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Primary Assistant FAQ

In my time obsessively stalking all TAPIF blogs past, current and future, I’ve noticed the prevalence of secondary assistants across the interweb. It makes sense: there are way more of them! There are commonalities between the expectations and experiences of primary and secondary assistants, but seeing as most of the info out there seems to be geared towards the secondary level, I want to share some ideas that will be specifically helpful to current and future primary assistants, as they can be very different jobs.

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1. What will I have to do?

I had a fairly unique experience in an English immersion school, with three designated English teachers, where students have several hours per day of English instruction. As a result, I planned only about half of my own lessons, and the levels for said lessons always skewed a few grade levels ahead of the norm. I had very competent colleagues, almost all of whom spoke solid English, and who gave their students a lot of English instruction outside of my time in their classrooms.

From my fellow primary assistants, this kind of support is not always the case, however. In many cases, the assistant is the only English teacher for the school, and the regular maîtresses or maîtres may not even speak English. These assistants basically have to plan not only their own lessons, but essentially the entire year’s syllabus based only on a few benchmarks, which is a daunting amount of freedom.

Cara is a former primary assistant in Auch (académie de Toulouse) with a much more classic experience than mine, and you can read about her specific roles here. Beccy was a primary assistant with me in neighboring Aix-les-Bains. Read her retrospective list of things she wished she’d known here.

2. What grades will I work with?

This might seem like a stupid question, but I include it because there is some misleading information on the subject. TAPIF officially states that primary assistants will be dealing with children ages 8-11. Well, I am here to tell you that is not necessarily true at all. The grade levels you may be intervening in will depend on your school. I worked with every class starting with the youngest 3-year-olds in preschool to the 10 and 11-year-old CM2s. A friend of mine only had classes of CP (age 6), while others worked exclusively with the oldest two classes (the advertised 8-11), and still another worked almost exclusively in her preschool and kindergarten classes.

Here’s a quick refresher in acronyms and grade-level equivalents:

École maternelle:
PS: petite section, 3-year-olds
MS: moyenne section, pre-K
*GS: grande section, Kindergarten

École élémentaire:
*CP: cours préparatoire, 1st grade
*CE1: cours élémentaire 1e année, 2nd grade
+CE2: cours élémentaire 2e année, 3rd grade
+CM1: cours moyen 1e année, 4th grade
+CM2: cours moyen 2e année, 5th grade

*These classes are considered part of “Cycle 2: cycle des apprentissages fondamentaux
+These classes (along with sixième in collège) are considered part of “Cycle 3: cycle des approfondissements/consolidation

3. I might have to design my own curriculum?! Where do I even begin?

First of all, don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues for help!! With luck, you’ll have great colleagues who won’t mind taking some time to help you figure out what’s best for your classes, who can show you some examples of what’s been done in the past, or who can generally be helpful resources for you! But, if that’s not the case for you… check out this PDF of a few handouts given to me at the beginning of the year: Programmation Anglais.

The first two pages are roughly the syllabi we followed in my PS and MS classes, though non-immersion schools could adapt this for older grades quite easily. This gives you an idea of the subjects you can cover, and how to space it over a year. Note that these students also had instruction outside of the hour I spent with them per week.

The second two pages are general suggestions for Cycle 2 and Cycle 3. Again, this can help you scale your lessons depending on the grade-level, and gives several specific linguistic goals.

The final page is a grid of the competency requirements for the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This will look familiar if you’ve ever had to determine your fluency as A2, B1, B2, etc. We were told that by the end of cycle 3, students are expected to have roughly an A1.

For a more detailed look, check out this Progression Primaire that I downloaded from Jennie at ielanguages. Her page is chock full of amazing materials!!

**Update: I recently stumbled across Bout de Gomme, a website run by two French elementary school teachers who share their best lessons from GS-CM2! The website is, of course, entirely in French, but they share some really interesting materials. Here’s a link to their Programmation Anglais CE1.

I also found plenty of good information by simply googling something like “progression anglais cycle 2”. This method obviously takes a bit of combing through, but you do only work 12 hours a week, so I think you’ll be able to find the time 😛

4. What should I bring with me?

Start with the basics: some photos of you doing fun American things (Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc), a map of the United States or your hometown, postcards from where you live, some American money, anything you may want to share that you wouldn’t be able to find in France.

Books! Being a bit of a picture book aficionado, it’s possible probable that I brought far too many picture books than were necessary. But I did use a fair amount of them in my lessons. Here are the ones my students loved the most (Eventually, I’ll post more about the lessons I did with these books!):

  • Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin. Comes with a free song and tons of related materials! Great for practicing colors, fruits, and clothing.
  • From Head to Toe by Eric Carle. Good for animals, body parts, and basic commands. Several Eric Carle books have become classics in France as well. Almost all of my teachers had copies (in English or French) of Brown Bear, Brown Bear and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The repetitive structure of books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear is great to reinforce vocabulary, and can easily be adapted for different occasions. For example, I used a version I found called Orange Pumpkin, Orange Pumpkin for Halloween lessons (many thanks to Kathy for making that available for use) !!!
  • Count to Sleep: Washington, D.C. by Adam Gamble. There is a whole series of these books for different cities and states, which are great and simple introductions. I used this as the basis for culture/art lessons in 4 of my classes!
  • Mouse’s First Spring by Lauren Thompson. Good for practicing animals, and for spring-related lessons that don’t involve Easter.
  • Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems are a great level for older classes, and so much fun!!

Stickers! I brought tons, and definitely didn’t use even half of them, but I still regret nothing. I especially brought holiday-related stickers, American flag stickers, and stickers that said things in English like Great Job! Amazing! Good Work! Kids loved getting these stickers, which I only awarded to those who participated in the activity, or followed directions well.

A stuffed animal or puppet: This can be a fun way to capture the attention of your younger students. I did bring one small stuffed animal, but didn’t use him much. Other primary assistants I know used theirs to great success in GS or CP classes, and one of my teachers suggested it to me at the beginning of the year, so it’s just a matter of personal preference.

5. Got any good web resources?

There are tons and tons of websites out there. Here are a few I found most useful:

Activity Village: Coloring pages, flashcards, and other activities for literally any category you can imagine. Print a coloring page and label the drawing with some vocabulary words and you have an instant lesson!

Super Simple Learning: This website is full of simple versions of songs for a large variety of subjects. I used their simplified version of the Hokey Pokey in my MS and GS classes every week! A majority of the songs also have fabulous videos that I downloaded to show my kids, which they loved. The site also has related flash cards/worksheets/coloring pages/etc for some of their songs, which really came in handy!

Lanternfish/BogglesWorld: Plenty of games, flashcards, activities, etc mostly geared towards older kids.

British CouncilBC is the UK version of TAPIF. Their website has some interesting lesson ideas and tips for assistants.

PrimLangues: This is the official Education Nationale site for teaching languages in the premier degré. It has some interesting articles and resources, but is rather difficult to navigate. Worth a gander though.

And just generally Googling a topic (like “halloween elementary esl lesson”) leads to a wealth of creative ESL blogs with great ideas!

6. Anything else I should know?

I will continue to post my ideas for lessons, games, activities and more. But the one thing you should know as you are coming up with your lessons is that teachers will probably expect “traces écrits”. This is essentially a paper trail of what you’ve been working on with your students for them to glue into their English cahiers (sidenote: read Cara’s very touching tribute to the French obsession with le cahier). You may be familiar with the term “Interactive Student Notebook.” This is basically a similar principle.

If you teach them a song, print out the lyrics. If you practice with flashcards, make a document that includes all the vocabulary that they can color or otherwise label. These needn’t be complicated worksheets or anything like that, but its important that there is some record of what you do in class, because these cahiers will likely travel with them to the next year or even to a different school if the child moves, and the teachers often use them to see what material the child has already covered.

Also, take note of what supplies your teachers/students have  that you’ll be able to utilize in your lessons. For example, your kids will probably have a collection of trousses with a variety of pencils, pens, markers, colored pencils, scissors, glue sticks, rulers, and a portable white board. Use them!!

**Click here for fun and simple lessons to do using vocabulary flashcards!**

**Click here for art projects you can do with your classes!**

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Well, that should do it for an introduction to being a primary assistant! As I mentioned, I plan to keep adding materials, so stay tuned. If you come across any great ideas or resources, feel free to share them in the comments! Likewise, if you have questions about any of this, N’hésitez pas, as they say!!! ❂

3 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this! I’m going to be a primary assistant this year and it seemed like most of the TAPIF blogs I’ve come across have advice geared more towards secondary assistants. I’ll definitely be using this as a reference for my lessons!

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    • Great!! I’m really glad it’s been helpful. I’m going to keep posting lessons over the next few weeks so keep an eye out 🙂 and have a blast in France!!

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  2. Pingback: 2015: year of this blog | Present Perfect

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