Suggestions for language instructors

1. SET YOUR END GOALS FIRST, in terms of proficiency and performance in communication in the language. 

Then work backwards, going from more abstract to more concrete. After end goals, drop down to curriculum, then to courses, to syllabus, to lesson plans, to activities, and finally to learning objects (texts--but in the linguistic sense of the word). Pyramids are built from the bottom up, but conceptualized and designed from the top down. In other words, ‘think globally, act locally.’ Foreign Language teachers should set global goals for their students that go beyond the grammar. The ILR proficiency guidelines provide a good basis for proficiency/communication-based goals. Beware of using a given resource, such as a text book, and allowing it to become the default method. Beware of allowing your syllabus to become a column of dates and a list of text book page numbers. Connect your syllabus to your goals.


“Act always so as to increase the number of choices.” 

--Heinz von Foerster

Remember the Chinese expression ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom.’ Encourage many ideas from many sources. Practically any object can become a learning object, when inspired with intent and orchestrated by an artful instructor. Do not become a slave to technology for its own sake. Always allow pedagogical goals and principles to drive the use of technology and never vice versa

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only what you have in mind is what is being communicated. They have arrived in class with content, too, and there is ambient content in the classroom and in the other students. This is a negotiated process of social construction.   Allow them sometimes to go in a little too deep, but know how to bring them back. Good learning/teaching takes place on the border of order and chaos, which is called complexity. It is like jazz improvisation, which will establish a theme, and then develop it, and then take it almost over the edge in improvisation, and then bring the audience back to the theme. Allow the richness and diversity some leeway. It’s a question of judgment.


If global goals must go beyond the grammar, then explicit instruction in grammar must support global goals. Remember that the student “covertly” constructs and synthesizes his own grammar of proficiency, so simply give him the pieces and the context he needs. 

In short, use grammar as a short-cut, along the ‘picture worth a thousand words’ model, and plan the grammar around the communicative goals, rather than teaching grammar and then trying to find a way to make it communicative. Don't waste time on extended explanations and labyrinthine cerebral analyses. Use that time instead to practice doing real things in the language, not talking about the language.


This relates directly to the previous note about explicit grammar instruction. Don’t waste time having your students perform unrealistic tasks that even native speakers would never do. Keep a perspective about this: 

Are you trying to give them communicative proficiency in the language, or are you trying to replicate grammar instructors?   

For example, writing in lower-level foreign languages classes should be only a support skill for speaking. Little of the writing foreign language students do or can do is truly authentic. Outside academia or the realm of journalism, people rarely write books, book reviews, research papers, or essays entitled "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." And no one in the real world walks around saying how many letters there are in the Arabic alphabet, or conjugates verbs in his mother tongue. Keep a perspective about end goals. And don’t even get me started about multiple-choice foreign language final exams. 


It is an integral part of language instruction, and not just an interesting side show. Not only is culture inseparable from language; it also functions as a deep emotional attraction to students and as a deep emotional hook which physically embeds the new knowledge.

Vygotsky knew that our understanding is shaped not only by navigating the physical world, but also by our interactions with other people, all of us negotiating virtual social worlds—worlds not merely physical and apprehended by the senses, but cultural, meaningful and significant, and made so primarily by language and human symbolic systems. Human language and behavior are fundamentally cultural, deriving their distinctive properties from social activity, the conception of social systems, and the use of social artifacts. 


"All learning is in the learner, not in the teacher."

--Plato, Phaedo

This is not about you. This is about them. Forget your ego, your need to talk, your need to be seen as an authority, your need for validation. Become a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage. This extends into the physical layout of the classroom which you impose on them. Set it up as a circus theater, rather than as a lecture hall or auditorium. Strive to give them at least 50% of the air time. Allow, and encourage, that dialogues initiate from them. Allow, and encourage, interaction and communication among them. Teaching a foreign language is much more akin to teaching music or sports. Lecturing about it will have little good result. Give them the ball and let them play.
This general principle applies at the micro level, as well. Give students time to think and time to formulate sentences. Some instructors are so afraid of dead air that they will quickly supply ‘the right answer’—as if there were only one!—if there is a moment’s hesitation in the student’s response. If a cue is needed, allow it to come from other students, from teams, from partners. In this way, a spirit of collaboration is developed among the students, and real language as social activity begins. 


"When a teacher asks a question in class and a student responds, she receives not just the "response" but the student. What he says matters, whether it is right or wrong, and she probes gently for clarification, interpretation, contribution. She is not seeking the answer but the involvement of the cared-for. For the brief interval of dialogue that grows around the question, the cared-for indeed "fills the firmament." The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter."

--Nel Noddings, Caring, a Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education

"I cannot but think that to apperceive your pupil as a little sensitive, impulsive, associative, and reactive organism, partly fated and partly free, will lead to a better intelligence of all his ways. Understand him, then, as such a subtle little piece of machinery. And if, in addition, you can also see him sub specie boni, and love him as well, you will be in the best possible position for becoming perfect teachers."

--William James, Talks to Teachers

Students can be trusted to learn and to enjoy learning, but only in the proper environment, one free of coercion, criticism, and constant control.

“In the vast majority of our schools, at all educational levels, we are locked into a conventional and traditional approach which makes significant learning improbable, if not impossible.  When we put together in one scheme such elements as a prescribed curriculum, similar assignments for all students, lecturing as almost the only mode of instruction, standard tests by which students are externally evaluated and instructor-chosen grades as the measure of learning, then we can almost guarantee that meaningful learning will be at an absolute minimum.”

--Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn, p. 5

According to the findings of constructivism, students come to the language learning classroom with a conceptual framework and its well-rehearsed patterns already intact—in other words, with a set of very personalized motivations and learning styles. Teachers also bring a bag of motivating tricks, teaching styles, and strategies. A successful match ignites the language learning spark.

"If students vary in their responsiveness to different methods, which they do, and if the skills and forms of awareness that we wish to teach students are as varied as the situations and contexts of life itself, which they are, then it follows that no one teaching method can meet all the demands of learning . . . concern for method should always be a concern for methods."

--Marshall Gregory, "Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Teacherly Ethos"

Allow your teaching style to adapt to and synchronize with the multiple motivations and multiple learning styles that students will bring. Allow their motivations to contribute to the social process of learning the language. Balance the process by tacking back and forth between text and task, between inductive and deductive, between old and new, between theme and variation, etc. 

The qualities of significant learning;

  1. personally, emotionally, spiritually engaging
  2. self-initiated, i.e., even when the stimulus comes from outside, the feeling of discovery, of reaching and grasping, comes from within
  3. pervasive: it makes a difference in the behavior, the attitudes, and even the personality, of the learner
  4. evaluated by the learner. He knows whether it is meeting his needs or not and he can make adjustments to direct it

Finally, remember that teaching is a profoundly sacred practice which shapes the lives of children, of young adults, of generations, and of all humanity. 

"Love is a better fate than wisdom."
--e. e. cummings