Tag Archives: language learning

Quick and easy teaching tips for beginning language learners

I’m taking Thai 101 this semester and am keeping a private language learner diary. What I’ve realized through writing is that the class is essentially following a grammar-translation syllabus. We are learning random words and using them almost entirely to complete grammar exercises (in the half of the class that is meant for oral communication) and written translations (in the half of the class that is meant for literacy). I know nothing about Thai. That’s why I’m taking the class. But I do know quite a lot about language teaching, and I know this approach is not helping most of us progress towards a goal of being able to communicate in the language.

Last week I got so frustrated with how the class was going that I started brainstorming simple ways that the teachers could make the class more interactive and more productive for us as learners. I looked through several language teacher resource books I have collected over the years and found even more great activities. I wrote up a list and sent it to my teachers. One teacher wrote back and essentially told me that we would do these things next semester because this semester she can’t allow us to talk with each other for fear of making a mistake. (I intend to write more–a lot more–about this later. Stay tuned!)

Since my Thai teachers weren’t receptive to my ideas, I hope someone out there in the interwebs will appreciate this list.

For reading and writing

  1. Manipulatives. Give us cards with the words that we have covered so far (maybe color coded by part of speech–verb, noun, question word, etc.) and let us play around making sentences. We can start by making simple sentences (2-3 cards) and then add to it.
  2. Writing on the board. One student writes a couple words on the board in a sentence. then another student comes up and adds a word to the sentence where it fits. We keep building the sentence (even if it is silly) until we can’t add more.
  3. Which doesn’t belong? Give us four cards, where three of the words are related (for example, uncle, grandchild, child) and the fourth is not (maybe a food word). We have to read all the words and choose the one that doesn’t fit.
  4. Spelling race. Two groups of students each get a complete set of letter cards. The teacher calls out a word and the teams race to see who can find the right letters to make the word faster. Or the teams could write on the board.
  5. Strip story. The teacher prepares a story of 5-10 sentences and prints the story so that each sentence is on a separate line. Cut the strips apart and mix them up. Students have to read the sentences and put them in the appropriate order. This would be good to do with partners so the partners can discuss what the best order is.

For oral language

  1. Review families of vocabulary words. As a class, we can brainstorm (and write on the board) all the words we have learned for a group of related words, such as office supplies, stores, places, etc. Then we can practice asking and answering questions specifically about a single family of words.
  2. Dialogues substitution drills. For a single structure, we can practice a short conversation (two students asking and answering questions). Then we can substitute just a few words and practice the same dialogue with the new words. Let pairs of students practice together instead of going around the room so we get more chance to practice speaking.
  3. Draw a picture. For listening comprehension, the teacher reads a short description or dialog and the students draw a picture of what they hear. Or one student could describe a person or a scene to a partner who draws what he hears.
  4. Role play. Have pairs of students play roles (store clerk and customer, waiter and diner) and make up dialogues to act out.
  5. Opinion polls. Each student asks a different question of all the other students (for ex, What food do you like? Where do you come from? Do you go to the beach often?) and keeps a record of their answers. Then the person who asked the question gives a report to the class (2 students like Chinese food. 4 like Mexican food.).
  6. Guessing game. The teacher has a picture of an object or activity that she keeps hidden from the class. Students ask questions (What color is it? Do you eat it?); the teacher answers. Students then try to guess what the object is with yes/no questions. Then a student can choose a picture and others can ask him/her questions.
  7. Same or different? Students sit facing a partner. Each person gets a picture card with a scene (a picture of students sitting in the classroom; people eating at a restaurant–pictures that have a lot of detail). Some pairs have the same picture and other pairs have different pictures. The students have to ask each other yes/no questions about their pictures to figure out if they have the same picture.
  8. Planning a weekend trip. Students work in pairs or groups of three to make plans for a vacation for the whole class. They need to choose where they will go and what they will do there. Then each group presents their ideas to the class and tries to convince the other students to choose their plan. The class can vote on the best proposal.
  9. Question and answer cards. The teacher prepares a set of cards with questions and another set of cards with answers to those questions (could have more than one answer to the same question). Students get one question card and at least one answer card. They have to ask their classmates their question and try to find who has the answer to their card, while also answering questions from other students.
  10. Telephone messages. Give each student a telephone number. Students act out calling another student and leaving a voice message with the phone number to call back.

In case you’re wondering what these great books are, here’s a bibliography:

Adams, N., & Childs, L. (1981). Word sponges: Enriching ways to soak up spare moments. Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymour Publications.

Klippel, F. (1984). Keep talking: Communicative fluency activities for language teaching. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P. (1988). Grammar practice activities: A practical guide for teachers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P., & Wright, A. (1992). Five-minute activities: A resource book of short activities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Filed under Teacher Education, Teaching, Teaching Writing

Those who can, teach

It’s trite, but an essential component of a good teacher is deep knowledge of one’s subject matter. The old saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” is not only offensive to the dedicated, overworked and underpaid professionals who work day in and day out in classrooms around the world; it is also wrong.

Of course there are some people standing in front of students with no right to be where they are. Some people go into teaching because they think they will get summers off and only work 6 hours a day. Others went into teaching with a sense of purpose but were worn down by years of disrespect and are now just biding their time until they can collect a pension from the school district.

But the vast majority of teachers I have met (and I have met a lot over the last several decades) care immensely about their students as well as their subject matter. They have more education (minimum of a bachelors degree, but most have masters degrees and many have doctorates) than the general population. They have studied their subject matter AND child development. They have chosen their profession because they earnestly believe that young people are worth teaching, that the future of our nation depends on having educated residents who know how to think critically about the world.

What differentiates a good teacher from another subject matter expert, however, is that she also has what is called pedagogical content knowledge. This is essential–a teacher may not have complete knowledge of her subject, but she needs to know how to convey what she does know to her students in ways that will allow them to learn the concepts and understand them.

I think language teachers may be more maligned than most, in part because of the way that language in general, and bilingualism even more so, are not valued in the United States. Further, language learning is often considered (in the popular mindset) as something that anyone can do, as long as you have exposure. Thus, this belief goes, anyone who speaks a language can teach it, without any particular preparation. This phenomenon may account in part (combined with a general American fear of foreigners, especially those who want to settle permanently in the US) for English language development is relegated to teachers who don’t have any particular preparation for teaching language. ELD is tasked with the massive feat of teaching newcomers survival English, teaching longterm residents academic English, and preparing all of these students for the challenges of mainstream content classes.

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