Old-School French

At a second-hand booksale recently I bought a gem for 50 cent: ‘Model French Essays’ by Mary Barry. A booklet of 41 pages, it’s aimed at beginner secondary students and consists of 40 ‘essays’ or short passages on simple, everyday matters using vocabulary and idiomatic phrases that can serve students in many different contexts. Below is the foreword by the author, with further pages from the booklet included at the bottom of this blog post:


There’s no date on the booklet, but it must date from before 1992, when the Intermediate Cert was replaced with the Junior Cert. Since it was published by the state-owned ‘The Educational Company of Ireland’ it must have formerly been a standard textbook for secondary pupils.

The essays aim to instil good habits in pupils: ‘Le matin…je dis ma priere’ (‘In the morning, I say my prayers’) and ‘Avant de quitter la maison je gonfle les pneus avec la pompe et je vérifie si les freins marchent bien’ (‘Before leaving  the house, I pump up the tyres and make sure that the brakes are working properly’). This reflects an era when moral values infused the whole school curriculum. No doubt this would be seen as unacceptably paternalistic today but it adds to the charm of the booklet and harks back to an era when educators were more sure of themselves.

The simplicity of the approach outlined by the author is what strikes me. The essays are of increasing difficulty and although the booklet may seem prescriptive and one-dimensional, there’s a lot that a teacher could do to aid understanding and retention, such as narrowing in on particular aspects of grammar, reading aloud and supplying further English translations. Moreover, the fact that tricky grammar and tenses are presented from the beginning gives pupils something to get their teeth into straight away. Having model texts to work with exposes students to complex structures from the start. It seems to me that too often under the progressive approach, pupils are expected to somehow magically come up with their own ideas and produce their own language after they’ve been exposed to only a minimal amount of language content. With this booklet, on the other hand, pupils are expected to master the store of useful phrases and vocabulary contained in the passages, acquiring a solid basis in the language in the process.

From my own experience, language classes that progress too slowly through basic topics and spend whole classes on things like age and home life can get quite dull. Much better to present meaty texts to pupils, breaking down the language all the time and commenting on particularly noteworthy points. If pupils could master the 40 essays in the booklet and practise their pronunciation, I’d imagine they’d be well on their way to developing a solid foundation in French.

I particularly like the concrete and straightforward goal of the booklet: after mastering the passages pupils would have acquired a wide range of idiomatic French expressions on a wide range of familiar topics. This handy pocket-sized booklet is easier to carry and has more condensed and useful content than many of the French textbooks on the market at the minute, which are bulky and glossy but light on text, as they seem to merely present long lists of individual words without putting them to use in meaningful phrases or contexts. The standard of French in the booklet is high in comparison to today’s French textbooks, considering that it is designed for first-year pupils. Nowadays pupils in the junior years are unlikely to meet such language-rich material: the norm is to introduce lists of words and very simple sentences in each topic, with verbs being introduced gingerly and classes generally supposed to revolve around fun and games so that pupils don’t have to work very much and thus won’t be ‘put off’ languages. Moreover, using English translations is very much frowned upon in modern-day MFL handbooks, a constriction which is supposed to increase contact with the target language but which actually precludes the possibility of tackling challenging texts until sufficient vocabulary has been painstakingly and laboriously built up over a long time by using such roundabout (progressive) methods as games, gestures, miming, telepathy, etc.

The idea of equipping pupils with a store of idioms and exposing them to various tenses through close reading reminds me of the highly efficient Michaela approach, which aims to impart a rich collection of structures and expressions in French, ensuring that pupils come to grips with PROFS: past, reasons, opinions, future and subjunctive.

It’s a real pity that the traditional method embodied by this booklet – presenting material to pupils, guiding them through it and expecting them to master it – is now discouraged. Having a set of core texts that pupils are expected to retain by constantly revising and recycling the language is a sure way of making the knowledge stick in long-term memory. This core knowledge can then be expanded on and adapted to the personal lives of pupils. Furthermore, how much simpler this approach would be for both teacher and student than the various forms of fun and games promoted under the progressive banner! This traditional booklet involves no mucking around with ‘discovery’ activities: pupils know exactly what they’re expected to learn and are provided with rich and useful French that will stay with them. No doubt this approach would be considered overly didactic and unimaginative today. As a trainee teacher, I was told recently by my ‘mentor’ that one of my classes was doing too much reading and writing!




One thought on “Old-School French”

  1. Lovely, old-school textbook. Reminds me a bit of “Soundings” in that there’s no illustrations or extraneous content. How much of the problem of heavy school-bags could be solved by going back to these kind of simple, text-dense books that would be cheap to produce and purchase? You make very good points about the potential for breaking down and rebuilding the French in the book. Unfortunately, I think too many people took the idea of “model” to just mean “copy”. Doing my own Leaving Cert we learned off essays on “le chomage” or “la drogue”, to be reproduced on the day if these topics came up. This is the kind of thing that gives rote-learning a bad name. Modern text-books take the opposite approach with, like you write, lists of nouns (or labelled diagrams/pictures) along with grammar sections and verb tables, from which pupils are expected to construct their own, personalised French. Add to that the fact that kids are starting to learn French without being able to tell a verb from a preposition. What Michaela get right, and what could be done with text like the one above, is to keep the rote-learning of chunks of text but keep the chunks quite small and to have the kids manipulate and rearrange text before they write anything personalised.

    Liked by 1 person

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