The following article first appeared in the fall 2002 edition of the CPF Alberta News.
Parents typically feel helpless when it comes to assisting their children with writing in French. Experienced immersion mom Beth Chetner suggests the solution is to focus on the skills that they need to develop in order to take responsibility for their own writing, not the language itself. After all, you won’t be there to help in the university dorm or business office!
As always, a positive attitude and good habits are best cultivated very early. Even those first one-sentence assignments deserve care and attention.
Encourage your child to take the time to focus on the various stages of writing by sitting down with him and working through the questions he should eventually be asking himself. Start with the basics in grade 1, gradually moving to higher-level skills as assignments become more complex.
Before he begins writing, walk your child through the planning stage:
• What’s the goal of this piece? what is it meant to achieve? imparting information? persuading the reader? entertainment? presenting a moral or lesson? etc.
• What approach is needed to achieve this end? what’s the best way to begin? to end? what should the tone be? how formal or informal should the language be? should it be written in the first (“I”) second (“you”), or third (“he/she/it”) person? are diagrams or illustrations needed? and so on
• What other criteria must be met? length? format? etc.
• Is any research required? not just facts and figures, but perhaps for background “colour”
• How should I plan my time? when is the piece due? what steps do I need to take, including research, outlining, writing, proofing/editing, illustrating, and final copy? what else do I have going on between now and then, and how am I going to fit this project in?
Next, you can help your child prepare his outline by talking it through. As he develops this skill, your role might simply be to comment on his outline as he explains it to you in English.
If research is involved, you can help him identify his specific research questions and find sources. Show him how to take effective notes; how to use quotations, references, footnotes; and how to avoid plagiarizing.
The writing’s your child’s job
It’s your child’s job to do the writing, but encourage him to “talk it out” with you or others if he hits a snag or suffers from writer’s block.
Unless he’s highly motivated, you’ll also want to monitor his timeline, helping him to keep on track and to celebrate as each step is finished.
When the first draft is complete, it needs to be reviewed for content:
• Does it meet the goal and any other criteria?
• Does everything make sense?
• Is anything missing?
• Is there anything superfluous that should be cut?
Help your child articulate these questions in terms of this particular project, as a checklist for himself as he reviews what he’s written. He might then find it helpful to read the piece out loud to himself.
If he decides there’s a problem with the content, you can again be a sounding-board to help him work out how to make the necessary changes.
The final steps
Although correct language usage should be a consideration throughout the writing process, a final review focusing specifically on the details is always needed.
Again, you can help your child by encouraging him to work through a series of questions.
• Have the correct French words and phrases been used? The more your child is exposed to French, orally and through reading, the less he will “anglicize” the language. However, even when we write in our own language we often have to look up the correct term.
• Has the correct verb tense been used consistently throughout? A French verb reference like Bescherelle is as important as a dictionary.
• Have “vous” and “tu” been used correctly and consistently? “Tu” is the singular and “vous” is the plural for “you.” However, “vous” is also the formal form of the singular, traditionally used when addressing one’s elders and betters.
• Is there agreement throughout for gender and number? French adjectives change according to whether the noun is masculine or feminine, singular or plural.
• Are there any spelling errors? Encourage him to have a French dictionary close at hand and to use it whenever in doubt. When proofreading, one technique is to ensure that the same word is always spelled the same way.
• What about punctuation? Begin with the obvious: capitals at the beginning of sentences, periods at the end. Move on to commas, quotation marks, capitalization of names, etc. Most of the rules are the same as for English, but there are some differences (e.g., capitalization of book titles). Encourage your child to develop his own “bilingual cheat sheet” of specifics to check for, including those that are the same in French and in English, those that are specific to each language, and especially those that he tends to get wrong.
Check out the BonPatron Writing Assistant. This internet site for second-language learners helps identify common spelling, grammar, and expression problems in French. Simply type (or copy and paste) in your text and the program will highlight errors. Move your mouse over a highlighted word or expression, and you’ll see an explanation of the error. You can choose to receive the explanations in English or in French.
The really good news
Exactly the same process applies to writing in English!