Who doesn’t love comics? They can be a powerful teaching tool to increase engagement and strengthen vocabulary and reading comprehension in Core French classes.
Core French teachers often find it highly challenging to engage students, and to retain their attention over the medium to long term (i.e. from its typical introduction into the curriculum at the junior level until completion of senior secondary).1 Since many young students enjoy more visual and kinesthetic approaches to learning, I have long felt that a combination of visual graphic texts and designs, along with related artistic activity (e.g. drawing), may serve to engage students and cultivate sustained interest in French.
Meanwhile, cartoon art in the francophone world has been strongly established among readers of all ages, including adults, for a century (e.g. Tintin, Astérix le Gaulois, etc.) and in North America, we have our own famous characters, such as Snoopy and Woodstock from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. My own experience with core French was extremely positive, thanks to the zeal of capable teachers from my introduction to French in Grade 6 through to completion of Grade 13 French. This interest was deepened and reinforced so profoundly through reading French comics, that it eventually yielded a University of Waterloo French scholarship. In the decades that followed, I never stopped reading in French, and a large component of this personal fascination still centres on the world of French cartoons. In later years, my experience as a university clinical professor, in an environment where practical as well as theoretical skills are vital, reinforced the notion that participative group learning, based on tell-show-do modalities, provided some of the most potent pedagogic tools at our disposal as educators.
With this background in mind, I implemented a program at our elementary school with the help of our dedicated Core French teacher. Each day, I provide a mini-lesson in Core French, which is based on an age-appropriate cartoon with a narrative basis and a humourous bent. Initially, we have been applying this pilot program in a combined Grade 4 & 5 class of native English speakers, the majority of whom are receiving their first exposure to the French language. A daily comic strip is presented, with the last panel (the punchline) hidden until the students have had a chance to look at the initial picture panels and guess what is happening with the cartoon characters. I deliver each mini-lesson in basic spoken French, at a level to bring the students just beyond what they have learned each previous week, with wholly verbal discussion and no written component. Using guided questions, a scaffolded approach is taken to encourage the students to deduce the correct meanings for a word bank, based on the visual cartoon context. To engage the students more deeply, the students make their own predictions about how each little episode will conclude. The last panel of each story-based cartoon is then revealed, after the students have shared their ideas aloud.
I have used an established pattern of tell-show-do, by chunking the phrases and repeating small clumps of words, first in French, then in the English equivalent, and again in French. Then I have the students repeat aloud each chunk, until they feel quite comfortable – and I then reinforce the English translation yet again, aloud. When time allows, we also have the students draw their own cartoons, with French captions. This aspect has developed nicely within our subsequent regular Core French lessons.
Students are asked initially: What is happening in the panels shown? What do you think will occur next?
Décrivez l’image. Qu’est-ce qui se passe ici ? Qu’est-ci qui va se passer après ?
Scaffolded presentation of new vocabulary words, appropriate to grade level, are then given in a word table. Rewards are given for participation. Students take turns guessing the meaning of each word, and the answers are revealed one word at a time.
Then the final panel is revealed, along with the answers to the last words in the word bank, as applicable.
Participation rates from the very outset have jumped visibly during the six months of this project, even among usually reluctant learners. Prior to the cartoon French lessons, I made a baseline “average hands-up count” for each individual student as a measure of participation. The Core French teacher and I have tracked participation by individual student, as evidenced by counting the number of times they proffered a hands-up to each word bank question, and compared it to the baseline number.
Currently, during our second term, there seems to be no apparent waning of enthusiasm by the class. Even students who historically tended to dominate responses to questions seem generally happy to share the spotlight. I have also noted that some cartoons were immediately more popular with the class. Reflecting on this further, I identified that the use of colour versus black & white cartoons seems to have had no difference in impact with regard to student interest and participation. I had assumed initially, and wrongly, that the students would prefer colour pictures. This finding tells me that the story and “fun” content outweigh decorative frills.
I originally presented well-known samples from famous cartoon strips, in accordance with the fair usage laws,2 but have since migrated to my own original cartoons, such as that presented in this article. The children seem equally engaged, and participation rates were unchanged. When they ask about the cartoon sources, my use of original art seems to inspire them to further engagement, such as with student-initiated “sketch-offs” during their own recess time.
After the first month or so, I ventured beyond the most basic curriculum-mandated vocabulary into the use of slightly more complex constructions, such as past perfect and simple future verb tenses. The students seemed quite able to grasp and retain these concepts.
Therefore, once basic curriculum expectations have been addressed, this particular application of cartoon media seems to have the potential to bring students rapidly beyond grade level in Core French. Each cartoon strip is very carefully selected to be within reasonable range of the students’ average class capability; this implies careful selection of vocabulary and verb conjugations, in particular.
Obstacles were insignificant. The investment of lesson plan preparation time and effort was no different than any normal undertaking with which practicing teachers are already highly familiar. Required audio-visual equipment (in this case, a SMART Board™) was readily accessible. We make it a point to cite all artistic sources, and our principal was highly supportive.
Will it be possible to elicit the beginnings of a deeper, long-term increased interest in French among these junior students, who are learning French for the first time? By using the visual medium of cartoons, which has strong appeal for junior learners, with a group participation approach and inquiry-based learning (e.g. encouraging students to make predictions in an episodic storyline), we seem to have found a very promising pathway. Time will tell. I have since expanded this project to the intermediate and senior levels, with similar positive results.
Reading French cartoons brought me from Tintin to Voltaire, from Astérix to Molière and de Maupassant. I wish you, my dear colleagues, the same wonderful results with your students.
Cartoon: Paul Ling
First published in Education Canada, September 2018
1 Mary Cruden and Betty Gormley, “The State of French Language Education in Ontario,” Canadian Parents for French Ontario, October 2014, https://on.cpf.ca/research-advocacy/advocacy/the-state-of-fsl-education-in-ontario; Ontario Ministry of Education, A Framework for French as a Second Language in Ontario Schools (Toronto: Queen’s Printer, 2013), 36-37.
2 “More Information on Fair Use,” United States Copyright Office, March 2018, https://www.copyright.gov/fair-use/more-info.html