19 quick changes you can make today that will make you a better language teacher

better language teacherIn a recent article, I asked the question: Are you wasting your money on language classes?

The article made the point that, while classes can help with your language learning, the reality is that they're probably doing more harm than good.

So where does this leave language teachers?

Well, I believe that language teachers need to up their game, and in this post I'm going to say exactly how.

From years of experience of language learning, teaching and teacher training, here are the 19 most powerful improvements you can make today to become a better language teacher, and change the lives of your students for the better.

Let's get into it…

19 ways to become a better language teacher

1) Don't teach grammar unless you know your student needs to know it. The fact that a certain grammar point is in the textbook is not a rationale for teaching it.

2) If you catch yourself saying: “Open your textbook to page ___” …stop! Don't open the textbook unless you know exactly what exercise you will do and how it will help address a specific issue with your students.

3) Talk more about yourself. Then ask your students more questions about themselves. The more you get to know each other, the more natural discussion will happen.

4) Teach less, discuss more. Students need to come to their own understanding what new language means. Discussion gives them the opportunity to test their ideas and creates an environment in which they are comfortable to ask questions. Without discussion, they are always reliant on what they are told by you. That's teaching, but it's not learning.

“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed”
― Paulo Freire

5) Ask your students what their goals are. Students need to know for themselves where they're headed, rather than being reliant on you to guide them. They won't be able to take responsibility for their own learning until they know this for themselves. They probably have unrealistic expectations, in which case you need to set them straight and show them what is achievable and how much work is involved.

6) Have your students be continually assessing their own strengths and weaknesses rather than telling them what they are yourself.

7) Never teach a word on its own. If you're teaching a new word, put it in a sentence. If you drill it, drill the complete sentence. Always teach vocabulary in context.

8) Spend less time on reading, listening and writing in class. Instead, give students substantial amounts of this to do in their own time, then dedicate class time to questions and discussion.

9) Be more concerned with how to help your students learn outside class time, than with teaching them things during the lesson. There will never be enough class time for students to learn their target language properly, so your focus needs to be on what happens outside class.

10) Don't be afraid to give your opinion on issues that come up in class. Doing so show your students how language is supposed to be used and encourages them to speak their mind. Language is never neutral.

“The educator has the duty of not being neutral.”
― Paulo Freire

11) Before you use any text or audio in class, spend a few minutes talking about the topic. Everything needs to be put in context. Listening or reading to something “cold” is neither realistic nor helpful for learning.

12) Use the students' mother tongue. Whoever told you that teachers must never use the students' mother tongue in class only said so because they haven't learnt it themselves! Don't hesitate to give explanations of complex language issues in the students' mother tongue – it's clearer and a more efficient use of time.

13) Give fewer answers. Instead, guide your students to find them for themselves.

“I never teach my students, only create the conditions in which they can learn.”

– Einstein

14) When you ask a student for the answer to a question, also follow up with “Why?” Demand evidence for the answers they give you. This encourages critical thinking.

15) Every activity you do in class should focus on either “meaning” or “form”. You must always know which is which. If it's a “meaning”-focused activity, encourage discussion and communication. If it's a “form”-focused activity, then spend longer on accuracy and correcting errors.

16) Always respond to the message. Whenever you have your students do any writing, remember that, fundamentally, what they are doing is communicating. Therefore, don't just correct their mistakes. Respond and react naturally to what they write. This encourages them to focus on communication first and foremost, and to remember that grammar is only a function of communication.

17) After a speaking activity, spend time talking about the “outcome”. What was discussed and how do students feel about it? Then, give students explicit feedback on their speaking – what did they say that was good? What did they say that could be improved?

18) Stop thinking of yourself as a teacher. Instead, consider yourself a coach, who works together with students to help them discover what they need for themselves.

19) Always be a language learner yourself. You can never realise your potential as a language teacher unless you are also a language learner. Language learners face many challenges – psychological, social, motivational – only some of which have to do with actually understanding and manipulating language. You cannot understand how to help them if you're not also struggling with these things yourself.


So there you have it!

Language teaching tends to be an undervalued profession.

We actually know very little about how languages are learned, which makes the job of teaching a language an extremely difficult one.

After all, how can we teach something that we don't really understand ourselves?

Well, the answer is to do everything we can to create the conditions in which language learning can take place. 

And the advice in this post is my best answer to that challenge so far!

Do you know any language teachers? Why not send them this post in an email, or click here to send a Tweet?

Image: vincekamp

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