The passé composé doesn’t have to be scary

the passe compose doesn't have to be scary

The passé composé is one of the most important aspects of French grammar and is a must-know for any high school student. It’s also one of the trickiest things to master and students can take months to really understand it. Because it’s used not only to talk about past events but also as the basis for other compound tenses, it’s vital for students who plan to continue their studies to master it. But how can we get our students to really understand it?

Breaking the passé composé down into Parts

The first part of teaching the passé composé is breaking it down into parts. Our students may have trouble with the academic vocabulary of “auxiliary verb” and “past participle.” Instead of starting with those terms, I tell my students that the passé composé is made up of two words telling you the “when” and the “what.” This helps with later compound tenses when they have to deal with the auxiliary verb taking different forms to change the “when” of the phrase.

The other important thing is that you don’t overwhelm the students with all of the different possible types of verbs – start off with the easiest things, the ER verbs. Add the other regular verbs once students are comfortable with these. Then, move on to the irregular past participles.

Once students are able to use these, then you can add in the Vandertramp verbs and reflexive verbs. You will likely see students regress a bit when adding in these other types of verbs, once my students see the Vandertramp verbs, they want to use etre as a helping verb with everything!

Practice activities for the passé composé

Students will likely need a LOT of practice with the mechanics of the passé composé. I find that break the skills down into smaller pieces really helps. In the beginning, you might just have them determine the past participle of regular verbs using gimkit (since you can have them type in their response).

Once they’ve learned how to find both the helping verb and past participle, you can move on to conjuguemos. If you’re just starting the vandertramp verbs, you might use gimkit or blooket to make a simple “choose the helping verb” activity. Practicing little pieces will probably be more helpful than practicing everything at once.

Once your students have a handle on all three types of verbs, you might want to give them a flowchart. I have a flowchart to guide the thought process of determining what type of verb it is, which helping verb to use.

I let students use the flowchart in second year when they are writing essays and sometimes even tests, because this is a topic with so many moving pieces that I find that the fact that they know how to use the flowchart shows me whether or not they “get” the passé composé. Students who have a pretty good idea of how to use the tense will find the flowchart helpful, but a student who is completely lost won’t do any better, even with the flowchart.

The passé composé is a time-delayed topic

One thing I noticed when I was teaching all of the French levels at my school (I now only teach first and second year) was that students who I thought were lost with the passé composé in second year would come back after summer vacation being MUCH better at it. I’m not sure why that is, but it happened often enough that it stuck out to me.

I came to the conclusion that this is just one of those topics that the brain needs time to digest. The students weren’t spending all summer on conjuguemos, their brains were just digesting it and letting it sink in.

Of course, there is probably some confirmation bias going on here. The students who take 3rd year French tend to be the ones who enjoyed the first two years and were fairly good at it. It may be that these students were close to getting it when they left for summer break and just needed a refresher to really solidify it. The ones who were truly lost didn’t sign up for 3rd year.

In any case, keep in mind that this is one topic that is tricky for French learners to master and don’t beat yourself up if your students struggle with it. The 2% grammar nerds will get it, but the others are probably going to struggle for quite a while.

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