Let’s stop teaching and let our students start learning

This morning I was reading through the most recent issue of The Language Educator, and the focus topic for this month is EMPOWERING LEARNERS.  As always, there are several articles that address the specific focus topic, but one quote in particular stuck out to me, because it’s exactly the way I feel about “teaching” language classes:  “I never teach my pupils.  I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn” (from Greta Lundgaard’s article “Designing for Motivation”).

Sure, it seems easy, but what exactly does it mean to stop teaching?  What can we be doing as instructors to get out of our students way and really help them along their path to proficiency?  Here are a three ideas to consider:

  • Encourage exploration and don’t let mistakes give you the false impression that learning isn’t taking place.  If you’ve been around kids who are learning to talk, you’ve heard the funny little mistakes they make: “I eated a sandwich,” “My snack was a apple,” etc.  My favorite is the “You [I] want to go play” mistake.  My youngest sister called herself “DU” (she learned German as her first language) for probably a month or two before she learned that if she was talking about herself, then her sentences would start with “ICH.”  And how do we correct kids that make these and other small pronunciation or grammatical mistakes?  We repeat the correct phrasing back to them or sometimes just gloss over it if it’s not important at the time.  But how many adults refer to themselves as “YOU”?  I don’t know of any because exposure helps to enforce correct structures.  So, let us remove our focus from students making mistakes, especially when they make them because they are making leaps to new constructions.  We see this often with students who are gaining confidence in the conditional forms.  They may pass into hypothetical phrases without understanding the grammatical requirements behind them (especially because we native English speakers rarely use correct grammar!).  Let us, instead, be careful to vary our error correction methods to prevent fossilization of errors, but focus on the importance of students learning to effectively communicate.  Spontaneous production is sacred territory for our beginning and intermediate students, so let’s be sure we reward their experimentation.
  • Tailor your classes to the students’ interests.  One of the things that has always irked me is the false view of language, literature, and culture departments as service departments or general education requirements satisfiers.  It is our responsibility to demonstrate to our students (as well as our colleagues) that languages and cultures are integral to the study of all other things.  My last two teaching positions have been at institutions with large music schools, which meant that the first year classes were filled with musicians.  Therefore, the integrated culture of my first year courses was very different from other classes where there may have been more of a literary or cinematic focus.  In the years in which the STEM students were more represented, our focus changed to the scientific history and contributions of Italy and their options for study abroad at the Politecnico.  In other words, it’s important to find the interests of your students in the first few days of classes in order to build your units appropriately.  This also helps students to see the links between their primary course of study and how languages can be tied in easily and meaningfully.
  • Let the students lead.  As some of you know, I am a big fan of abandoning a textbook if it’s not suiting your needs and building a course that has no primary text.  This also increases your freedom to let the students guide you.  When we remove the necessity of sticking to a prescribed vocabulary list or sequence of grammatical structures, we are able to shape our thematic units based on where the students lead us.  When students are engaged, they want to learn and when they sense that their interests are shaping the course, they are more willing to actively participate. **If you’re interested in a workshop on teaching without a textbook, check this out!**

Just as the audio-lingual method gave way to the communicative approach for language instruction, so has the role of the instructor changed with the emphasis on the flipped classroom and the emphasis on the World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages.  Let’s lean into these changes as they allow us more freedom, our students more effective approaches to learning, and more meaningful outcomes for all.


The other night I participated in a webinar sponsored by Vista Higher Learning, in which a high school French instructor from Washington State discussed how technology can be seamlessly integrated into language courses and utilized in Formative and Summative Assessments.  Catherine Ousselin gave a great talk and a plethora of free tools for language and culture instructors, giving creative and insightful tips on how to integrate these tools into the flipped of modified classroom. The CILC will now vet those tools and bring you the most efficient and effective for potential uses in your classes – stay tuned for a full review coming soon!


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