Classroom literacy (2): The First Days

Twenty-two children learning to read and write in French and German in Year One (in Alsace) and trying to work out for themselves what these skills might be good for. Two teachers – Sandrine for French and Ingrid for German –  charged with the task of transmitting these skills effectively. I continue my series of narrative snapshots, hopefully getting across some of the excitement and the character of typical classroom interactions. What would you say is the main difference between the German and French teaching styles presented here?

Snapshot #2: First Day in French

Twitter. Twitter.

Look at my new shoes. You’ve cut your hair. Where did you go on holiday? I like your new satchel, grandma bought mine can you already read a little I can, I’ve been practising in the holidays. With mum. Oh no, she wants to take even more pictures of me (deep sigh yet inwardly pleased). (Sarah)

Parents mill around in the school courtyard. Bright flowers. Bright smiles. Yes, they do grow up so quickly, don’t they? In no time they’ll be…

From now on we are not allowed to enter the school grounds, but must await our knowledge-hungry offspring at the school gate, today being an exception. Today being their Big Day. Ten to eight. Time to leave.

Oh I wish she wouldn’t wave at me like that I’m not a baby anymore. (Daniel)

Real school. New room. New layout. Tables no longer clustered like honeycomb the children would weave their way through and clamber over to snatch something from a classmate before the teacher intervened with a stern voice. In real school the tables are lined up like pencils on their sides: one, two, three, four rows, every face to the teacher. In real school you don’t hang your coats up in the classroom like the little ones do, but leave them outside on a hook with your slipper bag. And you keep your things in that compartment under your desk…

Who’re you gonna sit next to? D’you think we can choose? I hope I won’t be right at the back. (Marie)

Please don’t put me next to Thibault if I have to sit next to him I’m gonna throw up. (Elise)

We can’t all sit together anymore they’ll probably move us around like they did last year. If you sit at the front you’re the teacher’s pet. (Sophie)

N’importe quoi! (what a load of rubbish!) (Dimitri)

Belt up! Who’s talking to you, anyway? (Marie)

D’you reckon we get to come and write on the whiteboard? (Elise)

The walls are as bare as the new books now being taken from the satchels and purchased in strict accordance with the list handed out to the parents at the end of the preceding school year. Every book, every pencil, rubber and sharpener, every pair of scissors bears the child’s name. Hours of writing, sticking, of calming down excited children implored to write their names neatly (unless you opt for just initials in capitals or for using a pc) have gone into the preparation of this big day, their first celebration beyond the intimacy of home – their first public celebration of the public Self. The classroom looks, smells squeaky clean, thanks to the investment of a cohort of mothers in the run-up to school. The naked walls, like their exercise books (like their supposed minds???) shall soon be clothed with common knowledge.

The children – erratum – the pupils may in fact choose their own seats, the noise level necessarily rising, yet the teacher is generous with her patience. For today. The register is then taken. They all know the routine. The pile of new books, stacked on the teacher’s desk like so many plates in the canteen, now ladled out to the children, row after row. These books, that is what today, what the rest of their time in these rooms, is all about…

Sandrine: Bien. Et maintenant, au travail. (Right, now let’s get down to work)

The first morning includes activities like these:

Activity 1:

The course book is handed out: Mika CP. The key figure, Mika, is a little girl, whose adventures with a wolf provide the narrative context for the reading exercises. On the front cover, the book is described as ‘méthode interactive d´apprentissage de la lecture’ and further as ‘cycles des apprentissages fondamentaux’ (i.e. as ‘an interactive method for learning to read’, and as ‘a basic training course’). From the back cover we learn that Mika will accompany us through our first year at school, that we will read our first story (broken down into 10 episodes) and that the book contains numerous exercises to help us understand how the written language works: ‘le fonctionnement de la langue écrite’.

We turn the first page. Sandrine distributes a sheet with a text on it to each child. She reads:

‘The start of school. Today, it’s the start of school (la rentrée). For you, it’s your big day. You are now in Year One. Real school’.

The pupils are asked to identify and underline in yellow a number of words in the text: La, jour, entrez, m’appelle, amie, votre maîtresse. Other words: jeudi 5 septembre, c´est la rentrée des classes, pour, au CP, à la grande école, bonjour je suis, are to be underlined in red. At the bottom of the same sheet, four words are encased in the following order: Mika – je – Bonjour! – m’appelle. The text is cut out and pasted into the classbook. The pupils must now cut out the four jumbled words in order to reconstitute the sentence ‘Bonjour! Je m’appelle Mika’ in the allocated speech bubble:

je m'appelle MIKA

Sandrine goes from pupil to pupil, checking the answer before stamping the date into the pupil’s exercise book. Those who have finished may browse through the book whilst they wait for the others.

Activity 2:

Sandrine distributes a sheet featuring the underlined words from the previous activity. The red words form ‘The start of school’ form one group. The yellow words form another group.

Whilst the pupils are busy cutting out the words, she writes the same words on sheets of A4, using the standardised writing model. When she reads these words out loud to the class, she holds them beneath her chin: “what does this say?” Some pupils shout out the answer and are reproached with a stern look. She chooses a pupil who has put his hand up. His answer is correct. ‘Good!’ Sandrine praises, before she repeats the answer, then pins the word on the wall next to the whiteboard. If no-one is able to read the word, Sandrine gets the pupils to identify each of the letters in the word before she says the word slowly, running her finger along the letters as she pronounces them. Then she invites the pupils to pronounce the word a number of times:

je m’appelle…

je m’appelle…

je mappelle.

       (short short  l o n g…)

Activity 3:

The pupils must now write their names according to the French italic writing model they’e been practising since Reception Class/Grande Section. The children are eager and complete the task without any difficulty. Sandrine, sitting on her desk, asks intermittently: “finished?”

For homework:

  1. learn to recognise the words from the yellow group.
  2. draw a picture of yourself and your teacher.
  3. colour in the picture at the front of the book (children outside the school-gate, keen to start their first day of real school).

Very little talk all morning apart from Sandrine’s instructions and the pupil’s answers. During the cutting out activity, the noise level rises slightly. The pupils seem eager to work hard. Above all, they must work individually. I comment on the solitary nature of the morning’s activities. Sandrine informs me that after the break, the pupils can work in pairs with their word cards.

Snapshot #3: First Day in German

(as the children have a whole day in a single language, their first day in German is in fact the second day of school)

The children enter the grounds accompanied by their parents, laden with bags or boxes filled with the year’s materials and which they deposit near the teacher’s desk. Some children are accompanied by a larger cluster of adults, a number having come from far afield to be there on this big day. Grandparents have come along, too, and who might the others be? They’re the aunties, uncles, godparents of the native German-speaking pupils, and they take snapshots of the new first-grader who poses proudly with satchel and Schultüte, an enormous cone filled with sweeties and school-related objects, as every real German first-grader knows all too well.

Once the excitement recedes, overtaken by the rev of engines reversing out the car park, Ingrid, having rallied the pupils around her and whilst still waiting for all the other pupils to enter the building, clears her throat:

“So, dear children, welcome back to school. Welcome to Year One (die erste Klasse). I’m sure you all had a wonderful summer. And I’m sure we’ll all have a wonderful time learning to read and write in Year One. In Germany, the start of Year One is an important day for every boy and girl and it is celebrated. For each of you, I have a Schultüte, like in Germany. I shall take a photo of you with your Schultüte and you can give this photo to your parents. Or stick it in your photo album if you’ve got your own one already.”

The pupils are called forward in alphabetical order. Ingrid takes a photo and the pupil may then enter the classroom and sit down (same seating arrangements as for French).

Typical activities for German:

i) Look at your schoolbag carefully and draw it on the paper (Betrachte deine Schultasche ganz genau und zeichne sie dann auf das Papier!



ii) My Schultüte


Who has never seen a Schultüte before, Ingrid wants to know. Some pupils turn round to see how the others respond. “I’ve seen some in the supermarket,” proffers one pupil. Others agree. Someone comments “mais ce n’est pas la même!” (They’re not the same!). No, Ingrid agrees, those ones are not the same. They’re too small, they’re for anyone, and they have nothing to do with school. The pupils must draw their Schultüte, either the one Ingrid gave them that morning, or else the one they received from their parents/family. At the end of this activity, Ingrid passes round a picture of herself on her first day of Year One, bright-eyed, knobbly-kneed and holding an enormous Schultüte. The pupils are fascinated. Laugh. Ask questions. Ingrid says she remembers exactly her first day of school. And the name of her teacher. More questions. Genuine interest. Ingrid laughs. “Ok, let’s get back to work.”

III) wir halten Ordnung! (we keep the place tidy!)



Ingrid solicits from the class what they see in each of the eight pictures. One set of pictures shows a tidy classroom, the other set, a messy one. She asks which picture is the better one and why. Some hands are raised. Other pupils just say what they think. Ingrid recapitulates a few responses: because it’s nicer to work in a tidy area. Because it’s less dangerous for yourself and others. Because it makes things easier to find. The pupils must follow the instructions concerning the school desk, the waste paper bin, the coat pegs and the tables and chairs: Male die richtigen Bilder bunt aus! (colour the correct pictures brightly).

Iv) so spielen wir miteinander (this is how we play together). Wir gehen vorsichtig mit unseren Spielen um! (we handle our toys carefully!), Wir streiten nicht! (We don’t fight!), Wir räumen unsere Spiele auf! (We tidy away our toys!).



v) school materials



Now that these worksheets have set the social climate for the classroom, Ingrid turns to the course material: negotiating space in the run-up to writing:



and, of course, now that we’re at real school, there’s homework:

nino ninaGerman HWK










At the end of this learning block, Ingrid secures the attention of her class by asking them to look her way. She introduces the Kummerkasten, or complaints box. A big box with a slit in the lid, which she holds chest high as she faces the class. If the pupils have anything they’re unhappy with, they can write a note and put it in the box. Spelling is unimportant because it’s not a test. She will look in the box once a week and she will always get their meaning, Ingrid promises. The notes can be anonymous or signed and Ingrid assures them that their comments will be read and taken seriously: ” It’s a box for you, so use it whenever you are ready to.”

‘Don’t forget!’

She gives the box a shake, places it on a table near her desk.

Morning break.


2 thoughts on “Classroom literacy (2): The First Days

  1. Pingback: Over to you, children and parents! | joanbarbarasimon

  2. Pingback: Mind the Gap! Quantifying the domestic literacy (3): Core typologies | joanbarbarasimon

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