Novices? Read a Novel! The French Edition


Time to dust off the blog. Not that I have more time (because, well, who does?) but I made some promises and have not acted on them. Yet. And a gentle nudge from Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell may have done the trick. To honor my commitments, I’ll start with a series of posts on teaching a novel in a Novice class.

Wait! Don’t leave!

Your students can do it and so can you. As a matter of fact, using a novel can ground your teaching, provide context for high frequency language structures, allow your Novices to use narration, make predictions, and argue, all in the target language! And if you are a “sans textbook” teacher like myself, you will appreciate having a clear direction for your lesson plans for a while. Reader’s theater, frozen scenes, review stations, and more interactive activities are sure to get your students out of their seats, laugh, hold their breath, compete, ultimately enjoying your class. There’s nothing sweeter hearing, “Oh, the class is over? Already?” when the bell rings. So, if you have not yet used a novel in your beginner classes, please, reconsider!

What kind of novel?

Let’s make this clear first. I am not talking about an original novel by Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, or even Guy de Maupassant, even though you could use them with your upper level classes who have started their language journey in kindergarten. The novels that work best with Novice learners are those that have a clear storyline, some action, relatable characters and/or situations, unexpected twists or ending, but most importantly, the ones that have VERY comprehensible language. That means simple text with limited repetitive vocabulary, multiple cognates, a good variety of language structures, and short chapters. So, if Balzac is your fave, you can certainly rewrite Le Père Goriot to be more comprehensible but would your students want to read it? On another hand, there are plenty of adaptations for learners of French of interesting and authentic novels like Les Trois Mousquetaires or even Bel Ami, but they all seem to be above OUR beginner learners. Ironically, even the A1-A2 Débutant rating on European CIDEB or ELI graded readers is aimed at students who have a functional ability in the language which corresponds to Novice High-Intermediate Mid level (correlation according to Assigning CEFR Ratings to ACTFL Assessments). Clearly, MY Débutants are not there yet.

So what does a teacher do with a class of Novice Mid/High kids who require lots and lots of input? Infographics can only go so far. Paragraph length texts that are offered by most textbook publishers don’t lead to discussion, interpretation, or inference. Kids need interesting and engaging input that can be manipulated in a variety of ways in order to be processed, retained, and used with a purpose. Daily storytelling can be an answer but it can also be very exhausting.

Enter comprehensible input novels. They come from a variety of sources, from original TPRS novels, to Fluency Matters novels, to Mira Canion’s one and only (hopefully for now) French novel. It is true that there are many more Spanish titles offered as of right now than French ones and those that exist in French are mostly “remakes” of their Spanish “siblings”. Nonetheless, there is a variety of French novels to entice your beginner students of all ages . Pick one and give it a go. Or better yet, order a sample pack and chose the best one for your students.  And as your readers grow in their command of the language, you might consider venturing in that A1-A2 rating.

How long to plan for it?

Well… There are different ways of doing it. Some teachers have a day of the week dedicated to novel reading, some abandon everything and focus just on the novel for a period of time. I belong to the last camp. How much time you devote to the novel should depend on your goals. If you use it to review, reactivate, provide lots of comprehensible input to students through an EASY read, you may breeze through one in a few days. Many teachers use a novel at the beginning of the school year to ease the kids in and provide an effective and engaging review. If your purpose is to broaden your students’ vocabulary, work on a particular skill (narration in the past, anyone?), create opportunities to use and recycle language structures from the novel, have fun with it, or stimulate serious discussion, it might take longer. In my experience, there is a fine line between working on a novel and dragging it. Take cues from your students and increase or slow down your pace as needed.

So, ok… May be… But how does one do it?

Hit the Internet for teacher blogs. So what if they teach Spanish, German, or Japanese? Some ideas are universal, worth taking a look at and applying to your practice. Many teachers share freely their materials, all you have to do is, well… change them into French and adapt to the students in front of you. It might be worth at first investing in the teacher guide for the novel if it exists in French. I promise, after a few rounds you’ll be a pro at creating your own pre-, during, and post- reading activities as well as the extensions that dig deeper into culture, AP themes explored in the reading, or simply exploiting your students’ talents of performers, artists, etc. Here’s a list of blogs of pros to check out: CI Peek, Somewhere to Share  by Carrie Toth (author), Kristy Placido (author),  The Comprehensible Classroom by Martina Bex, Language Sensei by Colleen Lee Hayes, Teaching Spanish with Comprehensible Input by Cynthia Hitz, and many more. Just search “reading” or “novels” on these blogs to see multiple posts devoted to a variety of techniques around a novel or a text. Diversify your practice!

What can I offer you?

Nothing more than one French teacher’s journey in teaching with a novel. After struggling through finding materials in French, I have long ago decided to make them myself. It took a few reads of the same novel to come up with something that consistently works in my classroom. May be it can work for you. In the next few posts, I will be blogging about teaching with Pirates Français des Caraïbes that became a “must do” novel in my Novice classes. Follow along and I hope that it encourages you to give novels a try.

Image Credit: DariuszSankowski CC0 Public Domain


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