So You Want To Be A Foreign Language Teacher!

Corny, I know, or, as kids would say now, cheesy. And thus we start our lessons on how to teach a fl. We must be flexible, lesson #1.

In this series, I will not discuss the surroundings you may find yourself in. That is covered in many good books on teaching. OTOH, I will not go so far as James F. Lee in his book on task-based learning where he lists a set of conditions that must obtain for a student to acquire a fl. To mix an aphorism of Donald Rumsfeld, we go to war with the kids we’ve got. Without good classroom management, y’all ain’t teachin’ nuttin’.

So flexibility includes taking your students where you find them. If they say “cheesy”, then that is their language. If they cannot locate France on a world map or a globe, then you teach them. To return to what I said about not dealing with the larger school environment for a moment, keep in mind that whatever I say here needs to fit in as well as possible to the demands of your school. So, for instance, if you are so unfortunate as to work in a school where teaching scripts are provided, then you have little need for flexibility, but then you have no need to read this, either.

Another principle to keep in mind is that students, young people, look for guidance even as they reject it. Therefore, whatever you do is a model for them. If you want them to speak German, you speak German. If you want them to read, let them see you reading for pleasure. If you want them to write, you let them see you writing out a story you have just made up. If you want them to know current events, discuss current events with them, even if that means using L1, English or whatever your students’ school language is. If you want them to immerse themselves in Russian, you stay immersed until they leave and then you can get on the computer all you want.

The whole period, you need to stay engaged with your students. This is where the term “structured” comes in; many teachers believe that structure means order, rigidity, authority, regularity, predictable, linear, and so on. Any of those features may characterize your teaching, but they are not structure. Structure lies inside the teacher’s head and is manifested in many different ways to match the needs of the classroom. As an editorial aside, this is where critics hit hardest at efforts to bring up the scores of youngsters living in poverty: the teachers resort to the most boring drill and kill routines imaginable, killing the students’ interest in learning or distorting their understanding of learning, in an attempt to give them structure. There is no doubt these children need lots of structure due to the disorganized households many of them come from. But that structure in the classroom comes from how the teacher organizes material and activities, not from rigid, linear production codes.

Coming off that comment leads me to remark that the way I believe fl should be taught requires a lot of responsibility and work on the teacher’s part. Relying on textbook ancillaries and textbook generated tests and so forth will not keep students involved nor reflect what they know. It will reflect the inadequacies of textbooks and an over-emphasis on testing.

The principle of communication is one all fl teachers agree with; in some way, the purpose of being in a fl class is to learn to communicate with someone in the target language(TL). Even if it is a dead language, the students will be reading the writers who used that language. In that sense, we are all communicative teachers. Where we differ is how to get students to communicate. We generally fall along the lines of grammar or comprehensible input. I will not go into that controversy here other than to note that most of what I write assumes an understanding that if we use the TL for communication, there is an unconscious process by which learners absorb the patterns of the TL. Some feel those patterns must be pointed out, like tprs does; others feel that continuing comprehension will lay those patterns down in the brain – the so-called non-interventionist approach; and others believe that the patterns of the TL must be explicated and practiced – the grammar approach.

Whichever one you prefer, experiment with these and other configurations of presenting the TL. Having been a communicative teacher for many years, I still teach grammar explicitly from time to time for various reasons. Most of us do. What I would warn against is extremes which lead to non-acquisition, viz. jabbering in the TL way above the students’ ability to comprehend or lecturing on a withering thicket of grammar forms. Whatever you do, do it judiciously.

I will try to get back to this tomorrow and give what I think is a good way to introduce yourself to students that first day.

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