What Makes a Good FL Teacher?

This is an article I wrote for the Sept. issue of Le Canard Dechaine, a journal for French teachers. If I can get a url to the journal for you, I will.

what makes a good language teacher ? H ow can we, as language teachers, improve our students’ use of a foreign language? Is it enough that teachers know their foreign language well, or must they also know certain methodologies that facilitate teaching the language? Are there other factors that influence how well one teaches? As a former high school language teacher and department head, I had to think about those matters throughout my career. This note suggests what I believe are the attributes of a good teacher. I strongly believe that we should teach in accordance with our personalities. For the foreign language (FL) teacher, the enjoyment of and enthusiasm for a classroom full of young people is the key. Without that, we are automatons making no connection, and for the FL teacher, that is a pall under which neither learner nor teacher can thrive. Connection is what language is. Each foreign language teacher brings certain talents and abilities to the classroom: some persons are native speakers, while others may have a tentative grasp of the second language gained in college classrooms. Some may have lived in an environment where the foreign language is spoken, but what counts is the drive, energy, and, most of all, good will, with which a teacher infuses the classroom. It should be obvious that I would have been chary of hiring anyone who felt any culture or nation was superior to other cultures or nations, or that any language was superior to other languages, or that any student was similarly superior. When I was department head, and we were hiring, everyone expected me to query prospects on communicative teaching and other methods. I did not do that; I queried them on their experiences with young people and their enthusiasm for their language. The words “inclusive” and “diversity”—often tossed around in a boiler plate fashion—must be the watchwords for the FL teacher. After all, the teacher is opening a new culture to the students, so bringing in native-speakers, authentic articles from the culture, and festooning the classroom with pictures and especially memorabilia from one’s own trips abroad greatly enhance the learning environment. Methodologies: Most teachers of French (and other languages) are familiar with many of the concepts discussed below, but for those who are interested in learning about them further, I would suggest three resources: Hadley, Alice Omaggio: Teaching Language in Context (Heinle & Heinle, 3rd edition, 2008; pp. 498). This book first appeared in 1986, but has had several new editions since then. Its author, professor emeritus of French at the University of Illinois, Urbana, created a breakthrough in teaching for proficiency methodology with this book. She covers virtually all methods one can use for teaching languages. Shrum, Judith L. and Eileen W. Glisan: Teacher’s Handbook: Contextualized Language Instruction (Heinle & Heinle, 5th edition, 2015; pp. 528). This is a good introduction to second language acquisition theory and practice. Krashen, Stephen: several videos and on-line books. One can watch and read them by Googling the author’s name. I will have more to say about Krashen at the end of this note. Everyone expected me to query prospects on communicative teaching and other methods. I did not do that.

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All the above provide you with a welter of ideas to make your classroom a good place to be. Which methods, then, are best for teaching any foreign language? Over the course of twenty-five years, I went from grammar teacher, to communicative teacher, to comprehensible input teacher. Along the way, I tried to find out how and what students learned as well as what aspects attracted them to my classes. As much as I hate to say it, I found no absolute, scientific proof that any particular method is the most efficacious. If there were one, we would all be using it just as we all use antibiotics, with no question as to their efficacy. Having said that, let me offer a few guidelines on methodology: First: Study different methods of teaching languages and, if possible, take classes on different methods. Many are available on-line. Second: Talk to as many FL teachers as you can. Observe their classes, and, if possible, delicately chat with the students to see (a) how they feel about their class and (b) how much of L2 they really acquired. The two are related. During the past two decades I have seen so many requests from teachers seeking a “fun way to teach the subjunctive” that it has become a standing joke among my friends. Students would frequently make spontaneous comments to me like, “This is my favorite class,” or “I really like this class,” or “I enjoy this class so much,” that I would ask them why the class was enjoyable. The most common response was, “Because this is the only class where I learn something.” Now that is the key to making students feel good about the class: not games and movies but real accomplishment: the ability to hear, read, and understand another language. The basis of that can be seen by watching two-year olds; they work themselves to death carrying boxes and other junk from one side of a room to another, working, working, working. Any teacher who considers his students lazy should examine what he is doing in his class. People are not inherently lazy and do not like chaos; they do love to work and to learn. That must be kept uppermost in the teacher’s mind. Third: Record yourself teaching and have colleagues observe you. When you first play back what you recorded, you will probably be appalled at how poorly you taught. That is good, for it will show you areas where you can improve. In your next class, you will certainly be better. Record that class too and others after it. If you also invite colleagues to observe your teaching, they will probably be able to point out other things that you can do better. Fourth: Try to find out what your students think about you and your class. You could, from time to time, have an open discussion in class about what is happening there. Fifth: Keep up with the language you are teaching. Read books, magazines, newspapers in the language, particularly if they talk about things that interest you or your students. Watch shows on TV, in movies, on the Internet, or in a local theater. If possible, attend conferences and, of course, travel to the country of your L2. Develop local resources such as, for example, a book club with literate native speakers of the L2. You can then invite members into your classes. Sixth: Be flexible. For some, that is very hard because their personalities require a highly structured, rigid approach. You may have covered the textbook, but did your students come along with you when you did? A buoyant personality and an ease I found no absolute, scientific proof that any particular method is the most efficacious.
The key to making students feel good about the class: not games and movies but real accomplishment: the ability to hear, read, and understand another language.

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with people help. You can develop those abilities as you go. Seventh: Experiment with new techniques you read about, or that other teachers suggest, or that you learn at conferences. Eighth: Part of being a professional FL teacher is to have a library in class. Unfortunately, I have often seen FL teachers with no dual-language dictionary in their classroom, nor anything else that could inspire their students. While no particular method for teaching language has been proven to be the best, I would like to recommend a methodology that I have found to be excellent: Look at the “Pagoda” YouTube video of Stephen Krashen (Google krashen video pagoda or, for other lectures, Google krashen video). He is probably the most wellknown—if most controversial—second language acquisition research and theory (SLART) figure in the world. Around 1975, he developed five hypotheses about second language acquisition and started a revolution. Many researchers in the field disagree with Krashen’s ideas, principally his thesis that the explicit teaching of grammar is useless. Students can learn about a language, but our ultimate goal should be to teach students to use the language. Few native speakers of French know how many tenses it has (17), but if you know all those, including the passé antérieur (e.g., j’eus eu) and the passé surcomposé (e.g., il a eu parlé), that would not mean you could tell a man how to tie a necktie without using his hands. Students should not be required to know something about a language that native speakers do not know. You cannot learn to play a violin simply by studying a description of what you should do to play it. You must play it, however poorly it will initially sound, and you should not be afraid of making mistakes. Krashen acknowledges earlier theorists who had the same idea about grammar. It can be harmful. Look what happened to Latin. As Diane Musumeci shows, [Breaking Tradition: an Exploration of the Historical Relationship Between Theory and Practice in Second Language Teaching (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997. pp. xiii + 142)] medieval Latin teachers used similar methods, but when grammar teaching entered Latin classes, the language began to cease being a medium of communication. The parallels with Latin and current L2 instruction are disquieting. While the word “radical” has taken on some negative connotations due to its use in politics, given the poor results in proficiency that have marked our teaching of languages in this country, Krashen’s radical transformation is appropriate. Let us then be enthusiastic about teaching languages and have our students learn to speak freely and easily, even if they use the plus-que-parfait without knowing its name.


  1. Hi Pat,

    It’s been a while since I “dropped by”, so there’s a lot to read. I do want to comment on this post, though.

    This past weekend I attended a conference, and the keynote speaker was Shawn Achor, happiness researcher and founder of GoodThink. What he had to say has application to our situations as teachers, as well as other aspects of our lives.

    First, he defines happiness as “the joy you feel in pursuit of your potential”, which is part of the reason why hard work can produce feelings of happiness, contentment, joy. But if the work is not meaningful or part of the pursuit of our potential, then it can be simply onerous. Joy can accompany pain, and it turns the brain on to its highest problem-solving ability. Happiness does NOT equal pleasure.

    Second, optimism does not negate reality but recognizes it even when it is horrible. The difference between optimism and pessimism is not in recognizing problems that exist but the lens through which we view them and reality. Pessimism says that we cannot change things or people; optimism says that what I do matters, and I can change both things and people.

    Third, the brain is designed to be wirelessly connected to others. Numerous studies show that people pick up all sorts of (seemingly) invisible cues that help us synchronize our attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors to the dominant paradigm. The existence of mirror neurons is part of this. The practical application is that the person who is most demonstrative about his view will set the tone for the group – either positive or negative. If we want to create an atmosphere of optimism and happiness, we need to express our own happiness enthusiastically because happiness is both a choice and contagious.

    In an experiment at a hospital, the staff was trained to make eye contact with and smile at anyone who came within 10 feet of them and say hello to anyone who came within 5 feet. Results included the following: patients began to adopt the same social norms without ever being taught them; the quality of care went up; patient satisfaction with care went up; referrals went up; happiness increased.

    Finally, the three greatest predictors of success are
    1. Optimism: the idea that my behavior matters
    2. Strong social connections
    3. Perception of stress as a challenge, not an agent of disease

    I think this speaks to your comments about teacher attitude. We have a profound impact on the atmosphere in our rooms and the attitudes of our students. I love greeting my students on Monday morning with “Heute ist Montag. Hurrah!”

    And here is a quote from Greg Thomson, formerly of SIL and creator of the Growing Participator Approach to language learning: “A language is not an academic subject. A language is something that happens between people in flesh and blood. That is where it is. That is what it is. No more. No less. Individuals experience the world individually. That is called perception. Communities experience the world together. That is called language.” http://wolofresources.org/language/4cuteprinciples.htm

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      I sense that everything the presenter said accurately reflects what goes on around us. I have always been suspicious of “brain-based” though b/c I’m afraid people take a little bit of science and spin it to support their own ideas. But I like this guy’s ideas. Re testing: Tons to say about it but I will insist on my observations, not that they give the whole picture or are unfailingly accurate, but that they are mine: many teachers use tests to get back at kids – note the teacher’s comment I put in one of my flteach posts. A lot of positive thinking is required to teach and the optimism he speaks of comes by minutes on the heels of a discussion on C-SPAN about current politics and race relations (Sherryl Cashin and Norm Ornstein) and whether or not they were “optimistic.”

      1. I agree that teachers (how many? Not sure) use tests to get back at kids. I believe (from observation) that school officials (teachers, staff, administration) are not above bullying students because they can, all too often, get away with it. Achor distinguishes among realistic optimism (My behavior matters), unrealistic optimism (Problems? What Problems?), and pessimism (It doesn’t matter what I do). He also maintains that it lies within our power to choose our attitude and the lens through which we view reality.

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