for je prefere), for example.
Focused remedial teaching on the mechanics of listening and imitating, with the support of card prompts, has helped my lower-ability pupils improve their accuracy and confidence remarkably quickly. The principle is that the teacher's question will supply nearly all the words and sounds that the pupil needs to answer. The pupils' main task is to listen and imitate. No one is to think about spelling or grammar. The teacher must insist on correct imitation. If imitation is incorrect, the question is repeated. Use a display of large verb cards.
Step 1, card 1: Je prefere. Start with questions beginning with "Tu pref res...?". Tell pupils to listen for the word following tu. When they reply, they use je plus the second word they heard. (Don't mention the spelling change - this activity is for improving speaking only.) Use card 1 to support the reply. If they say je prefere, reply firmly: "Non. Ecoute la question encore une fois." Insist on correct imitation. They very quickly improve. Personalise the questions as much as possible, eg: "Tu preferes Brad Pitt ou Orlando Bloom, le pop ou le Rap, les BMW ou les Volvo, Man U ou Liverpool?"
Step 2, card 2: Je voudrais. Exactly the same as Step 1. Point to card 2, to support the reply. Eg "Tu voudrais un chat ou un chien?un stylo ou un crayon?un frere ou une soeur?un petit frere ou un grand frere?une piscine?une BMW?" "Tu es ... la boulangerieau cinema. Qu'est-ce que tu voudrais?" Remind pupils what they are doing: listening for the word that follows tu. For tu voudrais plus infinitive tell pupils to listen for and repeat the two words following tu. "Tu voudrais aller ou, en vacances?"
"Qu'est-ce que tu voudrais porter, ce soir?"
Step 3, card 3, 4: J'aime, J'ecoute. Practise questions where the answer needs a contraction of je to j'. This is very tricky for some pupils.
Insist on correct imitation of the verb sound, despite the change from tu to j'. Eg: "Qu'est-ce que tu aimes comme boissoncomme fruit?" "Tu aimes quel chanteuracteur etc. Tu ecoutes la musique ou?quand? Tu ecoutes quelle sorte de musique?"
Step 4, card 5: Tu as...? J'ai Tu vas...? Je vais. Tell pupils that for past, present and future tenses they can apply the same principle of listening to the sound of the word following tu. If they hear "tu as..."
they start their reply "j'ai..." If they hear "tu vas", they start their reply with "je vais". In addition, they might also have to repeat the third word in the question they listend to, so they must listen carefully for that too.
You might have a conversation like this: "Qu'est-ce que tu as mange pour le petit-dejeuner, Paul?" (point to card - Tu as...? J'ai) "J'ai... une banane."
"Attention! Ecoute la question. Qu'est-ce que tu as mange?" "J'ai mange une banane."
Don't forget to reiterate frequently the skill of listening and imitation that the pupil has used to answer the question competently. These are the basics, and give ample support for a huge range of simple questions. I found that pupils immediately spotted how questions with "fais" could have a range of answers. They also realised that they could easily adapt if the word order was different in the question, eg "... preferes-tu?" It is useful to have a temporary ban on negative answers.
The next step is to revise the mechanics of questions in the third person.
(I kept the subject plus verb word order very consistent, eg, "Ton frere, il aime quel sport? C'estc'etait comment?")
I find individual whiteboards useful. Pupils write down the first two or three words of their reply to my question. I can quickly spot problems, but for this speaking skills activity I make a point of not commenting on spelling. It is also handy to have other visual support for past and future tenses, such as a timeline of weekdays, marked with dernier on the left, prochain on the right, and with a sliding marker for "today".
Ursula Jeakins teaches French at Westonbirt School, Gloucestershire