We’re still in Stage 3, still in the same lesson. If you’re here for the first time, welcome. And Pourquoi es-tu en retard ?, as it were. If you haven’t already read the last post (cue bugle), the following won’t make much sense. If you have, this may still not make much sense, but at least it won’t be your fault.

In Stage 1, a late arrival to the lesson was greeted with Pourquoi es-tu en retard ? from everyone who did manage to make it on time, and the tardy miscreant responded with one of three excuses.

In Stage 2, feeling the confidence that comes with a tiny bit of stroppiness, the more punctual of our number greeted our nevertheless welcome latecomers with a slightly longer question, which included the time the lesson started (although sometimes they’ve been so late I’ve wondered whether I should measure their lateness with a calendar).

Here in Stage 3, pupils have learned how to express a wider range of excuses, and it just so happens, they are all regular perfect tense verbs, some of which start with J’ai, some with Je suis and one with Je me suis. You won’t be surprised to know that this all fits in to a long-term strategy for teaching the perfect tense inductively and through the target language. Or you might. But that’s where we are.

In this post, I want to look at some ways of giving instructions for the whole-class and pair-work repetition activities we will need and checking everyone has understood without us needing to go back into English. Here’s a favourite:


As almost always, the game starts with me leading it for the class and, as soon as it’s clear they have caught on and they know what the game is and how you play it, putting them into pairs for them to do the same thing with their partner. There’s no announcing it, I just do it. This reduces the need for long instructions where I might lose them (although there is a place for longer instructions at the beginning or in the middle of familiar activities, but that’s another post another day). I don’t ask them if they understand, because I can see if they do by their response and, if necessary, pupils can help each other. I ask the contextualising question, “Pourquoi es-tu en retard ?” and mime any one of the phrases using the same agreed gestures that we have used throughout the lesson. Correct answers (or a pretty good stab at it) will result in a point for the pupil or team, depending on where I’m up to in our Team Competition Routine (watch this space!). After two or three questions and answers, pupils go back into their pairs for this, their third pairwork activity of the lesson, and do exactly the same thing, with one pupil asking the contextualising question (which won’t need drilling, as it’s already fully in use, but they will need reminding to use it) and the other pupil answering and receiving corrective feedback from their partner as appropriate. Give it a minute and they swap over. Depending on the group, I may run this twice, once with both pupils seeing the screen and once with the guessing pupil sitting with their back to the screen. In both cases, the ‘teacher’ pupil will need to see the visuals with the language on the screen. I always run the second of these options, and sometimes the first as well.

There’s no announcing it, I just do it. This reduces the need for long instructions where I might lose them … I don’t ask them if they understand, because I can see if they do by their response

Giving target language instructions for repetition activities – a worked example

Here’s a favourite repetition activity that can go before or after Charades and which will already be very familiar to many. The expressions are set out as follows:

Here is how I introduce the activity, word for word:

“Voici les excuses et je les ai écrites en [pointing to each line] rouge, noir, b… [continuing to point to each line but saying nothing to allow pupils to tell me the colours]. Je voudrais un volontaire, s’il vous plaît. Un volontaire ? Qui va être la victime ? Euh, pardon, le volontaire ?!  Ah toi, [Alex], merci, c’est gentil. Alex, écoute, je vais lire une phrase et toi, tu dois dire la couleur de la phrase, d’accord ? [He may or may not understand. If he’s looking unsure, I read a sentence anyway and slow down part-way through suggesting the colour to him to say back to me – no need to go back into English!]. Super, très bien ! Encore une fois [We do it again with another line]. Excellent, rouge, oui, c’est bon. C’est un point pour Alex ou un point pour moi ? [The class will usually say it’s a point for Alex if he said the correct colour]. Non, c’est un point pour moi ! [Class looks puzzled]. C’est un point pour moi parce que j’ai fini la phrase ! [“J’ai fini” holds no mystery for them – they’ve just learned it as one of the excuses, it’s a cognate and, in most cases, they already knew it]. Alors, Alex, je vais dire une phrase et toi, tu dois dire la couleur de la phrase avant que je ne la finisse. [Slight pause]. Si je finis la phrase, c’est un point pour moi. Mais si tu dis la couleur et je n’ai pas fini la phrase, c’est un point pour toi, d’accord ? And we’re off. The use of the subjunctive in instructions for a Year 7 class sometimes comes as a surprise to observers, but I think that’s usually because we think in terms of a hierarchy of grammatical categories. In practice, pupils follow these instructions well. We count the points on our fingers, and the first one to five wins. The next step, of course, is pairwork activity number 4 where pupils do exactly the same activity, beginning with some negotiation between them, for which they will need visual support the first time they do it: “Moi, je vais lire les phrases et toi, tu vas dire les couleurs”.

It’s a very popular activity and it takes me back to many a conversation when James Burch would challenge me, “But what is their motivation? What is their incentive for taking part?” It’s a great question and it cuts right to the heart of the matter. Why should they engage in the activity rather than just wait for it to be over, not necessarily misbehaving, but not really doing anything either? It works well for two main reasons: the person reading has an incentive to speak fast, in contrast to the sometimes doleful half-hearted compliance that can be heard with choral repetition. They want to get to the end of the sentence to win the point! For the person who says the colour, there is a real incentive to listen hard and to search the screen for the answer. Where I have had pupils who are unable to distinguish between colours, I have usually numbered the sentences instead.

“But what is their motivation? What is their incentive for taking part?”

The activity is a lot of fun but, curiously, I have known some language teachers to dismiss it because it is a lot of fun, as though that was all it was, as if the intention was to entertain. Repetition activities are vital whenever pupils learn new language for the success of the next stages of the lesson/learning. If they haven’t got their tongues round the words at this stage, if they haven’t used some sort of memory hook, it is more likely than not that the next stage will break down. Conversely, if they have done all this, the next stage will be more successful. I’m all for putting pupils in a situation where they have to think hard (they’ve just done a lot of that in the presentation stage with the paraphrase descriptions) and for removing the scaffolding when the building is built, but at this stage the objective is to get this accurately and fluently into their memories and out of their mouths with their brains fully switched on (this isn’t an easy activity – if you’ve never tried it, give it a go!). Given a choice between a fun repetition activity and a more tedious one, I’ll always go for the fun one, as long as it is effective (and a tedious one is unlikely to be effective). But their place in the lesson is not just because they are fun.

If they haven’t got their tongues round the words at this stage, if they haven’t used some sort of memory hook, it is more likely than not that the next stage will break down.

I feel a song coming on…!

The visual as set out above is actually a song set to the tune of The animals went in two by two. It’s not the only song I use this tune for. Here, I use it as part of my strategy for teaching the regular perfect tense. Elsewhere, I use the tune for a song which supports teaching the imperfect tense and showing the difference between the two aspects. The familiarity of the tune helps to draw comparisons and contrasts between the two. Again, another post, another day.

So here I am, singing my little heart out for you. It’s not pretty. Think of it as something akin to asthma set to music…

In running this in the classroom, I usually just sing at them. They look startled, I look slightly unhinged, but somehow we make it to the end. Usually, they like it, so I give them some words: “Monsieur Stubbs ! Est-ce que la class peut chanter ?” They know est-ce que la classe peut already, having used it with s’asseoir, jouer à Jacques a dit, partir, and so they know they are asking for something, even if they don’t know what they’re asking for! They soon realise what they are asking for and I’m only too happy to oblige. This sometimes produces a certain reaction…

We speculate on who will do it best: Qui va chanter le mieux, équipe 1 ou équipe 2 ?, giving an enthusiastic thumbs-up on le mieux.  I split the class down the middle, one half of the class stands and sings a line at the other half, and sits down. The other half stands and sings the next line back at them, and so on, backwards and forwards until the last line of the first verse and then everyone stands to sing it together. We stop, I’m unsure of who has sung it best, so we’d better have another go, this time with the other half of the class starting it off. Still unsure of who sang it best, we sing the second verse in the same way, and then I decide and award some points.

If you’re interested in reading James Burch’s take on how I’ve used this song in my lessons and combined it with other routines, there’s a chapter on it in “Something to Say? Promoting Spontaneous Classroom Talk” (Ch. 5, Harris, Burch, Jones, Darcy, CiLT 2001, CfBT 2013).

So where has this got us?

By now, the class has learned ten excuses for justifying their lateness using the regular perfect tense. They start as unanalysed chunks but as the lesson progresses, pupils’ awareness is raised to salient grammatical features, specifically, that some end in –é, some in –i and some in –u and, crucially, they know which are which. They know that they start with J’ai, Je suis or Je me suis, and, again, they know which are which. They know the whole sentences very well, they have triggers (gestures) to help them recall any bits of the sentences they happen to forget and a song which helps, too, especially as they often find themselves singing it when they no longer want to! There has been a huge amount of repetition but they are usually unaware of just how many times they have repeated the language because the focus has shifted in each activity, but the end result is, they know the language very deeply and in some of the mixed-ability classes I have had over the years, the range of prior attainment and the extent of some pupils’ obstacles to learning have been particularly significant. The techniques and activities described above have become trusted friends because of how effective they have been in such situations.

But we’re not through yet! At some point, this will need to land in pupils’ books and how it gets there is important. With respect to grammar teaching, they now know phrases, and they have some awareness of how they are made up but we are still at the implicit stage. Soon we will need to move from the implicit to the explicit if they are to be able to embed their knowledge fully and if they are to become properly independent in their use of the perfect tense.

And that, along with all those questions I promised to come back to, is for next time.