What about the Grammar ? (Novice Edition)

One of the most common questions I am asked about the French 1 curriculum I’ve created has to do with grammar exercises.  Those of us that have taught or currently teach using a textbook as the basis for our curriculum expect to drill and assess a few grammar points in each chapter. As users of my curriculum have noticed, there are far fewer grammar exercises in my resources. In general, form-focused activities in my French 1 units are only included when there is a communicative context that requires the use of a specific structure and I do not formally assess the knowledge of the grammatical rule in isolation.

There are a few reasons I have designed my units for Novices in this way. As the table on this page shows, the targeted proficiency level at the end of one year of study for level 1 languages is Novice Mid and at the end of the second year it is Novice High. Let’s look at the Novice proficiency benchmarks from the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements. (The italics are mine.):

Interpretive:I can identify the general topic and some basic information in both very familiar and everyday contexts by recognizing practiced or memorized words, phrases, and simple sentences in texts that are spoken, written, or signed.

Interpersonal:I can communicate in spontaneous spoken, written, or signed conversations on both very familiar and everyday topics, using a variety of practiced or memorized words, phrases, simple sentences, and questions.

Presentational: I can present information on both very familiar and everyday topics using a variety of practiced or memorized words, phrases, and simple sentences through spoken, written, or signed language.

The emphasis on “practiced or memorized” at this level makes it clear that beginning students do not need to be able to conjugate verbs, determine correct adjective agreement, or memorize word order rules. 

What they do need, however, is lots of input and opportunities to express meaning by practicing words and phrases in communicative contexts.

What’s the harm?

Why not get a jump on teaching these structures. After all, this is the way so many of us learned the language we teach. Well, here are a few reasons:

  1. Explicit grammar instruction may not be very effective. As stated in this ACTFL resource, “Grammar is an important element of communication, but research shows that explicit teaching of grammar has little effect on people’s language acquisition, comprehension, or writing abilities.”
  2. My own experience highlights an equally important drawback to an emphasis on focus on form exercises. I found that students who are not successful on assessments of grammatical rules often lost confidence in their ability to learn the language and as a result tended to discontinue their language studies. These same students often excelled at communicating orally and I wanted to keep them in class!
  3. Drills and exercises that focus on the memorization of grammatical rules take valuable time away from meaningful communicative tasks. The ability to interpret texts, communicate in spontaneous conversations and present information, all in  “familiar and everyday contexts” requires lots of comprehensible input, communicative practice and significant feedback.  

But they need to know the rules eventually!

Of course they do! If we can keep all of our students present and engaged in our classes, there is plenty of time for a more intentional focus on form as they progress on the proficiency path. In the meantime, here are a few ways to prepare our Novices without grammar drills.

  1. Answer their questions.  When a student notices a difference in verb endings, adjective spelling, or other form, this is a great time for a pop-up grammar lesson.  We can ask them leading questions to guide them in formulating a rule. For example, “Yes, there’s an “s” at the end of the verb in that sentence, but not at the end of the verb in the other sentence. Why do you think that is? What do you notice about the subject of the sentence?” (And then be prepared to have the same conversation many, many times, as the light bulb goes off for various students.)
  2. Ask questions. After the students have had considerable exposure to basic structures (common conjugations, adjective placement, types of articles, etc.), you might point out these structures in the authentic texts that you are working with. “Look at that. How is the French word order different from the English word order in that sentence?” 
  3. Provide environmental support. Classroom posters with verb conjugations and other structures can scaffold students in producing accurate language before the structure has been fully acquired. 
  4. Design opportunities for the students to use certain structures in communicative tasks. After the students have seen a structure in context multiple times, I might incorporate a lesson which focuses on the form. Typically these lessons are based on an authentic resource, such as a cartoon, and the students are guided in formulating the rule by interpreting sentences which contain the structure. They then practice the structure in an interpersonal task with the support of sentence starters, as needed.  Finally, a highly scaffolded presentational task provides a context for producing the structure.
  5. Focus on feedback. By circulating amongst the students as they complete these communicative tasks, the teacher is able to provide individualized feedback on the pronunciation and spelling of the targeted form in a non-threatening way. If appropriate for their teaching environment, the teacher might even administer a quick formative assessment on the structure to provide further feedback to the students.

See these resources for examples of the type of lessons that are described above.

For regular -re verbs: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Focus-on-Regular-re-Verbs-A-3-day-Mini-unit-for-French-1-or-2-Students-10922640 

For regular -ir verbs: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Focus-on-regular-verbs-that-end-in-ir-10903732 

For common irregular verbs: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Verb-Review-Bundle-for-French-I-2-Lessons-on-Avoir-Etre-Faire-and-Aller-9762970 

One thought on “What about the Grammar ? (Novice Edition)

  1. Suzanne

    Thank you! Comprehensible input is so valuable to our novice learners, and sure, there are students who ask grammar questions because they want to know but I’ve found the bulk of them are there because they want to actually speak with people, not just do grammar exercises. I’m not saying grammar isn’t important, but it shouldn’t be our aim, especially in those early years.


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