When people hear that I’m teaching French conversation online, they often say that it sounds “entertaining” or “easy.” Most professional French tutors will smile at this, recognizing that it is not always the case
And while the French conversation class may certainly be less formal and rigorous than a DELF preparation course, it has its own challenges
In a DELF preparation class, I can anticipate the students’ needs and determine the curriculum easily : course readings with questions, student essays on various topics, oral comprehension practice, and a review of French sentence structures, grammar and punctuation that can be used in the speaking or writing part of the test.
A French speaking class, however, is less defined. What is it, precisely? What is the typical curriculum? Most of the time, there’s not even a coursebook available. Despite this initial lack of clarity, however, there are some good practices around which conversational French lessons – online or face-to-face – can be built.
5 Basic Principles of Teaching French Conversation Classes
1. Focus on communication and fluency, rather than correctness
When practicing French Conversation Online with my students, I am often surprised when students ask me or their classmates if they are holding the conversation “correctly,” if it is “right.” Even in our native language we rarely wonder if the conversation is proceeding “correctly”; the point is to express our thoughts so that it is understood by other people. This is what should be emphasized to students: it’s less about sounding “right” than having your peers understand you and interact with you.
2. Give your students a choice of relevant topics
It can be quite uncomfortable to take part in a conversation on a topic you either dislike or have nothing to say on. Most French tutors will excuse themselves from such exchanges as soon as possible. In addition, they should be wary of assigning controversial issues without gauging the climate of the class and having an idea of how receptive students will be to such topics.
Ideally, French teachers should deal with the following questions: Are my students capable of listening to their peers on the topic without erupting in anger? (1). Can they advance their own opinions without any embarrassment? (2).
One way around this concern is allowing students to come up with their own topics to use over the course of the term. They do not have to be formal or academic topics but almost anything students are interested in, and can discuss for an extended time, such as their hobbies or favorite artists.
If you are teaching a French conversation course for professionals, make sure that the topics and communicative situations that you choose are in line with the reality of your learners (this can be, for instance, taking part in a meeting, conducting business negotiations, exchanging with a French colleague or client, etc.).
3. Teach students the essential vocabulary
It seems quite obvious, but it is often forgotten that students may not be actively participating simply because they do not know the key words and expressions to enter a specific conversation. Introducing some key phrases and words related to the topic will help achieve this goal. For instance, if you are teaching French conversation for professionals, you may want to describe the typical business French greetings (with expressions such as se serrer la main), to explain the degrees of formality in the office (with the pronouns tu and vous), and to present the types of companies in France (une société par actions, une société à responsabilité limitée, une multinationale, une PME – petite et moyenne entreprise, une ONG – une organisation non gouvernementale, une association, etc.).
4. Teach both formal and informal conversation
There are tactics for entering, extending, and ending conversations both formally and informally. For example, with “Bonjour Laura, comment se sont passées tes vacances?”. I am inviting my student to have an informal and probably brief conversation on the topic of her vacation that might extend into vacations in general.
However, with “Que penses-tu des façons de voyager aujourd’hui ? Quels changements as-tu remarqués par rapport à la décennie précédente ?”, I am signaling a different kind of conversation—more in-depth and analytical as the conversation participants consider different types of vacations, and more academic.
Knowing these tricks will help students avoid confusion and gain experience in different types of conversations.
5. Grade students based on their degree of participation and understanding French conversation. Assess them informally
Because the focus of French conversation online or in Paris is on conveying meaning rather than on correctness, students should be assessed mostly informally.
In a group class, the French teacher can sit in on conversations, and get an idea on the degree of participation of each student.
Students can also be asked to hold a conversation in front of the tutor or their classmates and be evaluated based on their expression skills, their use of communication strategies, their knowledge of the vocabulary, and so forth. Lastly, more formal quizzes and tests can be given in the form of listening to and understanding French conversations.