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Introducing French Phonics

Simple Comme Bonjour: French Phonics Made Easy.

French and English share an alphabet, but use it in ways that meet the requirements of each language.  French likes its spoken language to flow, and its written language to be as precise as possible, with nouns and verbs tied to their companion words more closely than in English. English puts one main point of emphasis in each sentence, and in each word that has more than one syllable, while French pronunciation is more even.

As we learn a new language, we adjust our thinking from what we have learned in our first language – in Dehaene’s terms , we modify our working hypothesis to take account of new information . This short paper describes how I introduce this process to beginners in French. A similar approach can be used with Spanish and German.

Who knows how to say hello in French? Someone usually knows bonjour, but pronounced bonn-jour. I explain that, like a some Australian people, they say G’day rather than hello, and bon and jour mean good and day. And when they say bon, they keep their tongue low, which helps the two words run together. We practise bonjour, and they have learned three words – bon, jour, and bonjour. Usually don’t need to emphasise the softer French j, as it comes automatically. I might add bonbons.   

The colours ppt introduces most of the main changes from English to French pronunciation. Vert and blanc have silent letters at the end, bleu, rouge, noir, orange and jaune new vowel sounds. French r, and n with dropped tongue in orange, blanc and marron. Orange is a shared word, but with new pronunciation – leading to similar shared words, danger, étrange, étranger, manger (from which, in the Christmas carol, animals ate).

Having introduced the colours with the ppt, I reinforce as starters for the next couple of lessons, eg by going round the classroom, pointing at things and asking, eg pointing at a blue exercise book, “Who thinks this is bleu? Who thinks it’s marron?”  All questions are phrased was an alternative, and addressed to the whole class, so that everybody has to answer, and I can see how many have understood.  I might also hold up three pencils of different colours, and ask who thinks these are, say, bleu, blanc, rouge, who thinks bleu blanc vert, so that they have to pay attention to all three.

I sometimes use laminated strips of block colours, to vary the questions, for example by having the pupils identify the colours in the correct order. I make these by inserting a table in word, and filling in the cells with colour. Then print off and laminate. They are quick and easy to use, and these forms of practice promote myelinisation along the new connections formed in the brain. Apologies for the poor quality of the pic, but I hope it gives the idea.


The next key feature of French is the promotion of flow in speech by modifying the use of letters in writing, a process that results in a typical French paragraph having around four times the number of silent letters as English. This also comes in the first lesson. Who thinks Je ai sounds smooth? Who thinks it sounds a bit jerky? (Repeat if necessary, exaggerating the glottal stop.)  Writing Je ai on the board, I demonstrate knocking off the e and inserting the apostrophe (shared word, which I demonstrate to reinforce their understanding of the idea in English – many still think it’s a comma). Next, delete from board and have pupils trace J’ai on their sleeve with a finger. Who got it nearly right? Who got it exactly right. Very nearly everyone does, but some may need two attempts. Once they’ve got it right, do the same on a miniboard or scrap paper. This is their first experience of writing in French. Everyone understands what they’re doing and gets it right. People like getting things right

Next stage is the simple sentence, J’ai un chat, illustrated with a picture of a cat. Another a shared word (some shared words have one or two different letters), and so easy to remember. What is the letter we don’t pronounce in chat? Where is it? At the end. Yes. Nearly all silent letters in French are at the ends of words. Remove from board, and trace J’ai un chat on sleeve. Who thinks they got it nearly right? Who thinks they got it exactly right?  Then again on mini boards, so I can check, or on scrap paper if they don’t have it. Pupils never copy, and only write in a book once they know they can get something right.

Having made these adjustments in the first lesson or two, I begin development and reinforcement. The shared word animal is pronounced more evenly in French than English, and the second a is also a distinct a, and not the weak vowel sound that we use in English. We practise. A literal translation of the children’s book Not Now Bernard – “Pas Maintenant, Bernard” has plenty of choral repetition of the key phrase, with silent letters at the end of each word, and of course introducing the negative. I’ve put the translation onto a ppt, with permission. We extend J’ai un chat to pets they really have – hopefully someone will have deux chats – and to family members, which introduces the accents.

Once these principles are established, we can extend in any direction we choose, confident that the children have a basis to develop full understanding of the operation of French spelling, and avoiding Anglicism altogether. Simple. Comme bonjour.

March 18, 2021