What to Expect as a Primary English Assistant : 8 Questions and Answers

After my first TAPIF placement in Chambéry, I noticed that much of the TAPIF blogging community focuses on assistants in secondary schools. This is completely normal, as there are far more people placed at the secondary level! There are many commonalities between the expectations and experiences of primary and secondary assistants; there are also many specifics that are quite different. So, I wanted to create a resource specifically for primary teaching assistants, since teaching in elementary schools comes with its own challenges and circumstances that aren’t talked about as often.

I’m about to start my third year teaching primary level English, and in that time I’ve experienced many different types of classrooms, colleagues, and schools. I thought now would be a great time to update my initial Primary Assistant FAQ post to include some of the new insights and tips I’ve gained in my two years as a teaching assistant in the académies of Grenoble (Chambéry) and Aix-Marseille (Marseille), as well as anecdotes from the many primary assistants I know and have worked with.

This was originally posted as a two-part guest post by Alex @ So you Think You Can France. Her blog is a phenomenal resource for anyone coming to France as an assistant! I was especially impressed by her numerous crowd-sourced city guides. I was so glad to collaborate with her and really look forward to seeing how she continues to expand the site! Be sure to check it out 🙂


Now that I have my assignments, who are the people I should know?

Sometimes it can seem like finally getting your arrêté de nomination (work contract) creates more questions than it answers! Some assistants are assigned only to a local school district (DSDEN, IEN, or IA) and will learn their specific school placements on arrival. Others will be assigned directly to 1, 2, 3 and sometimes even 4 primary schools (pro tip: anything starting listed as E.E. PU (école élémentaire publique) is a school!). Here’s a list of the various people you may work with over the course of the year and whom you’ll want to get in contact with. In secondary schools, all of your contacts are usually people who work at one of your schools, whereas at the primary level, many of the administrative aspects are handled outside of the schools. It’s good to be aware of the various roles and how each person can help you!!

  1. Conseiller pédagogique – This is your primary contact, who works for the local school district and will be responsible for helping you settle into your new town and schools. (In secondary schools this role is usually held by a language teacher at one of your schools, but in primary it is someone who works in the local admin office.) The CP can also help you with ideas and resources for your lessons over the course of the year, and especially if you are having any trouble with your schools. They are initially a liaison between you and your schools when you arrive, and will probably be somewhat involved with organizing your timetable, especially if you are assigned to more than one school. For example, my CPs met me either before the contract started or during the first week and drove me to each of my schools to meet the staff.
    1. (1.5) Gestionnaire – if you teach in a large city with lots of primary assistants, you may also have a separate administrative “gestionnaire” to help you with the more logistical aspects of enrolling in health care, getting your salary, etc.
  2. Directeurs/ices – I’d definitely recommend sending a quick introduction to the directeur/directrice of each of your assigned schools! You may not get a reply until after the summer vacation, but I’m sure they’ll appreciate hearing from you, and may even be able to give you advice on logistical things like searching for housing or figuring out public transport! In France, the directeur of the school also teaches a certain amount of hours during the week, so you may teach English lessons in their classroom, or you may not… Regardless, they will be responsible for organizing your time within the school – deciding which classes you’ll intervene in and for how many hours. If your arrêté doesn’t mention how to contact your schools, you can search this directory to contact them directly!
  3. Colleagues – These are the teachers in whose classes you will be intervening!! Each will have a different style of interacting with their assistant: There are the Teachers who leave it all up to you, Teachers who send you with half the class, Teachers who prepare everything for you, Teachers who co-teach with you. Some will be really strong in English. Some will barely speak more English than their students… You’ll turn to them for advice on what to do day-to-day, what subjects to teach. Technically, they are responsible for planning the subjects their class will work on, so be sure to ask them if they already have any routines or a program established.
  4. Students – 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 have 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 preschool and kindergarten classes.

Here’s a quick breakdown of 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 are considered part of “Cycle 3: cycle des approfondissements/consolidation


So, what’s it like in the schools?! What is my role?

My first time as an assistant, 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 less than 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 nearly fluent English, and who gave their students a lot of English instruction outside of my time in their classrooms.

During my second placement in Marseille, this kind of support was definitely not the case. Split among three different schools, I was treated more like the English teacher and given a lot of autonomy with my lessons. In some classes, I was pretty sure the teachers weren’t doing much English outside of the time I was there, even though they’re supposed to do 90 mins of foreign language per week. And while all of my colleagues had minimal command of English basics, some were not very confident in speaking or teaching it at all.

Your role will depend on your colleagues. Most of mine gave me a calendar of topics they wanted me to cover (la progression – see these examples), but then pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. A few were true co-teachers with me, which meant I would just show up and we would lead games or other activities together. Some of my first colleagues were so confident in their English skills that my role was basically to circulate throughout the room and help out any students who needed it.

Cara is a former primary assistant in Auch (académie de Toulouse) with a very classic assistant experience, and she writes about her various roles here. Beccy was a primary assistant when I lived in Chambéry, who worked in neighboring Aix-les-Bains. Read her retrospective list of things she wishes she’d known about the assistantship here.

What will my schedule be like?

In my experience, the majority of primary assistants are assigned to at least 2 schools, often more. This means you’ll be teaching around 4-6 hours at each establishment. I would, however, plan to spend closer to 7 hours at school each day to account for lunch and recess breaks. In Chambéry, I lived close enough to my school that I usually went home during the lunch break. In Marseille, this wouldn’t have been possible, so I packed my lunch and ate it at school. I really enjoyed the time spent with my colleagues in the teacher’s lounge, and know that it helped me improve my French and gain some insight on French school culture. In both cases, I never went to school more than 4 days per week, and my colleagues made a concerted effort to condense my hours as much as possible — this won’t be the case for everyone, but since primary teachers have more autonomy in organizing their daily timetables, they can often be more accommodating than secondary teachers who are dealing with a fixed timetable. Check out my two timetables below.

2016-17 Marseille Timetable (3 schools) –

marseille edt

2014-15 Chambéry timetable (1 school) –

chambe edt

What topics might I be asked to cover?

Here is a list of topics I taught last year. The grouped topics worked very well for me when taught together or in sequence, but you certainly could mix them up!

  • Feelings, Date, Weather
  • Colors, School Supplies, Basic Directions (sit down, stand up, etc)
  • Family, Animals (pets)
  • Body Parts, Clothes, Physical descriptions,
  • Numbers, Letters
  • I like/I can…, sports, food, hobbies
  • Holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s, St Patrick’s


Do you have any general tips for lesson planning?

Establish a routine. Start every one of your classes off with a certain game, a series of questions, or a song to get everyone warmed up and using English. Hang up an American or British flag on the board, so the kids have a visual cue that English class has begun. See if you can eventually get to a point where the kids are able to lead the routines themselves!

Consider using songs! Children, on average, have very high musical intelligence and songs are a fun and easy way for them to internalize vocabulary and pronunciation. Start with the preschool classics like Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, The Hokey Pokey, or Today is Monday, but don’t be afraid to try some popular classics as well, like What a Wonderful World, Hello Goodbye, or even the latest Justin Bieber hit! Many assistants I know also had a lot of fun with American line dances like the Cha Cha Slide!

Stockpile your arsenal of flashcard and vocabulary games! Check out my previous post of some of my favorites here. These games often formed the backbone of many of my lessons, so knowing a variety of them will only help you, especially on those days where you are asked to teach something new with no time to prepare. In general, hold off on having students write the words (or see them written) until they’ve mastered them orally!

Encourage your students to use full sentences when appropriate. This will obviously be much more challenging with cycle 2 classes who are in their first  or second year of study, but really challenge your older kids to go beyond vocabulary memorization. It needn’t be complicated; a simple “It’s a pencil” or “Yes, I have a sister” will suffice. I like to encourage this during games by awarding one point for a correct answer, but 2 points for a correct answer in full sentence!

Be aware of “les Traces Ecrites. 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 former assistant Cara’s very touching tribute to the French obsession with le cahier). If you teach them a song, print out the lyrics. If you practice vocabulary with flashcards, make a document that includes all the vocabulary that they can color or otherwise label, or have them write a few sentences or draw pictures using the vocab. These don’t have to be complicated worksheets or anything like that, but it’s 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. While you should definitely spend the majority of your time working orally, your colleagues are sure to appreciate any written work you engage their students in as well. These can also be lifesavers for that one particularly rowdy group that always gets restless right before recess… A little cutting and glueing will bring some calm to the room before you go crazy.

Got any good web resources?

First, I highly encourage you to join the English Primary Assistants Group on Facebook! Fellow English assistants ask questions, share lesson ideas, and generally support one another. It’s been a great space over the past year and hopefully will continue to be a good resource.

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 many of my classes each week, and lots of assistants swear by Do You Like Broccoli Ice Cream! A majority of the songs also have fabulously fun videos that I downloaded to show my kids, which they loved. The site also has related flashcards / 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 Council: BC 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. I have used or modified a few of their lessons in my CM1/CM2 classes.

And just generally Googling a topic leads to a wealth of creative blogs with great ideas, both on anglophone and French sites! Here are a couple examples of search terms that will help you find the resources you’re looking for:

  • ESL animals lessons 3rd grade
  • TEFL lessons body parts elementary school
  • anglais primaire séquence sur la famille
  • cycle 3 anglais sports et loisirs
  • anglais cycle 2 séquence couleurs
  • Very Hungry Caterpillar preschool games

Small children stress me out… how should I go about classroom discipline?!

There are many ways to approach classroom management, but the fact is that it’s almost impossible to have a completely effective system when you only spend 45 minutes or less per week with each group. I was very rarely left completely alone with students (and never with the entire class), so I usually left matters of serious discipline to my colleagues.

Be aware that French teachers are largely more strict than their American counterparts and often their strategy is to shame or shout students into submission. It was honestly shocking to see the way some of my colleagues treated their students… So, I took the opposite tack and often would simply stop speaking if a class got too loud, or would say things like, “we won’t get to play if I can’t explain the rules.” It’s honestly not the strongest strategy, but I refused to yell the way my colleagues often do… If anything ever got out my control, my colleagues would step in and restore order. And a few times, with a particularly difficult group, my colleague and I decided to cancel the following week’s class because of bad behavior. It is important to follow through on consequences, or else they’ll stop taking you seriously.

The few times I was sent with small groups to a different room were not without challenges, but the great thing is that being with the assistant is a privilege, and sometimes making an example of one person by sending him back to the teacher is your best tool for earning the respect you need.

The best way to avoid these situations entirely is by pacing your lessons, noticing when students are bored of an activity or when something is too hard — these are moments they will tune out and start acting up. Follow an active, exciting game with something calm and vice versa. Consider using the last 10 or so minutes of your lesson for a warm-down activity like coloring or spending a few moments to glue a worksheet into their notebooks. Always have a few extra plans in your back pocket in case you need to skip ahead on what you’ve originally planned, and try not to spend more than 15-20 minutes on any one thing.

Read 2-time assistant Alexandra’s approach to classroom management here!

What sorts of things should I bring with me to France?

Start with the basics: some photos of you doing fun American things (Halloween, Thanksgiving, your house, your family, 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 won’t be able to find in France.

School supplies: expect to spend at least some of your down time coloring flashcards, game boards, or other materials. One of the first things I bought in France was a solid set of markers and colored pencils. I also recommend a decent USB drive you can attach to your keys or keep in your school bag in order to print any pictures, flashcards, or worksheets you might need — this was absolutely essential at the majority of my schools, where projectors (or computers capable of running Google Drive) were basically non-existent.

Books! I have an obsession with picture books and kid lit, so I definitely brought more books than necessary. But, I’m not sorry about it because I used a fair amount of them in my lessons. Here are the ones my students loved the most:

  • 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, I was able to milk almost an entire month of lessons out of this phenomenal book! Many other Eric Carle books have become classics in France as well. Several of my colleagues 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) !!!
  • Go Away Big Green Monster by Ed Emberely was the basis for many of my lessons on colors and body parts. Students, especially younger ones, LOVE shouting GO AWAY! and drawing and coloring their own monsters!
  • Count to Sleep: Washington, D.C. by Adam Gamble and Larry Gets Lost in Washington, DC by Andrew Fox. There is a whole series of these books for different cities and states, which are great and simple introductions to major landmarks. I used them as the basis for culture/art lessons in nearly all of my classes!
  • Ketchup on your Cornflakes by Nick Sharratt is a great accompaniment for learning about foods and “I like…/I don’t like…” Kids love the crazy propositions this flip book creates, and much of the vocabulary are cognates for simple understanding at all levels.
  • Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems are a great level for older classes, and so much fun!!
  • The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson I was initially concerned when one of my colleagues asked me to prepare a few lessons using this book. The story itself is adorable, but has some complex/obscure vocabulary and sentences that I thought could go over the heads of the students. Luckily, the book is well known in France, so there was always at least one or two students who already knew the story and could help explain. Comprehension issues aside, there are many possibilities to exploiting this book in your classes, especially in practicing animals, colors, and body parts through creating your own scary monsters!

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 and there are many online resources about using puppets in a language classroom. 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.


That does it for now. I hope this very long article is helpful to all future primary assistants! Please check out my Best of TAPIF page for more tips and stories about my two years as an assistant, and don’t hesitate to contact me or comment with more questions!! ❂

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

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

**Click here for ideas on how to start a pen pal exchange!**

6 thoughts on “What to Expect as a Primary English Assistant : 8 Questions and Answers

    1. My pleasure! I know it can be daunting – there’s so little reliable information out there and you just have to sort of wait and see…. so I figured the more real-life experiences I can put out there, the better 🙂 Thanks for reading!


  1. You do not know understand how grateful I am for this. This is my second year with the program but I taught at secondary level before. I will definitely be following the tips here. Also, a website that was recommended to me is tripticoplus. Lots of fun games for different languages. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anne,

    I think I remember that you were looking for something for assessment/documentation/accountability at one point. Not sure if that is still on your list, but I”m wondering about “Seesaw”. It says it has French – but I’ve not explored it further. I especially love the fact that it can capture audio or video pretty easily. What a great incentive for a student to look back and reflect (with your assistance) on the growth that they have made.

    Have a great year!

    Link: https://ideas.seesaw.me/hc/en-us

    Liked by 1 person

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