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In the mood... for the subjunctive

I am hugely grateful to Sarah Shaw for sending me this guest blog. Sarah's background is in advanced level French teaching in England. It's a lesson plan for teaching the subjunctive to advanced level students.


Being conscious that students enrolling onto the A-level French course have all had very different experiences of grammar instruction and perhaps more importantly, have very different feelings about their own ability to use previously taught structures and to tackle new structures, has strongly influenced how I approach the ‘teaching’ of grammar.

I have always enjoyed exploring creative strategies to do this in a way that not only aims to develop the students’ use of a wide range of structures, but also endeavours to break down the anxiety that some students have about grammar, to build confidence around understanding and application, to spark curiosity and develop instinct.

I have found an effective way to achieve this is to carefully layer activities to encourage the students to work cooperatively to first of all identify, investigate and imitate patterns (I prefer to speak about 'patterns' rather than 'rules') where I initially facilitate rather than instruct.

By actively unpicking structures and pinpointing patterns, students often seem more confident to then model their own language using examples, before finally taking the step to explore and experiment with the structure in order to use and integrate it meaningfully, rather than as an impressive but isolated add-on.

For me, the subjunctive is a particularly exciting structure to do this with, especially as the students appear to hold it up on a grammar pedestal! This is my 5 point lesson plan for introducing the subjunctive focusing on when to use it and how to form it (with initially just regular verbs). I find it works best if students are divided into 4 mixed ability groups of 2-4 students.

Part 1 - Identifying the subjunctive triggers: Each group is given a card which focuses on one subjunctive trigger.

The students are given 2 minutes to examine the card and note down what the sentences have in common on a post-it note, which they then fold over to hide their ideas. The cards are passed onto the next group of students who are given 2 minutes to do the same but who can consult the previous group’s ideas after 1 minute before completing their post-it note. This is repeated until each group has seen and commented on each card.

More often than not, the students correctly identify the first four subjunctive triggers. At this stage, you may wish to summarise their findings and provide more succinct, formal ‘titles’ for the triggers by asking each group to identify these from a selection of 4 that are displayed.

Part 2 - Introducing key conjunction triggers: There are a number of ways to approach this part. I tend to pin eight key conjunction triggers around the room and then let students roam around for one minute before asking them to note down as many as they can remember (as a group) in 45 seconds. With the collective effort of all students from each group, I generally find that all 8 conjunctions are recalled. I then feedback as a main group to check the understanding of each conjunction and also to stress the relevance of this activity in relation to the subjunctive.

Part 3 – Investigating regular subjunctive formation: This part is split into 2. Firstly, to investigate how the subjunctive is formed, each group is given 5 verbs that are already correctly conjugated.

The students have to fill in the gaps of their original sentences using the verbs.

Secondly, students are asked to look for formation patterns. They may need prompts such as looking for the stem, verb endings etc… but in general, when steered towards verbs such as ‘venir’, they do work it out. It is valuable at this stage to pull together the students’ findings and present them back (using questioning) in a more structured way to consolidate and also, assess understanding.

Part 4 – Imitating regular subjunctive formation: To imitate the verb formation, swap the cards and replace the conjugated verbs with infinitive verbs. The students therefore have to identify the correct verb to use in the gap fill and then conjugate the verb accordingly. They can do it!

Part 5 – ‘Receptive Practice’: I introduced this stage after reading Gianfranco Conti’s blog on the major shortcomings of L2 grammar instruction. I would previously have dived into application at this point, perhaps risking ‘losing’ some of the students. However, in his blog Dr Conti talks about ‘receptive practice through aural and written medium’. I therefore now use a reading activity to bring together everything we have covered.

Many passages exist in A-level textbooks but I have written my own passage to be confident that it covers exactly what I want it to! It shows points covered in class in use and it also introduces the 6th trigger (superlatives) as well as a couple of irregulars that I like to use as an extension task for more able learners who have quickly assimilated the structure. Students use different coloured highlighters to identify the different triggers, underline what they suspect may be the ‘new’ trigger and the ‘irregulars’. I also like to ask learners to select a sentence that they are particularly impressed with. I find this encourages them to develop a true awareness of how language is being used.

This individual task is also an extremely valuable way for me to ‘check-in’ with each learner and assess understanding. A final full group feedback working through the reading activity together is a great way to conclude the class. I like to close my lessons with some kind of exit pass. There are many possibilities here; noting down the triggers, noting down conjunctions, conjugating some regular verbs in the ‘ils’ form, predicting what the ‘irregulars’ will be. These can also form good starters for the next class, which focuses on those usual suspects!

The students always seem so proud to be able to use the subjunctive and this approach does appear to work. I love observing the transition from the excited overuse at AS (which I do not advise for the exam but which I do feel is an integral part of the acquisition process) to the natural, well placed and fluent use at A2 when the subjunctive is just another impressive part of their personal repertoire.


  1. this is very clear and really useful. Thanks. May even now buy the toolkit(!)

  2. Thank you, on behalf of Sarah, unknown.


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