Secondary Language Learning


Maureen Gerber, OFLA Secondary Learning Chair
French Teacher, Perrysburg High School

For so many of us, the past narrative is a struggle to teach. I remember years of making my own stories and dutifully making blanks for the students to fill in where they chose between passé composé, imparfait, and later, plus-que-parfait. And generally, these worksheets were a disaster for us all.  Quelle horreur!

One day many many years ago, everything changed for me in one fell swoop. I went to a conference where a veteran teacher boiled down the passé composé and the imparfait to two general questions: What happened? (Action) and What were the circumstances? (Description) “It was that simple,” he said.

And truly, that is all it is. So consider:

State of mind Circumstance She was angry. He had no patience.
Weather Circumstance It was snowy.
What was going on when something else happened? Circumstance and action She was writing a paper when the phone rang.
What he would or used to do? Circumstance Each summer he would go to the beach.

When I teach this concept, I begin with the first unit of Level 2, and we use familiar stories. The concept continues all year where I include more information into this past tense sandwich while reinforcing what we know. All of this while students and I tell stories with enthusiasm and gusto.

For example, let’s take the story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”

What happened? ACTION

  1.     Goldilocks decided to enter the house.
  2.     She saw three bowls of porridge.
  3.     She tasted the porridge.
  4.     She chose the little bowl.
  5.     She ate it all. Yum.

What were the CIRCUMSTANCES?

  1.     Once upon a time, there was a little girl.
  2.     The girl had blond hair.
  3.     She would not listen to her mother.
  4.     She liked to walk in the woods.
  5.     It was a beautiful day.
  6.     There was a house in the woods where the bears were living.
  7.     Goldilocks was walking when she saw the little house.

From these rudimentary groupings of sentences, how do we teach the past tense and how do we choose between them?

First, my students learn the imparfait. Why? Because it is easier! And it brings the past to us quickly. Some ways to tackle this:

    • Modeling: Maintenant, vous avez les ordinateurs, mais moi, quand j’étais à l’école, j’avais un crayon!   Continue working it, figure out the pattern, and play with it.
    • Questions using imparfait: What was school like when your grandparents were young? How is school now? What was elementary school like for you? What is it like now? What would you do every day when you were 5?
    • Movies: What were the characters like? What could they do? What did they want? What was the setting? Where did they live? What would they do when they fought enemies? etc.
    • A fun class discussion can revolve around comparisons of imparfait of Iron Man, Spider Man, Super Man, etc., but in the imparfait.

Second, later in the unit after really feeling comfortable with the imparfait, we go to the story where we are going to add in the passé composé:

What was the setting of Goldilocks? Here is a sample answer:

The house was in the woods. Goldilocks was a bad girl. Goldilocks wore a blue dress. She was naughty. The bears were hungry. The soup was hot. The Papa Bear was angry.

I accomplish this part of the lesson with pictures. An example might be a picture of Goldilocks and the three bears with nouns written all around the perimeter:

I ask questions:

  • Comment était Boucles d’Or? – Student: Elle était méchante.
  • Quel problème avait le petit ourson? – Student: Il avait faim.
  • Comment était le Papa Ours? – Student: Il était fâché.
  • Comment était la soupe?  Student: La soupe était chaude.

We continue to work on DESCRIPTION using imparfait while telling the story and by using a lot of pictures.

Comment était Boucles d’Or après avoir marché dans la forêt?  (énergique? fatiguée?)

Teaching ACTION

I teach -er verbs with avoir in the passé composé. I teach and model and then specifically teach some verbs for the story:

Step 1:

Present Tense                                                      Passé Composé

Aujourd’hui, je nage.                                                 En été, j’ai nagé.

Aujourd’hui j’étudie.                                                 En été, j’ai joué au tennis.

Aujourd’hui je mange de la pizza.                          En été j’ai mangé de la glace.

 Students tell me what is happening today and what happened yesterday. Then they make past tense sentences with a projected photo and -er verbs.

 Step 2: Project the following verbs.

décider                    goûter            manger            utiliser                casser 

We write sentences in the PC using these verbs in the “elle” form, and then we talk about the story while using these verbs. For example: Qu’est-ce que Boucles d’Or a mangé? Qu’est-ce qu’elle a cassé? Qu’est-ce qu’elle a utilisé pour s’asseoir? Pour dormir? Qu’est-ce qu’elle a goûté? En arrivant à la maison, qu’est-ce qu’elle a décidé de faire?   

We work on the story. Students tell as much action to their partners as they can and then we share.

Step 3: Teach -ir verbs with “avoir” and add: This step is probably day 2 of passé composé after a review of day. Teach -ir verbs with “avoir” and work on the story by adding:

Choisir (de+infinitive)        Elle a choisi la petite chaise. Elle a choisi de monter à la chambre.

Finir                                       Elle a fini la soupe

Désobéir                                Elle a désobéi à sa mère.

Step 4: Create a story using imparfait and passé composé and -er and -ir verbs.  For example, I tell the story using pictures as students follow along; then I question the students and finally I give students the chance to tell the story to their partner.

Boucles d’Or était petite. Elle habitait avec sa mère. Elle n’aimait pas écouter sa mère, en fait elle désobéissait à sa mère tout le temps.

Il y avait une famille d’ours dans la forêt. Le père était grand, la mère était gentille et le bébé ourson aimait pleurnicher!

Un jour, la mère a préparé la soupe. Mais la soupe était trop chaude. Zut alors. La famille a décidé d’aller dans la forêt faire une promenade.

Boucles d’Or faisait une promenade dans la forêt quand elle a vu la petite maison. Elle était si fatiguée. Elle a frappé à la porte. Toc, toc, toc. Personne n’était là! Elle a décidé d’entrer dans la maison.

Elle a vu trois bols de soupe. Elle a goûté le premier bol. C’était horrible! Elle a goûté le prochain bol. La soupe était trop chaude. Enfin, elle a goûté le petit bol. La soupe était délicieuse. Elle a mangé toute la soupe!! Miam, miam.

Boucles d’Or a vu trois chaises. Elle a essayé la première chaise. La chaise était trop dure. Elle a essayé la deuxième chaise. La chaise était trop molle. Elle a essayé la dernière chaise. La chaise était parfaite! Mais, la chaise a cassé en mille morceaux.

 How do I use this story?

    • Model the story with pictures.
    • Ask questions of the students.
    • Show the pictures and “tell” the story together.
    • Lead students through the story.
    • Show a picture of a scene and get ACTION sentences with passé composé (orally) and CIRCUMSTANCES sentences with imparfait.
    • Distribute a handout of a picture from the story and have student pairs write 5 action and 5 description (using: avoir, porter, être, faire, pouvoir) sentences.

We continue in this vein over the course of several weeks. I “chunk” -re verbs, irregular verbs with “avoir” (they have seen voir by now), and finally add in only 3 être verbs: aller, entrer, and partir. Each time, we retell as much of the story as we can.

Once we have nailed “Goldilocks,” we work on “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Beauty and the Beast” etc. At this point, we can see a movie in the target language and do lots of tasks in the past. I particularly like “Ratatouille.” We say, write and share DESCRIPTIONS of characters, setting, feelings, etc. in the imparfait and ACTIONS in the passé compose.

And by the time the unit is over, our kids are telling stories—narrating in the past—with enthusiasm.  By the end of the year, we’ve honed our control of past narration using what we know. We will have Level 3 and beyond to add in reflexive verbs, finish “être” verbs, and add plus que parfait.



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