Throughout this semester my view on FL teaching has changed dramatically. First off, it has been my first opportunity to teach (anything at any level) and I did it as a GTA this semester in SPAN 2313/2314. Upon starting this position I quickly realized that teaching a foreign language is not as simple as it appears, in fact it is a very complex and engaging process. Also for instructors, it is not just enough to rely solely on speaking skills to cruise through teaching grammar, vocabulary, and culture, but rather a very thorough knowledge of all aspects that you are teaching in order to explain and answer student questions in the most articulate manner. It has been a challenging experience but at the same time very rewarding. Taking this MODL class has served to shatter my previous thoughts on effective FL teaching strategies and dismissing old teaching myths. By dismissing the old ways and utilizing new or more effective techniques, I have noticed a substantial difference in the way I teach, and the positive responses from the students affirm this.
One of the oldest myths that was shattered for me was that dealing with methods of teaching vocabulary. Since I had never taught before, I had no idea how to teach vocabulary, or even an idea of how to effectively teach several new vocab words per chapter. The traditional way was to have long lists of vocabulary with an adjacent English translation. This of course is not very intriguing for the students to just sit down and memorize words, especially since every word could be different in different cultural contexts. There are several better ways to teach vocabulary. My favorite adopted method is using several pictures on a PowerPoint slide that are not labeled. I then ask the students to tell me the name of each of the pictures in question. This helps students with pronunciation as well as being a more interesting learning style. For my part, I give a definition using the word or use it in a sentence (both ways in the target language). I learned that if one is unsure about the cultural context of a word in a foreign language, you can use Google image search and change the Google search to fit the country that the word has its context in.
Another aspect in FL teaching that I was given a new perspective on was the listening aspect. I was not sure how much speaking in the target language was necessary or how much speaking in the target language was “too much”. Recent findings have shown that at least 70% of the teaching should be done in the target language. Yet on the subject of using too much of the target language, there really is no such thing as long as the teaching itself is done well. One of the most remarkable FL teaching stories I learned of this semester dealt with the language immersion school in San Francisco, California. The video that was made available through PBS showed the progress of young kindergarten students, middle school, and high school aged students. The results were very impressive. 1st grade students (possibly older) that were put into a Chinese immersion class were taught by a teacher that spoke only Chinese. Yet by using hand gestures and pointing, the students were able to vaguely make sense of what she was saying at the beginning. Later on in the school year, those same students had a much greater grasp of the language (listening). This was evident when I saw the teacher giving the students instructions and advice on their Chinese character writings. After speaking with the teacher on a one on one basis the students returned to their work. The video later went on to show a student (around 5th grade) who had spent some years at the school and his speaking abilities were close to a fluent Chinese student of the same age. The students at this language emergence school also take other courses in the target language, like mathematics or science courses. One very interesting aspect was that the instructors do not reveal the fact that they know English at the early levels. This is similar to the study abroad experience that I had while studying Portuguese in Brazil as an undergrad. Our professor never revealed that he spoke English until the final day of class. He even studied at the University of Pittsburg and we had no idea! I think this worked out well for the immersion aspect because it forced us to push ourselves harder in developing speaking and listening skills. I have used both of these situations as my cornerstones for avoiding the use of English in the classroom as much as possible. At first it was very easy to fall into speaking English when things weren’t going well or the students didn’t understand me. This is a habit that I was able to break with persistence. Sometimes this would require saying things (in Spanish) in a different way, or at a slower pace, or even dramatizing with hand gestures. The students have responded well to my increased effort and I am glad that I was inspired to make the change. As much as it well help the FL learners to hear more of the target language in the classroom, there is still a large void that is left as far as getting the appropriate amount of listening hours. This time, aka “time on task” can be made up outside of the classroom through various mediums.
It is technology that provides us with the best and largest variety of options to improve time on task. This was well demonstrated in the ever helpful University of Texas at Austin FL teaching module website. The section on technology was presented by my former undergraduate Spanish phonetics professor Dr. Orlando Kelm. He created a website called “Tá Falado” that is comprised of several interviews with native Portuguese speakers from several different dialectical regions of Brazil and Portugal. Listening to these exercises gives the FL learner a fun and convenient way to practice listening and learning colloquial speech that is culturally relevant. Also, the students have the option of changing the subtitles to Spanish or Portuguese or even not have any subtitles. There are also several podcasts that are available and blogs that students can share their questions and experiences. This helps facilitate group learning and the professor can look at these blogs and tailor his/her lesson plan on aspects that the students are having trouble with. Many of these podcasts and language vocab boosters are very convenient for students because they can be listened to in the car, iPod, or pretty much anywhere. Therefore, increasing time on task is easier and more enjoyable for both the students and the professor. There are several other technological options that instructors can use in teaching like YouTube videos, Google reader (which allows for reading actual newscasts), and music/ music videos. While teaching for my SPAN 2314 class I used two cooking videos that demonstrated vocabulary that was just learned and the formal commands that were in the grammar section of the chapter. The students responded well to this and it was good to have a video that was both culturally and contextually relevant.
On the issue of reading, the UT Austin website was once again a huge help. It was a lesson that I had to put into immediate practice in SPAN 2314 as I was scheduled to teach two different stories that pushed the students’ Spanish comprehension and reading skills to their limits. Before beginning the stories, I learned that I should give a good review of background and cultural context beforehand. I followed through with this while teaching a story called “El Recado” which dealt with machismo in México. I thoroughly explained the concept of machismo and the social atmosphere at the time in respect to traditional male and female roles in México. In doing so, it made it allot easier for the students to grasp the underlying themes and symbolism that were in the story.
Some other exercises that prepared me to do this were the teaching segments that we did in class (MODL 5305). Through trial and error I was able to realize how much preparation and effort was really necessary to teach a story in a foreign language. The first time that I presented a story in Portuguese to a small group of classmates I had not practiced reading over the story enough and while reading it aloud I found myself confused on two of the words I was teaching (they had similar meanings). I was eventually able to correct myself after I misled the students briefly. The presentation would have gone so much smoother if I had read the entire story aloud beforehand instead of skimming over it. In dealing with the teaching segments that were done in front of the entire classroom, there were many other side factors that one had to take into consideration in order to maximize the effectiveness of their teaching segment. External factors like light, sound, position, and clarity can easily become a hindrance to the presentation if not dealt with properly. For instance, there is one side of our classroom that is better lit than the other, therefore making it the ideal side to choose for writing on the chalk board. Furthermore, facing the audience that you are addressing is crucial in maintaining their attention. It is very easy to fall into the habit of staring at the power point (or whatever visual is being used) while speaking to the students. In order to avoid this, the instructor should be very familiar with his/her own power point and have practiced it a couple of times. Testing the students on the material at hand is another great way to make sure they are paying attention. This could also include class interaction or having them repeat vocabulary out loud. The class’s energy usually parallels that of the instructor’s energy and enthusiasm.
When I became conscious of all of these teaching aspects, I realized how many different facets of my FL teaching I needed to improve on. There are so many different features to FL teaching (including the ever growing technological options) that I will always have something to improve upon. This class has served to help me develop new teaching techniques for every aspect of FL teaching and working with other students has given me several new ideas that I would like to try out in my future classes. We learned that having our students work together in groups helps to facilitate more effective learning and it also held true in our MODL class since I have learned so much from my fellow classmates on perfecting the art of FL teaching.