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Dans ma trousse

This post is a defence of the humble pencil case as a classroom language teaching aid.

Some MFL teachers argue that teaching children about what is in their pencil case is plain dull and that there are better ways for children to acquire the vocabulary of classroom objects. In general, they would argue that we need to find classroom activities for beginners and learners in general which are inherently stimulating. the argument runs: they are studying volcanoes in geography, burning magnesium ribbon in chemistry, learning about how the body works in biology, then they come along to the languages lesson to point at the window and say "this is the window".

I get the argument and if you want to see it amusingly parodied, watch Eddie Izzard's well know and very funny video.

Oh.......... alright, if your device lets you watch it, here it is:

So how can I defend using a pencil case in the classroom. First, the obvious stuff. There are a range of simple language areas for which the pencil case and its contents provide a useful tool. Here are some:

  • Teaching the vocabulary of classroom objects, which children need to understand simple, target language instructions such as "prenez un stylo", "soulignez avec votre règle" etc. beyond simple demonstration and repetition there are guessing games of various types to play.
  • Teaching the principle of gender. Note that it is best to teach items of one gender first, then the other. You can then ask pupils what they noticed - inductive learning.
  • Teaching colours. This is easilty done with beginners who keep an array of coloured pencils. Also, pupils have pencil cases of different colours.
  • Teaching prepositions: "Le stylo est sur la table ou sur la tête du professeur?" etc etc.
  • Teaching object pronouns: "Je prends le crayon et je le donne à David".
  • Teaching indirect pronouns: "Je lui donne un crayon ou une gomme?"
  • Teaching negatives: "Je n'ai pas de crayon rouge".
  • Teaching verbs. "Je touche la gomme; il touche la gomme; tu touches la gommes? vous touchez la gomme?"
  • Teaching possession: "Le taille-crayon est à moi ou à toi?"
  • Helping to develop early fluency through accumulation memory games: "Dans ma trousse j'ai... et... et..." 
  • Teaching imperatives: "Donne-moi ton bic".
  • Teaching il y a and plurals.
Now, I can hear you saying, but there are other more interesting ways of teaching all of these things, so why not use more stimulating resources and texts which have more intrinsic interest to young people? I would reply that where this is possible, absolutely, why not? But you then get serious issues of grading of language - texts and pictures which require too much unknown vocabulary and grammar for example. I have seen interesting sites which are superficially attractive, but when you think about how you would use them, you soon find that ungraded vocabulary can create blockages, slow the pace and hinder the teaching sequence. (An example is this bedrooms around the world site which is important and interesting, but not necessarily the easiest to use.)

In addition, and this might raise the eyebrow of comprehensible input fans, by using very familiar classroom items you are focusing the students' attention on grammatical form rather than meaning. This may be what you want to do. The acquired syntax can later be recycled and ultimately internalised in other more interesting contexts.

Is it boring to use the pencil case as a teaching aid? Not necessarily. It's all about how you do it and the enthusiasm you bring to the tasks. Guessing games are always popular. A humorous delivery helps as does  getting pupils up to play teacher. In addition, holding up real touchable objects may, I stress may, be more immediately motivational than using pictures in a powerpoint or on a flashcard.

I suppose my fundamental point is this: a teaching activity is a means to an end. We engage in artificial classroom activities because we know that, if they are well done, they can lead to long term acquisition. Clarity is vital and the humble pencil case can play a very useful role.


  1. I struggle with the need for fundamentals, but I think teaching them in isolation--or near isolation--is a mistake. I love learning for its own sake, but I don't think it's appropriate for the majority of young people. Purpose beyond the classroom is a powerful motivator and justification for learning of any type. My students this year, for example, packed backpacks of school supplies to send to an impoverished school in Colombia to learn "pencil case vocabulary." There is si much that can be done with a needs list from a charity abroad, especially if they will talk with students too.

  2. I understand what you are saying. That project sounds superb. i suppose I would say in reply that the main aim for me as a French specialist would be the language rather than another cause. If that projects taught the words in the most effective way, then fine. Thank you very much for your comment.


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