Posts Tagged ‘Super Bobo’

Teaching Children to Read, Write, and Speak in French

January 31, 2014

I have been experimenting on my children, and I want to tell you about it.  My goal has been to raise them to be bilingual.

My Background:

I took two years of French in high school.  The languages offered with an in-person teacher were Spanish and French.  I chose French because there were fewer students in the French program, and the language and culture seemed more interesting.  In retrospect, I think I should have chosen Spanish for purely practical reasons.  I really enjoyed learning French, however, and was able to travel to France (and Spain).

When arriving at college I had (and wanted) to continue language study, and I chose French by default because I had already made a bit of progress, though less than I had hoped.  I wasn’t ready to start over with something new – why waste the investment I had made when I wasn’t yet fluent?

I studied abroad in France for about 3 months during my third year of college and had not yet chosen a major.  I was leaning toward doing something in the history department, but I realized that if I went that route I would need to take so many classes that I would have no more room in my schedule for any French classes.  I thus chose to major in French.  It was enjoyable for the most part, but I had to study a lot of fiction literature and wanted to study more of the philosophers.  In particular, the professor who taught classes on Pascal was on leave, and so I studied about Montaigne, instead.

Upon graduating I decided to become an elementary teacher, which had nothing at all to do with studying French language or literature.  I promptly stopped speaking or reading any French.

Starting French with Basil:

When Basil was fairly young I had a few French language children’s books in the house.  These were left over from a very short-lived after school program I took part in, teaching kindergarteners French.  I would occasionally read one with Basil, but it wasn’t a true effort to teach him French.

When my brother’s family returned from living in Taiwan for two years, his daughter was fairly proficient at speaking Chinese, and his wife encouraged me to really teach Basil French.  I thought about it for a while, and it made a lot of sense to me to pass on to him at his young age something that took me so long to acquire in college.  It also seemed to make sense to me from my Montessori training that it would be much easier for him at his age.

Right after he was about 3 years old I decided to only speak to him in French.  I checked out a couple of books from the library about “one parent one language,” which describes how to raise children bilingually.  At first I tried speaking to Elizabeth in French as well to make it a complete system, but she became too frustrated with not understanding what I was saying, especially in stressful situations, that I stopped doing that.

Stopping French:

Basil became very frustrated, as well.  Just after he turned 3, when I started this experiment, he had just come to a fluency with English.  He was speaking full sentences and was able to express his thoughts.  This was a very important new step for him, and he did not enjoy taking a step back with me.  When I spoke French to him he had to gain his understanding by context clues and the little he had learned from children’s books we’d read.  I also stopped reading English language books with him, which mean, of course, most of the books we had access to.  He became very frustrated with not being able to fully understand what I was saying, and we both became frustrated with my inability to say everything I wanted to say.  I spoke less to him than I had previously because I didn’t know how to say everything I wanted to.  Thus, I read and spoke less to him and he spoke less to me.  Out of concern for my relationship with Basil I decided to stop the experiment.

Starting Again:

The only reason I picked it back up is because Basil requested it of me.  He repeatedly brought to me the book Max et Les Maximonstres, which is Where the Wild Things Are in French.  He had never read this book in English, and it had become his favorite book.  This fact alone inspired me to continue reading in French to him and eventually continue speaking in French with him.  It showed me that in at least some way he enjoyed it and enough to ask for more.

We received a membership to the Alliance Francaise in the area, which had a wide variety of children’s books to check out.  I also started to discover the area libraries that had greater collections of French books – most I had explored had absolutely none.  Eventually, we also signed Basil up for classes at the Alliance Francaise two times, which he really enjoyed.

Why Reading?:

When reading from the OPOL books there was a discussion of what kind of “input” the children were receiving.  When the children are in a certain country that country’s language becomes the majority language and provides the majority of language input (written, spoken, or sung).  It becomes paramount that the children receive as much input in the minority language as possible to provide balance between the two languages.  If only one of the parents is providing input from the minority language the balance is weakened.  If that parent is the father it is further weakened due to a father’s reduced time with children (in traditional family arrangements).  It is advantageous to put the child in a school with the minority language, if possible, to tip the balance back and provide more input in the minority language.

I decided to further this experiment by teaching Basil how to read in French.  We had previously felt no urgency to teach him how to read early.  In addition, because of my concern of the imbalance in languages Basil would encounter I really didn’t want him to learn to read English early.  I wanted him to only have access to French books in order to increase the balance.  If I couldn’t be with him all day speaking French, I wanted him to have good input from the French books in our home.

Starting Reading with the Sandpaper Letters:

From my Montessori training I learned to teach reading with letter sounds.  The primary tool for this is a set of sandpaper letters.  These are expensive, especially French versions, so I decided to make them myself, which wasn’t too hard.  As it turns out, the alphabet is almost exactly the same aside from some accented letters and the important vowel combinations.  Why this particular material is effective is because it uses three senses to teach letter-sound associations: seeing, hearing, and touching.  I had to try hard (still do) to have family members stop teaching the children alphabet songs or reading alphabet books because learning letter names is counterproductive.  It does not help to say “a” as “ay” when reading the word “dad” or when reading the French word “chat.”  English letter names are counterproductive in both languages.  Each night after Macrina when to sleep, Basil and I would have a special time where we would pull out the letters and I would teach him a lesson on three new letters or fewer if they presented a special difficulty, tracing with the finger and saying the associated sound.  You can learn about a “three period lesson” elsewhere.

To guide my progress through the letters of the alphabet (after covering b,a,s,i, and l) I used a book called Pas à Pas, Ma Méthode de Lecture Syllabique, which I ordered from France.  This book provided a nice sequence and several pictures and words matched to practice some of the letter sounds already learned.  What was very nice about this system is that the words provided usually only contained letters already learned, something that was beyond my ability to create.

Sometimes we even made letters out of dinner!

Continuing Reading with the Movable Alphabet:

Also beyond my ability to create was the next material: the Movable Alphabet.  This is a collection of small letters: 5 of each consonant and 10 of each vowel.  The point of this material is to create words and sentences.  In the Montessori method, students learn first how to associate letters with sounds and then they learn how to compose words with those sounds.  Thus, writing comes before reading.  In practice, the reading comes automatically with the ability to write because they read as they write.  With these green letters Basil began stringing together letters – first his name, then other words we had looked at together.  Eventually he began stringing together entire sentences.  He is still very happy to do this activity as he has not yet mastered the spelling of all French words or the proper French grammar or syntax.  It is still a fun challenge for him.

Other supporting activities involved taking dictation for stories that Basil made up (in English and in French) and then having him illustrate them.

We even created an entire book out of movable alphabet letters and taking photographs to go with each page.

We also sing real and made up songs together in French.

Basil sometimes reads French books to his sister, Macrina.

Here is Basil reading Emilia her first ever book.  The book is in French and it is called Super Bobo.

Learning to Read English:

My hypothesis from the beginning was that I needed to teach Basil to read in French early because he would pick up reading English without even trying.  As it turns out, he seems to have picked up reading English more on account of being able to read in French.  The consonant sounds are largely the same.  The vowel sounds are different but not too different.  His superior knowledge of English allows context clues to help him figure out words that aren’t pronounced the same way as English.

Conclusion:

To this point Basil is able to read many of his favorite books in French – and I mean READ, not retell from memory.  He is also able to read most of his favorite English books, as well.  Unknown French words are decoded with phonetic knowledge.  Unknown English words are figured out mostly through context clues and using the phonetic clues from his French knowledge.  Basil is not conversationally fluent.  He understands much more than he can say, and this may be due to my laxity in responding to his English rather than expecting him to speak to me in French.  Still, it has been scarcely more than a year (maybe a year and a half) and he can understand and read much French.  With Macrina I began when she was about 1, and with Emilia I will be starting from the very beginning.  I don’t know what difference this will make since the amount of English input is larger for Macrina than it was with Basil – she has two people at home who speak English to her during the day while he had only one.  Still, there are other methods for trying to balance the input, such as the Alliance Francaise classes, French day at the zoo, a French performance of Eric Carle books, and the occasional viewing of a 1980’s Canadian program, called Téléfrancais (Basil’s only screen time).

My Own Study:

In order to do all of this I had to up my French from when I graduated from college in 2006.  To do this I watched, read, and listened to French news through the internet.  I attended one review class at the Alliance Francaise.  I went to local French discussion groups, and I even found a local French-language playgroup (though we have only attended once so far).  In this whole process I thought that perhaps I should think about teaching French professionally – a thought that never entered my mind as I graduated with a French degree and started in the teaching profession.  I subsequently took courses at a local university and became licensed to teach French K-12.  I don’t know if I’ll take a French job, however.  My fluency is still low, in my opinion, and I think it would be a lot of work!

Please feel free to ask questions if I left out details you want!

~Eric

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