French Learning Scenario:
Experiencing Life in the Middle Ages

Author: Dorothy Cox & Leah Sequeira
Level: Novice High/Intermediate Low

In this unit, groups of students research topics from the Middle Ages. Each group presents its findings to the class. Students learn new vocabulary and historical information. They review and practice vocabulary related to families, preferences, houses, occupations, and hobbies.

ACTIVITY SET 1: Researching the Middle Ages
Working in groups, students choose one of the following topics for research and presentation to the class:

  • Les rois du Moyen Age (e.g., Clovis, 481-511; include French royal traditions)
  • La Chanson de Roland (era of Charlemagne, 800)
  • La Tapisserie de Bayeux (era of William the Conqueror, 1066)
  • 100 Years War (era of Joan of Arc, 1337-1453)

Groups gather information from library sources and the Internet in order to prepare a class presentation providing a general historical background of their topic including traditions and specific details about the relevant historical character(s). Given the proficiency level, students may use some English in their presentations. Each group selects a presentational format such as a puppet show, video, visual aid presentation, or PowerPoint slide show to tell its “story.” They prepare a handout listing topics to be covered so that classmates can take notes. The handout includes key French vocabulary words and phrases used in the presentations. Presentations are in chronological order and each is followed by a related class activity facilitated by the teacher (see Activity Sets 2–5, below). The purpose of these activities is to reinforce the material that has been presented by the groups.

ACTIVITY SET 2: Royalty of the Middle Ages
After the first group has made its presentation on a king, such as Clovis, and before the next group’s presentation, students play vocabulary games (e.g., Bingo, the flyswatter game) and/or Tic-Tac-Toe based on information from their presentations. Next, using pictures of the Cathedral at Reims where Clovis was baptized and crowned, students create their own stained glass window using black poster board and small pieces of tissue paper. (The cathedral is famous for its beautiful stained glass windows and is the site of all French royal coronations.)

ACTIVITY SET 3: La Chanson de Roland
After the second group has made its presentation on La Chanson de Roland and before the next group’s presentation, the class as a whole retells the story of Roland and Charlemagne in simple French. With the teacher’s guidance, a volunteer writes the sentences dictated by the class on the board using the past tenses, practicing the passé composé and imparfait. Then, students working in pairs choose a musical style (rap, country, blues, pop, etc.) and retell the story of Roland and Charlemagne using the story text created by the class or using their own version of the story. Teams perform their musical rendition in class using props.

Next, students make swords using a cardboard tube (such as an empty wrapping paper roll) and aluminum foil—not exactly Roland’s famous Durendal, but suitable for a fencing demonstration held to teach basic moves. Community resources such as a local university can be helpful in finding a qualified fencing instructor. The teacher meets with the fencing instructor in advance to prepare a list of related French vocabulary that students are to learn and use as they practice their moves. A single elimination fencing tournament is held, and invitations are extended to school administrators to judge the contest and to local media to cover the event.

ACTIVITY SET 4: La Tapisserie de Bayeux
After the third group has made its presentation on La Tapisserie de Bayeux and before the last group’s presentation, students retell the story of William the Conqueror in French, again using the past tenses. This time, however, the technique used is cartoon storytelling. Tape a long piece of butcher paper across a wall and write simple, narrative sentences for each key event across the bottom of the length of paper. Students pick the segment of the story that they want to illustrate and do so using markers, paper cut outs, magazine clippings, paint, etc. Creativity is key! When the complete story has been illustrated, each student tells his or her part of the story while being videotaped. After videotaping the story, cut up the butcher paper by scenes. Each class tries to put the story from another class back into the correct sequence and then watches the videotape to confirm their guesses.

ACTIVITY SET 5: The 100 Years War and Joan of Arc
Once the fourth group has made its presentation on the Hundred Years War and Joan of Arc, students begin their final project. During the fourth presentation, students learn about the coat of arms accorded to Joan by Charles VII and the symbolism found on it. Their project for this Activity Set is to develop a personal coat of arms, decorating it with images and phrases in French that they choose to represent themselves. First, they review vocabulary including terms for family, likes, dislikes, occupations, adjectives, colors, cities, and hobbies. Students are provided a handout of possible shapes for coat of arms and then begin their project using poster board and other art supplies. Finally, students write in French an explanation of their coat of arms, memorize it, and present the explanation to the class.

ACTIVITY SET 6: Comparing the Middle and Modern Ages
As a synthesizing activity, the students work in groups to create a comparison chart of life in the Middle Ages and modern life in the United States. The groups share their ideas with the rest of the class. Each student then writes a personal reflection based on the findings. Suggested topics are:

  • “I wish I could have lived during the Middle Ages because…..”
  • “I’m glad I did not live in the Middle Ages because…”
  • “Being in the army during the Middle Ages was different from being in the army today…”
  • “The modern equivalent of story-telling tapestries/coats of arms/middle ages royalty is…” (choose one)

(The compositions may be in English or French depending on the students’ proficiency level.)

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Targeted Standards

  • Communication: Interpersonal, Interpretative, & Presentational Modes
  • Cultures: Practices & Perspectives, Products & Perspectives
  • Connections: Access to Information, Other Subject Areas
  • Comparisons: Concept of Culture, Influence of Language & Culture
  • Communities: Within & Beyond the School Setting, Personal Enrichment & Career Development

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  • Internet access for research
  • Supplies for activities: picture of the Cathedral at Reims, black poster board, colored tissue paper, butcher paper, tape or glue, long cardboard tubes (e.g., from empty wrapping paper rolls), aluminum foil, markers, scissors, paint, old magazines
  • Video camera
  • A copy of La Chanson de Roland

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Reflections on How the Standards Are Met


Communication: Interpersonal mode is used in group work. The interpretive mode is used in Internet research and during presentations. Presentational mode is used as students retell the stories of Roland and William the Conqueror and as they write and present the explanation of their coats of arms.

: Students learn about cultural products such as legends written in verse, storytelling tapestries, coats of arms, and stained glass. They develop an understanding of French perspectives during the Middle Ages by studying the symbolism inherent in these products. Students also learn about cultural practices such as fencing, military maneuvering, living under royalty (including the practice of coronation), etc. and use this knowledge to develop an understanding of how French people of the Middle Ages viewed the world (e.g., the importance of martyrdom, as demonstrated by Joan of Arc; the inextricable tie between royalty and religion/holy places, as demonstrated by Clovis being anointed with holy water and crowned in the Cathedral at Reims).

: Students use French to expand their knowledge of history. They use French language resources, including the Internet, to access information on topics of study.

: Students compare their own (modern) culture to that of the French in the Middle Ages. They may also discover the influence of the French language on English as they research William the Conquerer’s 1066 foray into England.

: Students link to the community by interacting with a fencing instructor from outside of the school and use French fencing terminology to learn about the sport.

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Expansion Ideas

  • Teach students the song Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. This is a well-known “drinking song” in France about the Knights of the Round Table.
  • Teach the French children’s song and game La Tour Prends Garde. This is a well-known children’s activity in France where the children enact laying siege to a castle and apprehending the opposing forces one at a time.
  • Teach the French children’s song Le Roi Dagobert. This is a silly children’s song about King Dagobert who lived during the Middle Ages and was well-loved by the people.
  • Watch the video or DVD Joan of Arc (with Leelee Sobieski as Joan, directed by Christian Duguay). This movie is in English and sticks to historical facts fairly well.

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Bellerophon Books. (1996). A coloring book of the Middle Ages. Santa Barbara, CA: Author.

Boutet de Monvel, M. (1998). Vieilles chansons et rondes. Paris: Ecole des Loisirs.

Delafosse, C., Millet, C., & Millet D. (1991). Le château fort. Editoriale Libraria, Italy: Gallimard Jeunesse.

Lebedel, C. (1997). Chronologie de l’histoire de France. Rennes, France: Editions Ouest-France.

Peach, L. D. (1971). Joan of Arc. Loughborough, England: Ladybird Books, Ltd.

Poole, J. (1999). Jeanne d’Arc. Brussels: Casterman Press.

Twain, M. (1995). Personal recollections of Joan of Arc. New York: Gramercy Books.

Valette, J. & Valette, R. (1990). Songs from French for mastery. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Co.


NOTE: These Internet resources may have changed since publication or no longer be available. Active links should be carefully screened before recommending to students.

  • (French)
  • (French)

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