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Help your kid learn to read in French

When my boy was in grade 1 we immediately ran into trouble because his teacher's method and his learning style didn't go well together. I tried very hard to follow the teacher's instructions but when my boy refused to read the homework sheets it became absolutely clear to me that I had to act and fast or my boy would go under in his teacher's class and I couldn't allow this to happen.
In this article I describe what I have done to help my son to learn how to read in French and what other people have suggested to me that helped their kids. This is surely not exhaustive, there are more ways for sure. But I hope that in case you run in the same or similar problems that I did this article might help you. Of course each child is different and so you need to adapt it to your child's need but hopefully you will get some ideas. Happy learning!

Before your kid can learn how to read

You should make sure that your child is exposed to lots and lots of books. The language of the books don't really matter. If a kid knows a word in one language s/he knows that this word / concept exists and can easily learn it in another language (e.g. when another language is spoken in school than at home).
But before a kid can learn how to read properly it is still necessary that the child speaks the language that reading is taught in at least rudimentary. Otherwise reading is just an abstract concept and it is hard to teach the child that understanding the content is the most important after all. The bigger the vocabulary the better for successful learning.

To increase your kid's vocabulary read stories to him, let him watch cartoons in French or best let him play with other kids that only speak French. You will be amazed how quickly your kid will pick up a new language if he is in a warm and welcoming environment with all communication in French only. However don't exaggerate the exposure, if your kid wants to talk in English or watch a cartoon in English this is totally okay. The important thing is too remember that your kid needs to like the new language he is learning.

Okay, now we are ready to start reading...

To help your kid learn how to read you need to teach him both phonics as well as whole words. If your kid is going to school you have to see how the school is teaching it. My daughter was lucky that she had 2 wonderful teachers in grade 1 (yes, Mrs Badour and Mme Maria I mean you! :) With them my only role was to support them and by the end of grade 1 my daughter could read. Unfortunately my son wasn't so lucky. His teacher focused heavily on phonics and neglected the reading of easy stories with lots of pictures and only a short sentence per page. She didn't do this because she was particularely bad but because this is the new trend.
The fight about how to best teach kids to read is very old. My father still remembers vividly that he was taught reading exclusively with the whole word method. So they learnt to read words and stories without knowing the individual letters. This upset some parents so much that they confused their kids so much that in the end they had problems learning how to read. So it was changed and my mother who is 3 years younger than my father was taught reading exclusively with phonics and syllables. But some kids simply can't learn reading just with phonetics...
Finally educators recognized that none of the methods on their own are great. Learning exclusively with the whole word method lets more kids struggle with dyslexia while learning how to read exclusively with phonics and syllables results in some kids not learning how to read at all and others simply reading without understanding the content of what they are reading at all. One would expect that teachers would happily embrace teaching both methods. But no. For a while, especially in the anglosaxon countries teachers often taught phonics only as an afterthought. With the ever increasing numbers of kids with dyslexia (which might or might not be caused by overemphazising the whole word method) the pendulum is now going back in the other direction and now the phonics method is experiencing a renaissance...
Unfortunately my son didn't enjoy learning syllables and refused to read the syllables sheets and almost lost his enthusiasm for reading entirely. So I went in the basement and got my daughter's folders out again as well as read all kinds of articles that I could find. After all as a mom I simply could't care less about any trends or recent studies if they didn't work for my kid.
I will now describe both methods. I will give you ideas on how you can teach it and link to pages I liked. However as the content of the internet is ever fleeting I can't garantuee that those pages will still be up when you are reading it but I will try to check periodically and substitute them if necessary.

I start with the whole word method here but you should really practise both methods with your child at the same time. While my son was a lot more motivated by reading little booklets he also learnt the letters and syllables so that finally he was also able to decode new words all by himself. From what I have seen with my children and friend's children if you continuously practise reading books and studying syllables your child should be able to read those short books by him- or herself after 2-4 months. If you don't see any progress by then there might be other causes.

the whole word method

For the whole word method you need many small booklets with short stories. To find them can be a bit of a challenge as buying them quickly empties your packet. Usually libraries have some in stock however and you might also find some at places where used books are sold. Some can also be found on the internet.
Booklets like these are ideal. They have lots of pictures for your child to look at and only short sentences with words your child will mostly know. The words and parts of the sentences are also often repeated in the text.
You sit down with your child on a confortable sofa. Now you start reading the booklet to him while he is listening and looking at the pictures. After you have done this twice it is time for your child to read the text out loud to you. Whenever he is stopping or making an error you say the missing word out loud or correct him gently (Sometimes I would put my finger under the text and only move forward when he had said the word correctly. I would also put it under the missed or uncorrectly pronounced syllable to show him where he needed to look. Sometimes instead of correcting him immediately I would just make a little noise to get him to look again).
Don't change to a new book too soon. Repeat the same stories over and over. Yes, the aim is that your child knows them more or less by heart. That way he will learn the words and finally recognize them when he sees them somewhere else. That's the whole word method after all, the kid learns new words by memorizing them.
It is really important that you read with your child like this regularely.
Often it is said that it is important that you read the book out loud first so that your child learns how to read well right from the start. The first booklets I did it exactly like this with my son. But then came the time when he knew enough phonics and words and wanted to read the book all by himself first and of course I let him do it. It gave him a lot of pride that he was now able to read a whole book all by himself.
If you like you can also create your own books with your child. Together with your kid imagine a story and write it down, as closely to the words of your kid as possible. Take some papers and fold them and write only one sentence per page while your child draws that part of the story on the other side which is expressed in the sentence.
You really don't need to worry that memorizing is not reading. In fact it is. How often do you decode a word when you are reading a book? Not very often I guess. You do it only when you encounter a new word that you didn't know before.
Here are three websites where you can find free books for beginning readers in French:


If possible you should go to the library or buy some books though as I find that kids love to turn pages and feel the book with their hands. With my kids I used Dora, Go Diego, l'autobus magique and other beginning readers books.
It seems that the human brain works in a way that many children will finally recognize the patterns all by themselves but if you also let your child study letters and syllables you will definitively speed up this progress.

the phonics method

First your kid needs to learn the sounds of the letters of the alphabet. As written French uses mostly small letters they are naturally more important to know than the capital letters. For reading it is not really important to know the name of the letter, it is much more important to know the sound that it makes. So you should say the sound of the letter.
When your kid knows the alphabet you start with syllables like la, le, li, lo, lu, l, l, l and then later you add syllables like lou, loi etc and finally go to words with 2 or more syllables.
Two websites that seem very good to me regarding this method are:


Some words of warning: most kids are not ready at this age to learn difficult grammar rules. So avoid lengthy abstract explanations and make lots of examples instead.

If French is not your mother tongue and you are unsure how to pronounce some words you can go to leo.org. Don't be scared by the German text on the website. It is actually a dictionary that translates from several different languages to German. Click on the French flag and type in the word you want to hear. Press return and then when the word with its translation is shown click on the loudspeaker sign. Now you can listen to your word.

Other materials I found helpful are e.g. my "mon premier Bescherelle illustre" that I bought many years ago when my daughter learnt how to read. It explains the phonics at the beginning of the book and then has lots of words with pictures (and a short sentence) for every letter.

You can also clap the syllables with your child like ca-mi-on, mai-son etc. Say a word and ask your child what the first syllable, the last or the middle one is. Say a word and a syllable and ask the child if s/he hears that syllable in the word or not. (Be careful that your child really hears it and isn't just guessing, let him say the word and overemphasize the syllable in the word to make sure for example).

Try to find rhymes with your child to sensibilize your child not only to the beginnings of words but also of similar endings.

To help your child strenghten its shortterm memory which is needed to remember the syllables that came before when he is deciphering a word you can try a game:
First player says:
I am going on a trip and I take an apple with me. Second player adds a new item:
I am going on a trip and I take an apple and a flashlight with me.
and so on until one of the players makes a mistake
Then you can start the game again.

You can also find pictures of words that only have 2 or 3 syllables. Write the word under the picture so that the size matches. Cut out the pictures and the different syllables and let your child find the right syllables that fit to the picture.


If your kids goes to school s/he will learn how to write letters and words there already. Many people say that learning reading and writing go together and it is certainly always better to use as many senses as possible. You can find pictures of simple words and let your child copy the word. You can show him pictures and the syllables he needs for all the words are on top of the page and he needs to write the correct ones under the picture.

Every child is different and learns things differently, some things come easy and others are more difficult. It is up to you as a parent to see what strenghts and weaknesses your child has and adapt your apporach accordingly.

Learning to read takes time so be patient. And it needs to be practised constantly. I have met too many people in my life who didn't and therefore subsequently forgot how to read again.

If your child struggles with reading despite your best efforts you might want to have your child's eyes checked. For this you need a special eye doctor who has particular experience with this, it's not your normal eye doctor. I have read about children who were missing spatial sight and thus had a hard time to learn how to read. I also read a story about a boy who had some blind spots when looking and so mostly missed syllables in the middle of a word. But all those kids could be helped with some special excercises for their eyes.

It also should be clear that children who have hearing or speaking problems probably need extra patience.

And I noticted that kids who had difficulties learning how to swim or ride a bicycle often also had a harder time to learn how to read. It seems that the gross motor skills (and maybe the fine motor skills too) affect your ability to learn how to read. In this case you need to be very patient. It will probably take longer. But don't give up. Eventually they will learn how to read as well. A friend of mine had a son like this. It was heartbreaking at first and she needed to change schools where the teachers were more patient and understanding. But after 3 years her son took off and became one of the best students in his class. So take heart and be patient with your kid. Your kid deserves it!

And finally always remember that even kids that can read themselves still like to be read too. :)

Copyright © 2004-2019 Katja Socher, tuxgraphics.org