Teaching Languages: Essentials to Start the School Year
Teaching languages is hard work. It is also fun, rewarding, and an essential for raising global citizens.
When I started teaching languages, I worked at a private school in New England, and then taught at a university in Seoul, South Korea. These were great experiences, yet very different to my career teaching languages for an overseas K-12 system. Each year I have the goal of improving a few parts of my practice.
Set up your classroom.
I like to think of my classroom as my target language country, language laboratory, classroom and theater all in one. When they step into my room, they’re going to be learning about new words, new ways of seeing things, new places, geography and meeting new people. My classroom needs to be conducive to teaching languages.
With regards to everything that’s visual, a word wall or survival word wall is absolutely essential for beginners, and helpful for more advanced students.
I also love to have visual culture. This helps make my room a place where they can see and experience the products, practices, and perspectives of this new culture.
For me, the thing that’s most essential about the physical environment is that it can be quickly adapted into circles, rows, tables and that all of the desks can be pushed out of the way. While I do lecture for short periods of time, I need students to be able to have dynamic and flexible groupings, room for projects, games and role-plays and ways to change the room easily and quickly.
One thing I wish I knew more about when I was a young teacher was about basic classroom organization. My older, wiser self now has a table where I have everything students could possibly need. I have markers, crayons, colored pencils, a stapler, pencil sharpeners and a shelf where I put all my extra copies for the entire grading period so students who are absent can easily find them. I even have a basket where I place any abandoned pencils or pens. This is the place for things like tissues and tape. I also keep recycling paper and let students do exercises or take notes on this paper. Students can go there for anything they might need without needing to ask me.
Early in my teaching career, I had the benefit of spending a day with Harry Wong. As he will tell you, most of what he teaches is really simple common sense, but we get so overwhelmed with so many other duties and responsibilities as teachers sometimes I think we can forget some of the simple things. Not surprising at all. Don’t teachers make more decisions than air traffic controllers?
Wong said a few things that truly resonated with me and have been hugely impactful to me. First and foremost, he says not to worry about any content instruction for the first two weeks. He’s not saying that we should sit around and do nothing. However, we should think more about the routines and procedures in our classrooms, how things are done, making sure students know how to ask where things are, how to do things, where to turn things in, etc. and train them in the way that our specific classroom runs. This is brilliant for language teachers because we can spend the first couple of weeks working on these class routines WHILE teaching languages, using the target language for all of our classroom commands and teaching students our routines.
Some of my routines are going the calendar every day, learning lots of commands, learning how to do everything in our classroom in the target class language (i.e. bathroom, drink, nurse). I even write them specifically into my lesson plans every day.
Wong said that students have enough problems with their friends and they don’t need any more friends or problems, so ever ask them how they are. They just need for you to let them know that it’s nice to see them. This is great because we can teach lots of different positive greetings in the target language. These class routines are also a great opportunity to help students use that word wall that you created.
Find your tribe.
I SO wish social media was where it is today when I first started teaching.
I love all these teachers on Facebook and Instagram sharing their classrooms, their ideas and offering one another support. Do a quick Instagram search and find some people who teach your language, as well as teachers who teach other languages. They will be an invaluable source of support, inspiration and ideas.
Pinterest. While Pinterest is a great place to plan a wedding, a party or find recipes, it offers so much more than that. It’s a search engine, a place to find and save your ideas, find inspiration, see other classrooms and get professional development. I find that this is one of my most valuable resources for teaching languages.
Have at least 10 to 15 games or activities that are super fun and take very little prep that you can use at any time. I think this is really important because we need to maximize the time we have with our students. For many, it’s the only time they’re getting exposure to the target language. What we also teach can be perceived as really hard by some people. Having fun ways to let students practice that content really takes the edge off.
Please see this link to 10 Instant Games you can use in any language class.
Teachers Pay Teachers. You probably already know about this, but find some teachers to follow. And don’t forget if you’re feeling tired, hit the search button and find some easy ready-made materials for what you’re teaching the next day and get your time back. I share materials for language teachers in my store here. I have been teaching for a long time, and also love to use the materials I have purchased. There are lots of great teachers on the site sharing their ideas that can make your life a lot easier.
Fun, relevant professional development.
Early on in my career, my Spanish wasn’t nearly as strong as it is now. We also didn’t have all the great resources where you could improve your skills from anywhere in the world available then.
I’m a passionate teacher and learner of languages. With that said, there are lots of rough spots in teaching languages. I also know that not all of my students share my passion for being able to speak in multiple languages.
Living in different countries and having lived with people who speak different languages, learning languages beyond the ones I teach has been a necessity in my life. One unexpected benefit that has come out of my independent study of languages is having a much richer understanding of how languages are learned and can be taught, as well as finding fun engaging resources to bring back to my classroom.
One of my very favorite language learning tools right now is Netflix. They’re producing content globally and their library of content in different languages is growing. There’s even an extension called Netflix For Language Learners. It’s the ultimate tool to have fun and learn a language at the same time. There is also an abundance of resources for teaching languages there, too.
Organizations like ACTFL, AATSP, TESOL and AATF will serve as a great resource for language teachers at any stage of their career. Their conferences will leave you inspired, invigorated and looking forward planning and teaching your next lesson.
With the connectedness we enjoy today, many teachers are offering their own professional development. Tune into the MFL Twitterati podcast and Ditch that Textbook to connect with other language educators.
If you don’t know about it, check out this link here where I talk about italki in the language classroom. You can also use it to improve your own language skills.