French Lessons for Preschoolers

This post is part of the Multicultural Kid Blogs Blogging Carnival, hosted this month by Isabelle at Multilingual Education Cafe. This month’s topic is The Multilingual Classroom. Be sure to follow the link to Isabelle’s blog to find the other great posts on this topic, starting March 17!

As some of my dear readers may recall, I made a New Year’s resolution to teach French lessons at my daughter’s preschool. I’m following through and now I’m two months in.

Teaching preschoolers is no easy feat, but trying to teach them in a foreign language – wheh! Way harder than I expected. And I never expected a cake walk. I knew I’d be spending a lot of time outside the classroom brainstorming ideas, prepping, finding and making props, and even test driving ideas on my own kids before taking my lessons to the school. Still – it’s even more than I anticipated.

My daughter’s preschool is a mixed-age class of 2 1/2 to 5-year-olds. One large area houses the preschool where there are various “open” and “closed” rooms. A teacher hosts each open area, and activities vary from structured to free play. If a child decides s/he doesn’t want to stay in one of the rooms, they are free to leave and find a different activity to participate in.

So my work is cut out for me. I have to keep things fun, exciting, engaging, or I lose them. Literally. They announce (or not) that they are done and they walk out. So far, my lessons have ranged from being so fun the kids literally dogpile me, or so boring (to some) that once one little girl interrupted me to say (in a voice that sounded more like a 14-year-old than a 4-year-old), “I’m tired of this. When are we going to do something else?”

Ouch.

Luckily I’ve already learned that one must shelve the ego when dealing with preschoolers.

What I didn’t anticipate was how much I’d end up resorting to English. In my mind, the kids  wouldn’t understand everything I said, but they’d pick bits and pieces up from the 30 minutes a week and eventually it would amount to something. I didn’t want to use English, the first and only language for nearly all of them, because, well, total immersion is better, right?

That may be true in situations where you have a captive audience. When a classroom teacher is in the room with me encouraging the kids to participate, things run more smoothly. Outside of preschool, I attend a weekly French lesson with my children for kids aged 0-5, and parent participation there is key: it’s the parents that make sure the kids stay on track. While the lessons are engaging, kids this age still have short attention spans, and certainly aren’t invested in learning a second language just for the sake of bilingualism.

If the kids in my classes don’t understand me – I lose them. The older ones will tell me, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” Even explaining to a child this age to watch my gestures, my expressions, what I’m pointing at, doesn’t necessarily make it easier for them.

Here’s what I’ve found that works:

Movement: They need to boogie. So we saute (jump), we nage (swim), we vole (fly), we danse (dance), we fait du ski (ski) etc.

Food: Lessons about food. With props. Making crêpes was a huge hit – nearly all the kids wanted in on that one!

Me, practicing the perfect crepe flip so I could look like an expert in class!

Me, practicing the perfect crêpe flip so I could look like an expert in class!

Success!

Success!

Keep it Simple: Duh, says anyone who knows a preschooler. Still, I felt the need initially to  go grand. I’ll put those plans for multiple lessons centered around a story and song theme complete with role-playing and art projects aside for now, perhaps for when the kiddos are older. Now I know: Simple songs, simple stories, lots of props, and lots of repetition. We’ll sing some “Mains en l’air,” dance to music, and point to our pieds and our cheveux.

Doing Stuff: We took an “airplane ride” to Paris where we all sat in our seats, buckled up, flew through the sky, hit a bit of turbulence (they loved that!), then landed. In Paris, we made Eiffel towers out of Legos. What a great opportunity to learn counting and colors! They didn’t even know I snuck that in there.

Songs: We sing all sorts of traditional French songs, plus a couple that I’ve made up in French to familiar tunes (thanks for the tip, Sarah at Baby Bilingual!)

Enthusiasm and Expression: There’s no doubt that I have to be on. There’s no half-ing it in teaching. The second I lose my exuberance, the kids lose interest. If I’m not emphasizing things through expressions, gestures, pointing, etc., they’re lost. And that’s frustrating for them.

Resorting to English for short explanations: I try to avoid translating everything, as the kids simply learn from this to tune out until the English comes. But sometimes, the kids need the “anchor” provided by their mother tongue. I give them this when I see their brows coming together in confusion, or when I anticipate they will need it.

The encouraging thing is that I have a little group of regulars; 7 or 8 kids who get excited when I walk in and ask me what we’re going to do that day. They give me hugs, big grins, and the occasional, “Bonjour !” Some are picking up basics: a few colors, counting, body parts. And this is exactly what I had hoped for. Some interest and enthusiasm. Awareness that other languages exist. Empowerment of knowing they can learn those languages. And the laying of the groundwork for second (third etc) language acquisition that is so essential at this early age.

I’m learning a lot from this, in what I consider the beginning of my journey as a language teacher. So far, I’m going to call it a success.

12 thoughts on “French Lessons for Preschoolers

  1. Such fun to read from your perspective. You have quickly figured out the key points to engaging our age group. You are a natural! Thank you for working with us.

  2. Hi, this was really interesting to read because I’m doing the same thing in reverse – I’m teaching English in French primary schools. At least I don’t have the problem of them simply waking out, but you’re right – it isn’t easy! Good luck with the rest of your time

  3. Oh, Carol, you’re doing beautifully! I love your fly-to-Paris-and-build-the-Tour-Eiffel activity.

    And dear readers, she is too modest to mention this, but she is teaching this class as a volunteer–not even getting paid for all the work! The school and your daughter’s classmates are lucky to have you there.

    Can’t wait to hear more about your preschool teaching adventures!

  4. Reblogged this on Karen Stephen and commented:
    I enjoyed reading this blog about teaching preschoolers French. My daughter only became fluent in French after living there two years after college; not because I started her with French lessons in kindergarten. But her two little ones, now two and five, have been spoken to at home primarily in French by her and in English by their father. The oldest has attended a French immersion preschool for four years. So both are totally fluent as well and have no American accent, unlike their mother who has a very slight accent. They switch from one language to the other depending upon who they are speaking to and readily translate for those of us in the family who are not bilingual. My daughter is hoping to continue their bilingual education here in the SF Bay area as they move on to elementary school.

    • Thanks for the share!

      Glad you enjoyed the post. I’m so happy to hear how great the kids are doing with the two languages. An immersion school is hard to beat. As much as I love living in Colorado and love the preschool we found for our kids here, I do miss the French Immersion program we had in San Diego, and I have no doubt that we’d be much further along in French in our family if we’d stayed in San Diego. The Bay area has several immersion schools, I believe, I hope your daughter can find one that won’t be too much of a commute!

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