Building Confidence in the French Classroom

Have you ever sat amongst a group of colleagues and heard someone say:

« No matter how hard I try, my students don’t speak the language! » ?

Or: « The kids need to be pushed harder, they can’t produce anything! »?

Or sometimes we hear things like:

« They tell me they learned nothing in French class last year! ».

Does any of this sound familiar?

I have heard comments like these many times over the years and if I’m being completely honest, I’ve probably made a similar comment myself, a time or two.

It’s natural. We want our students to do well in our classrooms, we want them to produce the language both orally and in writing. We want them to understand the texts they read and to relay information from those texts to us.

But no matter how hard we try, our students are hesitant to participate in class, to share their answers, to produce the language.

What is going on and what can we do to help out our students?

What’s going on is called foreign language anxiety.

Foreign language anxiety is a very real phenomenon in which our students actually feel anxious about using a language that is foreign to them. I word it like this intentionally because even though French is not a foreign language in Canada (it is an official language), it is still quite foreign to most of our students as it is not widely spoken throughout Canada. In Ontario where I live and work for example, French is definitely a foreign language.

So, why do students feel anxious to speak French?

It is very normal for someone learning another language to feel shy and nervous about using it in front of others. There is a constant fear of making mistakes (in prononciation most often), of being judged and/or ridiculed, and of incorrectly conveying meaning.

All of these fears and anxieties lead to lack of participation in the foreign language classroom. So when our students are hesitant and shy to speak French in our classrooms, we must remember that this a very natural phenomena and that even adults face this fear. It is not that our students don’t want to learn or to try. They just need some extra support.

So what can we do to support our students in building their confidence to speak French?

Here are four strategies that I have found work well in my classroom.

Confidence comes from practice

1. Confidence comes from practice.

It is very important to give students multiple opportunities to practice new concepts or vocabulary when learning a second language. The more practice our students have, the more they will feel comfortable producing the language on their own. The more confident they will be.

Verbe du jour

Depending on what we’re learning, I often give my students multiple opportunities for practice. For example, when I teach my students about -er verb conjugations, they practice conjugating close to 40 -er verbs before we move on to something else. So, everyday for a few weeks, just as my students come to class, they sit down and conjugate one new regular -er verb for the day. We do this bell-ringer activity on paper or when I’m teaching online, we use this digital Google Slides resource.

Confidence comes from Understanding

2. Confidence comes from understanding.

This is perhaps one of the most important things we can do to help our students feel happy and successful in our second language classrooms. We need to help them understand patterns and recognize concepts they’ve already learned, so that they can build confidence to speak in class and participate in their learning.

I find that my students are particularly least confident when it comes to speaking French. They may have completed their assignment, but when it comes time to present, they are nervous about presenting in front of the whole class because they do not know if they will pronounce each word correctly and they are afraid of being ridiculed.

One of the ways that I am working to combat this fear is to teach my students about some of the many sounds in the French language. When students understand that é will always make the ‘ay’ sound and when they are given multiple opportunities to practice producing this sound, they will be more likely to pronounce it correctly during a presentation and will therefore be more confident and more likely to participate in class when asked.

To help my students do this, I use this year-long phonics resource which I created for my students so that they can learn about the many sounds in the French language and have an opportunity to practice using them in class.

French Phonics Les sons Year Long Worksheets

I like to begin every year by reviewing the French alphabet as those are the most basic sounds in the French language. Going forward, I begin to teach them about the various vowel sounds in French (such as é), as well as nasal sounds which are often tricky (such as « on » and « ain »). Over the course of the year we cover many other sounds including sounds like « ill(e) », « eau(x) », and « qu ».

By doing such activities, students learn to recognize text and sound connections in French, they improve their reading and speaking, they build confidence, their success rate in my classroom increases, and I’m able to manage my classroom with weekly routines since I use the activity every Monday. We then spend the rest of the week reinforcing the sound and by the end of the week, students are often comfortable and confident in producing that particular sound in French class.

Confidence comes through despite mistakes

3. Confidence comes through despite mistakes.

Another really important part of reducing anxiety around learning another language is showing students that it is okay to err. It is okay to make mistakes. We all make mistakes when we are learning and they are an important part of the learning process.

I make it a point to let my students know that although they may think I am perfect in French since I teach it, that is not the case. I make sure that they know that even I can make mistakes and when I do, I learn from them.

Going along with this notion of mistakes, it is important to note that it is not important to always correct a student’s mistake. If we want our students to learn and to try, we need to let them make those mistakes in order to build confidence. Once students are confident in speaking the language, we can and should start correcting their mistakes so they do not solidify.

confidence comes from regular positive reinforcement

4. Confidence comes from regular, positive reinforcement.

It is important that our students’ efforts and attempts at producing the second language are met with positive reinforcement and applause. We should take the time to encourage along those students who make an effort at producing the language. Who doesn’t love a good pat on the back for some effort well done? Our students are the same. In order for them to know they are doing well, we need to be the ones to tell them. So don’t be afraid to provide regular, continuous, positive feedback and reinforcement.

While these are not the only ways in which you can build confidence in your classroom, they are a good place to start.

So, the next time you hear a colleague say that their students lack the ability to speak the target language, don’t forget to share these 4 tips to help build student confidence!