French subject pronouns – teaching and practicing

French subject pronouns cover image

One of the first things students learn in a new language is subject pronouns – and French subject pronouns have a few quirks that can make them a little bit tricky. Here are some ideas from my own classes and how I teach them along with a couple of teaching and practice activities that you might find useful.

Introducing French subject pronouns

Some of the subject pronouns are pretty easy – the first ones my students learn are je and tu. When I first introduce them, I don’t teach all 6 – I just use je and tu. The first couple of days in French 1 I talk about myself – I tell them about my name, where I am from, things that I like, and a personal description. It doesn’t take them very long to catch on that Je means I!

After a day or so of this, I start to ask them things using tu. I’ll make a statement that they are very comfortable with and can easily understand – Je suis grand, je suis américain, j’aime le hockey – something simple. Then I will ask them if they are tall/American/like hockey using just intonation. It takes no time at all for them to get the concept of tu! Some of them are very quick to catch on and will start making statements back to me using je, others just answer oui/non, and that’s fine.

Introducing il/elle and ils/elles

Now it’s time to move towards the third person! While I’m having the conversation with a student about themselves, I’ll start adding in il and elle by asking questions of the class. If the student tells me that he is tall, I will ask the class – “il est grand? il est petit? il est grand ou petit?” After doing a few conversations with multiple students, il and elle will make sense.

To get to the plural, I’ll start using the whiteboard. I’ll write a little chart of the various students I’ve been talking to and the things they’ve told me. We will look at which students have something in common and I’ll start to use ils and elles. This one takes a little bit of explanation, since students may not intuitively get why ils is used with mixed groups.

On to nous and vous…

Vous is actually easier than nous. I will do the same thing I did on the first couple of days – tell the students about myself – but this time I will talk to more than one student at a time. Sometimes I will use a student(s) name(s) – “Juan, tu es grand” or “Juan et Jasmine, vous aimez le football?”

After doing several of these, I will ask students if they have a theory for why I sometimes use tu and sometimes use vous. The singular vs plural is pretty simple, but the informal/formal can be trickier. I will go over that in a separate lesson where we focus just on tu and vous situation. For nous, I point out to them that any time they are part of the group, it becomes nous!

What about on? And iel?

For the final French subject pronouns, I end up going with direct instruction. I will give them a few examples of the various meanings of on and tell them that it’s often used to replace nous. I don’t expect them to “get it” right away, so I often will put on off to a little later on, when they’ve got the other pronouns under control.

So far I haven’t spent much time on the non-binary pronoun iel, but I certainly will if it comes up. I know that it’s not all that common in French yet but that may change – and will be important for some students. I haven’t had any non-binary students yet in my classes, but I would certainly not hesitate to use iel if I do.

Practicing French subject pronouns

I do recognize that some students just need some practice or want grammatical explanations. Some just want notes that they can refer to. I use a quick grammar lesson with some handouts for those students, and you might find that useful. I also have a couple of digital games that I use with them to practice selecting the correct French subject pronouns and choosing between tu and vous. Many of my students already speak Spanish, so they are familiar with tu/usted, but for those who need some extra practice with the subject pronouns it can be quite helpful.

French subject pronouns - teaching and practicing
French subject pronouns - teaching and practicing
French subject pronouns - teaching and practicing