Saturday, December 11, 2010

My Methodology of Teaching Languages

A reader asked me a while ago to describe my methodology of language teaching. Every educator has their own methodology, of course. We keep working on it and modifying it as long as we teach. One's methodology is very dependent on one's personal characteristics and preferences. I will share the system I have devised in my twenty years of language teaching, but I want to reiterate that this is what works for me in my interactions with my students. I have no doubt that other educators do things differently and are very effective.

1. I rely heavily on the communicative method, although I always incorporate other methods or elements of other methods as well. The communicative method proposes that the best way to learn a language is through communication: talking, play-acting, doing conversational group activities, etc.

2. My method is completely student-centered. At most, I spend less than 3% of class time standing in front of the students and delivering information. The rest is group activities where students produce something while I'm walking around the classroom, observing them, helping out, asking and answering questions, and directing their activities.

3. Unlike some of my colleagues, I do explain the grammar. I believe that the capacity to explain even the most complex grammar phenomena clearly, briefly and in a very organized manner is one of my main strengths. As a non-native speaker of the language I teach, I have a system of explaining grammar that is very different from the one usually taught in textbooks. I explain grammar to students the way I explained it to myself when I was learning the language. It is crucial, in my opinion, to explain the philosophical underpinnings of each grammar phenomenon, and the students find that extremely useful. I believe, for example, that the subjunctive in Spanish (which is extremely complex) cannot be mastered effectively unless one realizes the philosophical reasons behind it. Spanish subjunctive is not just a set of rules, it's a way of being. The second you understand this, you will not make a single mistake in the subjunctive ever again.

4. Every task the students carry out should result in something they produce on their own, be it a paragraph, a sentence, or even just a word. For this reason, I never bring any multiple-choice activities to the classroom. They are counterproductive and useless in language teaching.

5. Language learning is very different from any other kind of learning. Students are terrified of making mistakes and making themselves look ridiculous to their peers. Mistakes, however, are unavoidable in language learning. Everybody is going to make mistakes all the time. This is why it's so crucial to create a safe environment in the classroom, so that students feel less shy or nervous. Language classrooms are usually quite small (our courses, for example, are capped at 25). So we have an opportunity to establish a personal contact with every single student.

6. Since group work is key, I put a lot of effort into figuring out the best composition of each group for each specific assignment. You can't, for example, put three very strong students and one much weaker student into the same group. The students who speak well will simply deny any opportunity to speak to the student who takes a lot longer to come up with responses. 

7. Visual materials are key. Asking students, for example, to memorize lists of new words is a complete waste of time. It is a lot more useful to bring them sets of pictures that accompany each new word. Preferrably, these pictures should be in color. There is nothing worse than an entire language class conducted in black and white.

8. Nothing is sadder than a language class where students sit for an hour with their noses stuck in the textbook. A good language class is noisy, full of movement, laughter, fun. I get my students to move around the classroom on a regular basis. I also consider a class where the students didn't roar with laughter at least once to be a complete waste of time. 

9. The importance of cultural content cannot be overstated. We don't want the students to forget that language isn't just a set of grammar rules and vocabulary lists. It's a living entity that is shared by a large group of people. A language classroom should become a little island of the language's culture. Here, the personality of the teacher is key. Students see us as representatives of the linguistic community whose language we teach. Simply put, they need to like us and want to imitate us in order to like the language. This doesn't mean, of course, that the teacher cannot be strict, demanding and a hard grader.  I have found that if you bring a big and fascinating personality into the classroom, the students will forget to care about tons of homework and low grades.

10. In my classes, we do not speak anything but the target language. Even in Spanish 101 after I explain the syllabus in English, there is no more English after that. At first students are terrified, but I have discovered that soon enough they begin to see our classroom as a fully Spanish-speaking environment and learn to enjoy that. I met a student in the street yesterday and tried talking to him in English. He didn't like that at all and brought the conversation back into Spanish. This was great, especially given that the course was over.

11. The four major skills (talking, reading, writing, and listening comprehension) should ideally be practiced in some form in every class meeting, especially if the class meets only twice a week. For example, a class that concentrates on reading and nothing else is not going to be as effective as a class that combines reading with other skills.

12. Every group of language learners is different. No matter how many times you teach the same language course at the same university, you will have to modify your materials significantly every single time. My syllabi in language classes are a lot more fluid than the ones in my literature and culture classes. You simply cannot predict whether, say, two compositions will make sense until you meet the new group and get to know them.


Pagan Topologist said...

This is interesting. I wonder if I would have had a more satisfactory experience with language learning if I had been taught in such a way. I have always loved studying languages, but I have always become much better at expressing myself verbally than at understanding what others were saying. Even today, after decades of non use, I can formulate sentences in Polish or Chinese, but I can rarely understand what others are saying in these languages.

Anonymous said...

Do you actually make the pictures you show, or does your textbook supply them?

Clarissa said...

I find our textbooks to be mostly useless. I usually cut the pictures out of magazines and them paste them onto thick sticky pads (so that they feel more tangible and don't get damaged after every use.)

Michael Blekhman said...

Extremely interesting! I would be happy to see this material published as an article in a linguistic journal. And I would be still happier to attend at least one of your classes!

Michael Blekhman