How can teachers bring modern languages to life in the classroom? Davinia Hardwick, formerly a British Council English language assistant and now Head of French at a UK school, gives us her tips.
Use the target language in lessons
The more you expose your students to the target language, the better. Occasionally, speaking English may be necessary, but a lot of the time, it is not. Immersing your students in the target language helps them use it more independently and this can lead to increased confidence and better vocabulary.
Students enjoy listening to ‘real people’ speaking the target language, so get your colleagues involved. If a teacher with some knowledge of the target language comes into your classroom, involve them in the immersive experience. If they are struggling, the students can help them improve their language skills. If they already speak to a high level, it shows the communicative value of language skills. Encourage students and staff to use the language, even if they make mistakes, and emphasise that communication is the key.
Language assistants are able to provide support to teachers, particularly those who haven’t spoken the language at a native-speaker level. They provide an authentic teaching resource and listening experience for students. Interactions between the language assistant and the class teacher inject linguistic spontaneity into the classroom. Similarly, you could invite a fluent speaker into the classroom, perhaps a friend or a colleague from another school, as a guest. Anything that shows the target language being used in practical situations will emphasise the value of the language as a communicative tool. Use lots of different tools to aid the natural use of language in the classroom as well, such as commands, instructions, and greetings.
Encourage students to adopt a hands-on approach to language learning
Students need to be involved in tasks they find interesting in an environment where active and successful learning is encouraged. Students make the most progress when they are enjoying themselves. Competitions and quizzes keep motivation levels high, and rewards for communicating in the target language in the various skill areas offer chances for constant self-improvement. The smallest of tasks, such as matching pictures to words or phrases, or even word searches, can be turned into competitions – against the clock, first to finish, fastest class, etc.
When I was a language assistant in Canada, I discovered that rewards and prizes were very effective motivators, so I brought pens and stickers from home. I also used photos and props to teach my students about life in the UK and had reward and progress charts on my classroom walls. At university, I was a keen hockey player so I took my stick and ball into my school in La Beauce and my students had a go at dribbling around the classroom.
Some of their favourite lessons were ones like running dictation. They worked in pairs: one student would read a piece of text that I had taped to the wall at one end of the classroom, then run back and repeat it to their partner who would write it down. They really enjoyed active tasks. Students also liked activities such as 'Who am I?’ where each student has a post-it note with the name of a famous person on it on his or her forehead. Students walk around the classroom and can only ask questions which require a yes or no answer, such as ‘Am I a man?’. Competitions to see who can guess the most famous names in a certain amount of time always work well.
As I’m keen on sports, my Québec students would tell me about different sports that are popular in Canada. They encouraged me to learn to snowboard and skate, which provided an opportunity for cultural, as well as linguistic, exchange.
Never forget, grammar is the foundation for building language skills
Communication is a crucial part of language and so is grammar; they need each other. Effective lessons strike this balance between the two so that students can learn, enjoy and make progress in their target language.
Grammar is the foundation for building language skills. Learning grammar enables students to speak and write more accurately, confidently and fluently. I have found that asking students to explain grammar rules to each other and to the rest of the class gives them more confidence. It also indicates to the teacher whether the grammar needs clarifying or explaining. By teaching each other, they also consolidate their own knowledge or discover holes that need filling.
Do your students have a particular way of remembering certain grammar rules? Include games, activities and video clips that use the grammar points you are teaching.
Teaching in the UK, I subscribe to Linguascope, an interactive language teaching and learning website which students really enjoy. I also use YouTube for clips and TaskMagic for games. Discussions with colleagues often bring about some of the best ideas.
Language is cumulative and must be consolidated outside the classroom
The more you learn, use and practise the language, the more accurate and fluent you become. Repetition and practice are essential to many skills, and this is especially true when learning a language. In order to consolidate classroom learning, you must repeat and revisit grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation work regularly with your students. Activities such as singing songs, filling in the missing words and memory games where they are asked to match words and pictures can be helpful. Use repetition to practise the language, as students need to hear it to practise pronunciation.
As language learning is cumulative, it must be consolidated outside the classroom. This can be done as homework by setting regular vocabulary tests that require revision outside of school time, and also in school clubs. Give your students some language to practise at home so they take something away from each lesson. Lots of students enjoy teaching their parents what they have learned in their language lessons. Having taught English as a second language and now teaching French in a UK school, I have become more aware of the need to repeat and revisit grammar and vocabulary tasks.
As a revision game, I play 'Je vais nominer ...' ('I will nominate...') My students love this game. At the end of a lesson, two to three minutes before they leave, I start this game to recap what we did in the lesson. Nominate a student to start, for example: 'Je vais nominer Max'. Then, 'Max, comment dit-on ‘five’ en français?’ ('Max, how do you say 'five' in French?). If the student answers correctly, they can nominate someone else. The objective is to not be the student speaking when the bell goes! It's great for revision of a lesson, speaking practice, confidence and quick thinking! 'Throwing Words' is another good starter or end-of-lesson activity for repetition of vocabulary. Say a word or write it on the board and throw a soft ball to one of your students. The word they say must begin with the last letter of your word. They throw the ball to someone else, and so on. The possibilities for this game are endless. Have a competition, set a time limit, have teams, include categories, and so on.
Bring language and culture alive in the classroom
Highlighting cultural as well as linguistic differences is an essential part of language-learning. It can spark your students’ interest and encourage independent learning. Teach your students about the countries where the target language is spoken, as well as the language itself. Have your students seen any French television programmes or films? What do they already know about the cultures of the countries where the target language is spoken? What else do they want to learn?
Bringing the language and culture of the countries where the target language is spoken into the classroom means your students become more motivated to learn. Organising email pen pal correspondence offers a way for students to learn about their peers abroad. The practical challenge of writing to them and understanding their replies will provide an added incentive to further their language skills. Cultural trips to the cinema or to a country where the target language is spoken show students that the target language is spoken in the real world and has practical uses.
Language clubs can also provide an informal setting to practise speaking and understanding the target language, do homework or discuss the culture of the countries where the target language is spoken.
When I worked as a anguage assistant in Canada, I taught my students about the Welsh language and culture and ran competitions. A successful and fun competition was to see who could best pronounce the longest name in Wales. I introduced this challenge early on in my assistantship and finished up with the results when I left. I felt that my position as a young native speaker helped motivate my students to speak English. On a day-to-day level, I brought an up-to-date look at the language and culture in what was a very fulfilling and rewarding 12 months of language teaching and learning, discovery and fulfilment.
Davinia Hardwick worked as a British Council English language assistant in Québec, Canada, in 2000-2001. She was Modern Foreign Languages Teacher of the Year, 2014. She is now Head of French at Llandrindod High School and also teaches Welsh.