How do you teach the perfect tense in French? Through speaking, listening, reading or writing? Where do you start? With the rules or with examples? At the explicit end or the implicit end of the grammar teaching spectrum? When do you start? Year 7, Year 8, Year 9? After you’ve taught the present tense? Before? At the same time? How long do you give to teaching the whole thing, from the very beginning of it all up to and including être verbs, irregular past participles, negatives and so on? Half a term? A term? A year? And at what point do you consider it “done”? When everyone understands the rules? When most pupils understand them? When they can articulate them? When they can use the tense in their writing? Their speaking? Both? When they no longer have to think through every element of it slowly and they can speak fluently and accurately? 

Of all the things that everyone learning French needs up to GCSE, I think this is probably the trickiest for most and it takes a good while for everyone to get it. It may well seem that with all the pressures on time (teaching GCSE to the depth we would like in 2 years is a challenge, to put it mildly), there’s no time for messing about with lateness routines, register routines, team competitions, forfeit routines, lesson menus and all the rest of it. But my hope is that as I go into the mechanics of my version of a Lateness Routine, Stage 3, the real value of interaction routines will be much more obvious, not only for being able to cope with the here and now of the classroom, but also as a highly effective strategy for teaching grammar. As we all know, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and as always on this blog, I’m more interested in explaining how this approach works to anyone who wants to know than in tearing down any other approach. Feel free to take from this what interests you and leave what doesn’t. I’ve been training teachers in this for years and years and years, and running it with my own classes for longer and when it comes to explaining the detail, there’s a lot of it, so I’ve broken it up into several posts. That means, of course, that what follows will probably raise lots of questions all the way through, and I’ve tried to anticipate where they might occur. I will get to answering them, but it might be a few posts later before I get to them all! Please feel free to fire questions before then if you wish, and I’ll do my best to answer them or tell you when a fuller answer is coming up.

In this post, I want to show how the range of language that pupils use within the Lateness Routine can be extended and how, in my version, that links in to an overarching plan to teach the perfect tense inductively through the target language.

Stages 1-3:

In the first stage, the class asked ‘Pourquoi es-tu en retard ?’ and the answer came back (usually) as, ‘parce que j’ai parlé à mon professeur’, ‘parce que je suis sorti en retard de [+subject]’ or ‘parce que je me suis perdu’.

In the second stage, the question was extended to include the 12-hour clock: ‘Le cours a commencé à ..[+ time]…, alors pourquoi es-tu en retard ?’

In this third stage, the question can be extended much further (but I’ll save that for another post), and they learn how to express more reasons for lateness. 

As we will go on to see, these excuses all use very common regular perfect tense verbs which come from all three verb groups (-er>-é, -ir>-i, -re>-u) and they use all three (or the two, depending on how you look at it) auxiliary forms: j’ai, je suis, je me suis. There are repetition activities to help pupils of all abilities to retain the new language and to produce it at speed, and learners will be led to discover grammatical patterns and to express them in the form of a prototype rule. All of this helps pupils going forward so that they will know what to do when they encounter new verbs and they can begin to apply internalised rules when saying what they want to say in more genuinely spontaneous speaking. 

Here goes:

Stage 3:

A pupil arrives late, the class asks why they are late, including reference to when the lesson began (see Stage 2). They give their reason, the class decides whether this is acceptable or not, and the class tells them to take their seat: ‘A ta place !’

‘Quelles sont les autres raisons possibles pour être arrivé en retard ?’ I ask, revealing the question and ‘parce que’ of the visual below (I’m no artist…):

Here’s a pdf version:

So the context is clear, a pupil has arrived late, they have been questioned about it, they have answered, sat down and before we start anything else (I’m assuming the pupil was late enough for the register to have been completed by now), I raise the question of other possible excuses. I use a visualiser for this activity as it allows me both to use the slow-reveal technique, which works so well with this, and to face the class all the way through, which really helps with pace and involvement.

The visual is hand-drawn on a piece of A4. With two A4 pieces of card, I can cover up most of the visual except for a small corner of an image and start to describe in French a reason for being late. As I talk, I slowly reveal more of the image, moving one card downwards and the other slowly to the right until someone can guess the excuse. The goal is that they reach understanding using primarily the words that they hear, with the visual image playing a supporting role. From the little tiny corner of the image that they see at the beginning, they shouldn’t be able to guess it, but as they hear more and see a little more, the two work together. 

The goal is that they reach understanding using primarily the words that they hear, with the visual image playing a supporting role.

Making yourself comprehensible: A worked example

Let’s take as an example, ‘J’ai regardé dans mon casier’, which is introduced here just after ‘J’ai perdu mon sac’. (Remember that all the time the following is being said, I step away from the visualiser and act out the situation to support comprehension). “J’ai fini mon cours de géographie et je suis sorti de la salle de classe avec mon cahier dans la main. Et j’ai pensé [mime looking puzzled and looking around for something lost] où est mon sac ? J’ai perdu mon sac !” [Remember, they’ve just learned this one, and it provides a situational context for the new phrase coming up]. “Je suis rentré dans la salle de géographie et j’ai cherché mon sac, mais il n’était pas là, alors j’ai eu une idée ! Ping ! [Light bulb moment!] J’ai une … [looking thoughtful, as if having forgotten the word I need] … enfin, c’est comme une ‘boîte’ que je peux fermer avec une clef [mimes, mimes, mimes to support] et cette boîte est dans le couloir, en face de la salle de mathématiques. [More mimes, more mimes, more mimes]. Alors je suis allé à cette ‘boîte’, je l’ai ouverte avec ma clef, et voilà ! Mon sac était là-dedans ! J’ai mis mon cahier dans le sac et je suis venu ici. Pardon, je suis arrivé en retard.”

Hopefully, as I’m explaining and slowly revealing the image, (but not enough to guess from the image alone), pupils hands will be shooting up to suggest what the reason is. I don’t want to take an answer as soon as the first hand goes up, I want to allow more pupils to catch on first, so I keep talking, explaining, acting and this serves two purposes. One, it gives those pupils who need that time the opportunity to achieve comprehension before the answer is just given to them and two, those who think they know can test out their hypothesis by what they continue to hear. Some will put their hand down as what they continue to hear contradicts what they thought was the answer. Waiting also gives me the chance to see if it’s only going to be one or two pupils who get it (in which case I’ve either been unclear in my explanation or I’ve pitched the language too high). It feels different for the class, too, in terms of how successful the lesson is to see quite a few hands going up or just one. 

As they progress over the course of a year and from one year to another, I can increase the level of challenge by reducing my use of cognates, increasing my speed of delivery, showing less of the image and reducing my use of mime to support my explanation. Similarly, if I find in any one lesson that they’re not catching on as quickly as I’d hoped or I need to increase the pace, I can do the opposite.

As I pick someone to answer, the whole class asks the contextualising question together, “Pourquoi es-tu en retard ?” Because this is a new context and a fair bit of it is new language, it’s more likely than not that a pupil will answer with “Comment dit-on, ‘Because I went to have a look in my locker’ en français ?” than to come out with the whole answer in French. Sometimes they might come forward with “Comment dit-on, ‘J’ai regardé in my locker’ en français ?” I’ll come back to why they might do that later on.

I reply with three possibilities: J’ai mangé dans mon casier / J’ai regardé dans mon casier / J’ai dormi dans mon casier. And the pupil has to tell me which one is correct. I’ll ask the class if they agree: Lève la main si tu penses que c’est “J’ai ………..” and each of the three answers, and then confirm. Alternatively, my three possibilities could be: J’ai regardé dans la toilette / J’ai regardé dans mon casier / J’ai regardé dans la réception, where the focus now is not on which verb is correct, but which noun.

As they progress … I can increase the level of challenge by reducing my use of cognates, increasing my speed of delivery, showing less of the image and reducing my use of mime to support my explanation.

Once confirmed, we drill the language together. Back in Stage 1, where one of the excuses was “J’ai parlé à mon professeur”, we did one stamp for J’ai and we traced the acute accent in the air for parlé. Here we do the same for J’ai regardé dans mon casier. By this point the class is usually good at and keen to suggest their own mimes for words, which is the ideal, otherwise I suggest for regardé, pointing from my eye to something directly in front of me; for dans, pointing downwards; for mon, pointing at myself and for casier, opening a door with a key and looking into it. We decide as a class on what we are doing and we do it together, repeating the sentence. If I catch sight of someone not really joining in, I jolly them along and we do it again. Then we go back to the beginning of all the phrases we have done so far and do them all up to this point, all standing. Then they can sit down and it’s on to the next image and excuse.

For every excuse, we follow the same sequence. The more we do this, the quicker we get at it and the more the class gets used to the procedure. The mimes and repetition help to break up the length of time pupils have to sit listening – so important for those who really struggle to sit still for long, it gives them a channel! – and they provide a hook for the language that we can exploit in a later stage of the lesson, which means they can show meaning without needing to go back into English. More on that later. It makes a big difference to how much they retain and their sense of involvement if after introducing each one we go back to the beginning and repeat them all compared to just moving on to the next one. Cumulative repetition, as I like to call it.

Repetition activities & concept-checkers

Depending on the class and how the lesson is going, I may stop after three verbs or after six. Here, I would get a pupil to time me saying those first three or six verbs three times. I don’t do it quite as fast as I can, but fairly fast. The class then has to beat my time, which of course, they do. So I get another go, this time much faster and then it’s over to them. Then it’s back to introducing some more excuses.

Now, if you’re wondering if this must be taking far too long and what’s happening to the rest of the lesson, hold that thought! I promise I’ll come back to it!

Where’s the grammar?

Once I’ve got to the seventh activity (J’ai parlé à mon professeur), it’s time to stop and look for some patterns: “Regardez bien les sept activités. Là, il y a trois groupes, trois catégories. Vous les voyez ? C’est un test d’observation ! Quelles sont les trois groupes ?” and just wait to see what they say. Now, for reasons which will become apparent a little later on, someone (hopefully more than just one), will spot it easily and come back with “-é accent aigu, -i et –u”. We all check to see if that’s right (much better than just saying it is – it sets up the good habit of checking to see whether the language we are all looking at supports our hypotheses rather than the teacher being the fount of all knowledge to say it is or isn’t correct). 

The response is confirmed and then we can play a one-minute concept-checker game, first as a whole class and then in pairs: I pick a sentence, cover up the visual and beep out the ending of the past participle: “J’ai regard….. dans mon casier, regardé, regardi ou regardu ?” This can be done with all of the sentences in random order and in quick succession. Straight into pairs with the visual uncovered, but with the guessing pupil in each pair looking away from the screen. C’est bon ! C’est pas bon ! (or as it often is by this point in the year, Tu t’es trompé !).

The next two excuses, Je suis allé à la salle d’anglais and Je suis sorti en retard de géographie are next and are introduced in exactly the same way, but with two stamps for Je suis in contrast to the one stamp for J’ai. Here we set up another concept-checker activity: “Avant, j’ai dit qu’il y a TROIS catégories de verbes. Maintenant, c’est différent. Il faut chercher DEUX catégories, deux groupes de verbes. Qu’est-ce que vous pensez ? Vous voyez deux groupes là ?” What I’m looking for, of course, is for them to find the group J’ai and the group Je suis : “Oui ! C’est ça ! J’ai et Je suis. J’ai regardé, c’est correct, mais Je suis regardé, ce n’est pas correct. Je suis allé, c’est correct, mais J’ai allé, ce n’est pas correct.” Then it’s straight into the concept-checker activity with the visual covered, where this time it’s not the past participle ending which is beeped out, but the auxiliary verb: ”…………… regardé dans mon casier, J’ai ou Je suis ? J’ai regardé !” and so on. As soon as all is clear, they do the same activity in pairs with the visual uncovered and the guessing pupil looking away from the screen.

These concept-checkers are crucial and although they qualify as repetition activities, their value goes further still. These are the activities which get pupils to notice that there is something to notice, where these small essential details which are so often missed or forgotten become the means by which they can get an answer right or wrong. To the average Year 7 pupil, je mange, j’ai mangé and manger all look far too similar to be distinct, whereas the stamping for J’ai and Je suis and the drawing accents in the air and concentrating everyone’s attention on using -é, -i and -u as the deciding factor in the correctness of an answer in a concept-checker activity, make them unmistakeable across the range of pupils I teach.

These are the activities which get pupils to notice that there is something to notice.

Well, there is still one verb to go, but I think that’s enough for one post! Well done and thank you if you’ve stayed with me this long!

Next time: Giving target language instructions for repetition activities – a worked example