Thursday, October 28, 2010


I've been struggling to teach the girls French for quite awhile. I've tried traditional curriculum, not so traditional curriculum, and graded readers and just not been satisfied with any of it.

I enjoyed our literature approach, but making up assignments was slowing me down. I didn't have that much time to work on them and wasn't that satisfied with what I did come up with. And I wasn't sure the little girls were really getting anything, even if the older girls were getting a little. I wasn't keeping them challenged and interested.

Then a friend suggested that I read Roger Ascham's The Schoolmaster. Ascham was Queen Elizabeth I's tutor. I read the preface to The Schoolmaster and was very impressed.

He was at dinner with the Queen and the Privy Council (as the Prime Minister and the Cabinet were called).
'I had strange news brought me,' said Mr. Secretary, 'that diverse scholars of Eton have run away from the school for fear of beating.' Whereupon, Mr. Secretary took occasion to wish that some more discretion were in many schoolmasters in using correction than commonly there is, who many times punish rather the weakness of natuare, than the fault of the scholar. Whereby, many scholars that might else prove well be driven to hate learning before they know what learning is, and so are made willing to forsake their books and be glad to be put to any other kind of living.

Mr. Peter, as one somewhat severe of nature, said plainly that the rod only was the sword that must keep the school in obedience and the scholar in good order.

Mr. Wotton, a man mild of nature, with soft voice and few words, inclined to Mr. Secretary's judgement and said, 'In my opinion, the schoolhouse should be in deed as it is called by name, ludus, the house of play and pleasure, not of fear and bondage.'

I said that young children were sooner allured by love than driven by beating to attain good learning.
That was a good start and got my attention. I kept reading and soon found myself lost in the old spelling and vocabulary, but the parts I could understand intrigued me.

Time to turn to the dictionary to find out what he meant by 'construe' and 'parse' as he described his method for teaching Latin. I figured out that he suggests that the tutor (he was a tutor, not a classroom teacher as far as I can tell) should read through a Latin text and then explain to his student the grammar of each individual word, both in general and in that sentence in particular, and then translate it.

He adds an interesting reverse translation, where he has the student take his initial English translation of the Latin and, on another day, translate it back into Latin and then compare with the initial Latin excerpt. I wish I'd been taught French and Spanish this way!

In the meantime, I'd downloaded several older French books from Google Books to look over (there are no corresponding, old Spanish books!). Several of them were too Latin, approaching French as if it were Latin, but French isn't as inflected as Latin and I don't know enough Latin to pretend that it is. I narrowed it down to Paul Barbier's Elementary French for Beginners, pubished in 1883. It would mean a lot more writing for the girls (but less trying to come up with lessons for me). The language has changed a bit in the intervening 130 years, but I can deal with that.

I wasn't sure how they'd respond to it, but I thought I'd give it a try. (I also found a French composition book that looks very good as we get farther in.)

M. Barbier starts with definite articles, gender of nouns, and feminine and masculine agreement between nouns and adjectives. Imagine my shock (and delight) when they all did great on their assignments, and also told me how much they'd enjoyed them!

When we went through their independent work, we parsed and construed the sentences together. For the first time, 9-yo Eliza recognized an adjective and 11-yo Melody recognized direct objects (we'd been working on both in English for quite some time). After the little girls finished their initial French to English assignment, I had them translate their English back into French. They did great and when we went through their work together, they were able to pick out their own mistakes (and giggled all the while!).

The older girls went through two lessons and four exercises, but now that we're adding in reverse translations, we'll slow down a little.

We're also working slowly through a little French phonics book so they can learn proper pronunciation and how to read correctly. The younger girls are taking Madeleine one sentence at a time (construing and parsing one word at a time, and sometimes diagramming sentences), and the older girls are working on l'Histoire de Babar, in the same way.

I finally feel as though I have a solid French program and that the girls will learn French and so much more!

With the lack of Spanish texts on Google books, I translated the first lesson from French to Spanish (and have friends who can help me with my rusty grammar and vocabulary, as well as a great Spanish dictionary on my iPad). Judith and Benjamin are working on the Spanish exercises, along with some phonics exercises from my old high school Spanish text and reading through Huevos Verdes con Jamón.