Petit Nicolas: How to incorporate children’s literature in a proficiency-based curriculum.



I have been reading Petit Nicolas stories with my students since I began teaching 25 years ago. Although a lot of the resources on interpretive reading assessment tend to focus on non-fiction, I think that it is important to make sure that we are also exposing our students to literature from the target culture.   My students have always enjoyed reading these stories, and look forward to watching the live action film in the spring.  In addition, the cartoon videos provide an excellent authentic resource for interpretive listening.  For these reasons, I developed a mini-unit around the Petit Nicolas story, “Les Campeurs” for my French 3 students after our vacation unit this fall.     Here’s a pdf of the story, if you don’t have a copy of the book. 4-Les campeurs

I began this mini-unit by presenting some of the new vocabulary that the students would be seeing in the story.  To do so, I made a PowerPoint with a slide for each of the images on the handout included in the file.  I showed the PowerPoint and asked questions which included the words in order to familiarize the students with the vocabulary and scaffold the interpretive task.  Although I don’t often pre-teach vocabulary in this way, the feedback from the students was that it was really helpful.  An unintended consequence of this activity was that the students began to make predictions about what the story would be about—an important step in the reading process.

After the vocabulary presentation, I gave the students the interpretive task for Part 1 of the story, which I developed according to the template in the ACTFL IPA manual. Due to the length of the story, I divided it into two parts, and wrote a separate assessment for each one.  In order to avoid requiring the students to spend two days on silent reading, I allowed them to complete the assessment for Part I in small groups.   This also allowed the Part 1 task to serve as a formative assessment for the mini-unit.

While the students did well on this assessment and enjoyed reading the first part of the story, I wanted to include some target-language discussion of Part 1 before assessing their comprehension on Part 2.  A drawback to using the ACTFL IPA template is that the questions are in English.  While I agree that this is the best way to assess reading, it doesn’t provided the springboard I needed for a target language discussion.  Therefore, I designed a series of inference-based French questions and had the students discuss them in small groups, after which we discussed them as a class.  Their responses to these questions let me know that even those students who had performed well on the formative assessment were not reading deeply enough to understand many of the humorous details in the story.  I also discovered that my students would have benefited from being given additional background information about the stories.  For example, one student asked, “Why do you keep calling this story Petit Nicolas, there’s not even a Nicolas in it?”  I had not realized that it would not be obvious to these students that the story was being narrated in the first person—Oops!

I was pleased with the students’ discussion of these inference questions, and felt that they really encouraged a more detailed reading of the text.  I also realized that the ACTFL IPA template was most likely not designed for this type of reading task.  While reading for the main idea and a few supporting details are appropriate authentic tasks for non-fiction texts, literature is best enjoyed when read with attention to more subtle details, in order to more fully appreciate the humorous aspects of the text.  I’ll make sure to develop more appropriate interpretive assessments for these stories in the future.

After the discussion of the inference-based French questions, I felt the students were ready for the Part 2 Interpretive assessment.  They completed this individually so that I could use it as a summative assessment/part of their IPA for the mini-unit.

In addition to this Interpretive Reading task, I assessed the students’ interpretive listening skills by having them watch the cartoon video which corresponds to this story.  Note: the plot of the two stories is significantly different!  These differences are important, because they allow me to assess the students’ listening comprehension, rather than their memory of the story.  While this video is somewhat more difficult than others they had watched, the students felt very confident about their ability to understand it.  I think that the questions themselves provided a lot of scaffolding for the interpretive task.

For the Interpersonal Communication task, I assigned a role play in which Clotaire asks Nicolas to go camping again.  I allowed the students to practice this role play for about 30 minutes before being assessed, but did not allow them to choose which role they would play, or who their partner would be.  In this way I can ensure that the task is actually interpersonal, and not just memorization of a script.

For the Presentational Writing task, the students wrote a note from Nicolas to his grandmother, asking for a tent for his birthday.  As is my practice, the students wrote a rough draft (formative assessment), I provided feedback (using the abbreviations on the feedback form) and then they wrote a final draft, which was their IPA score.  In the future I would make my expectations more clear, as some of the letters were general in nature, rather than incorporating specific details from the story.

Here’s a file with the materials I created for this story:campeurs_file

I’d love to hear from others who have incorporated Petit Nicolas stories into their proficiency-based classrooms.  What types of interpretive tasks have worked for you?


18 thoughts on “Petit Nicolas: How to incorporate children’s literature in a proficiency-based curriculum.

  1. Skylar

    I like the idea of a vocabulary intro lesson prior to reading the story. I find that they can become overwhelmed by all the new words if there isn’t at least some pre-teaching.
    I also agree that the actfl ipa structure is definitely meant for nonfiction texts. Fiction needs a little more “flair”, esp those texts which include symbolism. Keeping track of characters/their traits is essential too. You could do a nonfiction article/assessment about the history/cultural impact of Nicolas prior to the story — which would also serve as an introduction to the characters. I think that the site has some good selections.
    I really like the “Je pense que c’est vrai parce que…” Structure because it lends itself to both explanation and conversation.
    When doing Nicolas stories over a couple of days, I always began class by posting some basic French “Qui…/Pourquoi…/où…” Types of questions to serve as review of the story and encourage TL discussion.
    Question: do you find that you need to deal with groups reading at different paces? For the fast groups, it’s no problem bc they are usually eager to begin practice for their assessments, but occasionally I have had reeeeeeaaaaalllly slow groups. It’s pointless to assign the story for homework, as these are usually students who struggle anyway!
    I think that you are getting some good ideas together for how to tackle Le Petit Prince this year! That is absolutely the part of the year that I will miss the most!

    1. madameshepard Post author

      Thanks for your insightful reply, Skylar! As for the vocabulary pre-teaching, I couldn’t agree more. As a matter of fact, when we read “Je quitte la maison” a couple of weeks later, they struggled a lot more. I blame this on the fact that, although I gave them a list of vocabulary/pictures, I did not present the list as a powerpoint (due to a lack of time). Whether it was the lack of vocabulary pre-teaching or the fact that they read the second part of this one with a sub, their comprehension and enjoyment of this one definitely wasn’t as high as it was on “Les Campeurs.” I’ll definitely make sure to introduce the vocabulary more intentionally the next time. Great idea about giving them more background information about the stories themselves!
      As for assessments, I think for now I’ll stick to questioning strategies that encourage comprehension and communication, rather than assessing their interpretation of the story in isolation. The type of questions you suggested will help improve their interpersonal skills, and I can help them see the comical elements of the stories. I’ll keep working on the agree/disagree questions, too, because they encourage in depth reading and great conversation. If I need an interpretive assessment for a Nicolas story mini-unit, I can give them a non-fiction article related to the story. For example, last year when we read “King” I assessed them on an article about raising tadpoles and that worked out well.
      As for the earlier finishers, I wish I had better ideas. There were groups that understood the story so well that they were giggling at the humor and of course those were also the ones that finished first. The slower readers just couldn’t understand well enough to find the story funny, and I think that they didn’t really finish, because they gave up. As a result, they couldn’t really participate in a discussion. I’ll try spending more time with these groups for the next story so I can provide them with a little more support. Now that I think about it, that’s another reason why it’s not the best idea to formally assess their interpretation on the story—I can’t really help them if I’m assessing them.
      Thanks, as always, for all of your great ideas!

    2. irene

      I’ve only started using Le Petit Nicolas for the first time this year with my grade 8 early french immersion students and most of my students appear to be enjoying it. Like you, I pre-teach the vocabulary, which seems to aid with the comprehension. I’ve also found that listening to the recorded story while following the written text helps the less advanced students to capture the essence of the story.

  2. Merissa

    Thank you so much for sharing your materials!! I always like for students to listen and read together and was wondering what you use for the audio? Also have you used either of the movies, Le Petit Nicolas or Les Vacances du Petit Nicolas?

    1. madameshepard Post author

      Hi, Merissa I just double-checked and the link for the audio I used is in the packet. If it doesn’t work anymore you could search Petit Nicolas Les Campeurs on youtube. The video I used hear is from a televised cartoon series. There are dozens of Petit Nicolas stories in the series, which are closely related, but not exactly the same as the stories. In fact, there are often considerable differences. I do show the feature film, Le Petit Nicolas every year (after the students have read several stories) and they love it. I don’t have Les Vacances… yet, but I’m looking forward to treating myself to a copy of it sometime soon.

      1. Kathy

        Does anyone have a captured copy of this ( the entire) episode? It is such a cute one, but I can only find a small excerpt of it on youtube.

  3. Merissa

    Got it! For some reason I thought you used audio of the text too. I love the animated series, my class last year enjoyed Djojo quit a bit. Thanks again!

    1. madameshepard Post author

      I know there is a site with the audio version of some of the stories, but I haven’t used it recently.

  4. MlleT

    Bonjour! Thank you so much for sharing all of your great materials! Would you be willing to share a copy of the PowerPoint that you mentioned using to introduce the vocabulary? Merci! 🙂

  5. Jen Moore

    Do you know where I could find PDF files of the actual book like the file you gave for les campeurs? I am interested in working with the first book Le Petit Nicolas. Merci!

    1. madameshepard Post author

      Hi, I’ve found some pdf’s online by Googling, but I don’t know of any source that has all of them. I think that most or all of the titles are available on Amazon. I’ve seen used copies selling for $1.98 there. Let me know if you need help with a specific story, but otherwise I think buying one or more of the books would be money well spent!

  6. Paula M McLaughlin

    I am just now familiarizing myself with your wonderful blog. I love your ideas and hope to use many of them to in English. Although I am not in the habit of doing so and am used to doing all activities in French, I understand that asking the questions in English may be a better way to check comprehension. But I am wondering what this looks like in the classroom. Do the students work alone on the questions. I do so much partner work, but if they are working with a partner, would they discuss the English questions in English or French? If English, it seems that the English would take over more than 10% of class time. I am just wondering how this actually plays out. Thanks so much, and thank you again for being so generous with all of your ideas.

    1. madameshepard Post author

      Hi, Paula I think you make a valid point. This post is from 5 years ago, when I was just becoming familiar with the ACTFL IPA template. As I progressed in my journey toward teaching for proficiency, I found that other types of questioning allowed me to better meet my 90% target language goals. A favorite formative assessment is true/false with justification. By putting the statements in French (but using different vocabulary/structures than is used in the story), I found that the students remained in French when working with a partner. In this lesson, I did use that type of questioning, but only later, with inference questions. I have found it works great for both! Thanks so much for your great question! Lisa

  7. Paula M McLaughlin

    Thank you so much. That’s a great help. I am using your model for this lesson to make up a worksheet to go with a song. I think it is going to work well. Merci et bon weekend!


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