The most common question I get asked is how to do French immersion at home – either because children used to be in French immersion at school and are now being homeschooled, or because parents recognize the benefits of a second language and want to incorporate French into their homeschool from the get-go.
It took me a few years to figure this out, and things did not go smoothly at first. I tried to do what I thought they did in French immersion at school – switch to French all at once and assume the kids would catch on because they are young. Nope, didn’t work. What did work were the following 3 steps, implemented gradually over time.
French immersion step 1 – Vocabulary development
Vocabulary development should be the only goal for the first year or so. Because I speak French myself, I added some low-pressure, high-fun activities to our routine and spoke French while we did them. Simple games, crafts, and other activities motivated my children to participate as best they could without the pressure of absorbing other information. I gave the explanations of what to do in French while giving strong visual cues, demonstrating what I was saying while I said it. This activity went well, but I found it to be completely exhausting so we started with just 15 minutes at a time.
Reading picture books aloud in French was my next brain-wave and I personally found this to be a lot easier. I did some research and found some book series at the library. We started with super simple books with a few words per page and gradually moved up. You can find what we used in order of difficulty here. My children did not understand every word of the books at first, but they still loved listening to the stories. I sort of think of this the same way as reading to babies and toddlers. They don’t understand everything at first, but as time goes on, they absorb more and more. To start out with, I read one book each day.
If you don’t speak French well enough to feel confident reading the books yourself, try getting books that come with an audio CD (I have some suggestions here). You could also check out the audio version and paper version of books at the same time (when both are available), and listen to the audio version while you follow along in the paper version. I don’t think that listening to the audio version on its own will work because you’d be missing the visual cues of the pictures and words on the page. Storyplayr also has some books online that come with recordings of people reading them aloud. You can find my review of that service here. Note that the books on Storyplayr have more advanced vocabulary than the ones that I started with.
Structured vocabulary development programs (aka curriculum)
When my kids were at stage 1, I also used a few different structured vocabulary development programs that weren’t necessarily intended for immersion. These helped my kids memorize basic vocabulary. I reviewed many of them on this site. There are numerous options to choose from – as usual, it’s a matter of finding one that fits your children’s learning style, your teaching style, and your own level of fluency. If you’re looking for a low-preparation online option, try Muzzy online. If you’re looking something multi-sensory that uses online videos & songs and enhances recall with other activities, try my French Sing & Learn.
To add more French exposure, I also added some French TV at this stage. I knew that my kids weren’t going to get much from it, but I figured if the time they spent was coming out of their English TV watching time, we weren’t losing anything by adding it in. They would watch one show (20 minutes without commercials) 5-6 days per week.
I added in apps & web games as a fun supplement. These are better than TV because they are at least interactive and the kids usually enjoy them a lot. I found some that were at the beginner level and had each child spend 10 minutes 5 times/week working on their French.
Remember: Don’t try to add everything at once. Wait until one small thing is firmly established in your routine before adding something else.
French immersion step 2 – Practice, practice, practice!
Once stage 1 was routine, I started adding more practice and language exposure activities. I chose from different activities as they came to me – I can’t remember the exact order, but I’ve summarized everything that we eventually added in the table below. I tried to categorize things by language learning benefit AND parental effort.
If you’re looking at an activity in the table, look up to the top to see what I think is the level of language benefit and then look left to see the parental effort required. For example, playing games together in French (in purple below) would have high language learning benefits because children are interacting in French, getting visual cues, and reinforcing it with actions on their part. The parental effort is medium because you need to be there and oversee/participate in the activity, but you don’t really have to prepare anything. Obviously, the ideal activities have high language learning benefit with low parental effort, but there aren’t too many of those. 🙂
I didn’t make the table as I went along – I’ve just made it for you now to give a global view of possibilities. Choose an item from the table below that makes sense for your children’s ability & interests, and that matches what you’re able to invest time-wise right now. There is nothing wrong with choosing the low-low items like TV & music without video as supplements, but your children will not reach fluency with only those activities.
After you add one thing, make it routine, then add another. The more variety that you have in your approach to language teaching, the more likely it is to stick with your kids.
French immersion step 3 – Refinement
Once my children were somewhat fluent with a reasonable vocabulary base, I started adding doing some basic unit study topical learning in French. I figured we could cover off some science with animal studies while expanding vocabulary at the same time. I chose animals because they are concrete, observable, and my children already knew a lot about them just from life observation and reading.
Eventually, when I thought they were developmentally ready as well as language-ability-ready, I added grammar. This seemed to happen a few months before their 9th birthday for both of them. I’m not a fan of doing a lot of grammar at the start, especially for young kids because it kills the love of the language pretty quickly. I’ve spoken to more than one person who rolled their eyes and stated that the only thing they remember about French was all the annoying verb conjugations. Not how I want my kids to think about their second language. However, in order to speak and write the language properly, grammar training is necessary.
After they had made some progress in their grammar workbooks, I added in dictée (spelling), and creative writing.
How it all comes together
Because I added things in gradually, it wasn’t overwhelming at all. Once the routine is set up, it’s fairly easy to maintain. My kids have their list of things to do each day, and their French stuff is on that list. They enjoy it for the most part, and I’m hoping that as they recognize the benefits of having a second language, they will be motivated to continue using it into adulthood.
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