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Q Becoming a teacher of modern languages – why do we do it?
Q ML teaching – easy option or nightmare?
Q How to cope with the four skills
Q Where do feelings of failure come from?
Q What is the secret of success?
A It is the only available career which really appeals to you, and you have no idea what will be involved
A Far more difficult than you expected, but also far more rewarding
A Break down your tasks into simple units with which you can feel secure
A Trying to do too much too soon
A Retaining the enthusiasm of your learners
In at the deep end!
Welcome to the modern language teaching profession! For some years now you have enjoyed travelling to the sunnier climes of Europe, and imbibing the fruit of the vine (there is no avoiding it!) You have admired the style and verve of the unEnglish, and cannot deny that you have picked up a little of their eloquence and elegance yourself. As a result you have come to feel that your true vocation may lie in this area. But you have a problem. At last the hour you have long dreaded has arrived – graduation. Your student loan has reached unheard of proportions and neither the state nor Daddy will support you in your chosen way of life a moment longer. Decision time has arrived – you must leave the groves of academe and find a job.
Air stewardess or translator?
You have dismissed the idea of becoming an air stewardess or steward (how old is too old?), or a tour representative (adore package tours?). You would really love to do translating or interpreting (bilingual or a genius?) and highly paid secretarial work is tempting (speak two foreign languages and like offices?). Somehow you are not quite suited to any of these. So what remains? Well, as your mother used to say, 'there is always teaching'. Suddenly, you look at teaching in a different way and it begins to assume a rosy glow. Yes, you had left school vowing never to go back, but wait a minute, what about those long holidays and early afternoon departures? The teacher friend you have in France who spends every afternoon on his surf board? Permanent contact with the foreign country you love, and all those free school trips? The respectful hush in the classroom and those eager faces looking up at you, yearning to be filled with knowledge? And, best of all, sitting on the other side of the desk at parents' evenings – revenge at last? You quite like children, they quite like you, so why not teach them French, Spanish, Italian or German? What could be easier? After all, this is a profession where you start with many years experience at the receiving end, so it's obvious that you know how it's done. In no time at all you will have the whole class rattling away like native speakers!
First encounter with the National Curriculum
When you arrive at your first school, however, you find it is not quite as you imagined. You find that you are not, after all, going to do your own thing. A considerable shock awaits you. You are introduced to that great national monument: 'The National Curriculum'! This document strikes fear into the heart of the boldest of readers. There are also frightening things called SATS, regular national tests to reveal exactly what your class has (or has not!) learnt, and something else you had forgotten all about – classes of bored children! Even, yes, children who do not like French, Spanish, Italian or German and have no desire whatsoever to learn them. It is hard to imagine, and it is not what you had expected. At first sight, you are discouraged by the enormity of the task before you. But do not fear, this is a normal reaction. What could be more natural? Teaching languages is not an easy option, and you are beginning to find that out. Language learning is divided into four areas, and the skills required for each are all quite different. Not only do they vary greatly in difficulty but each one requires completely different teaching methods.
Do not be afraid, all is not lost. The good old National Curriculum, scourge of teachers who were in schools during the early nineties, need no longer fill you with dismay and feelings of inadequacy. Its complexity was beyond human comprehension, and I am proud to say that I lived through the introduction of the original document, which divided up language teaching into myriad tasks of unbelievable complexity, all written down in excruciating detail using almost incomprehensible prose. Thanks to the teacher troops who went over the top before you, and their vociferous protests, the new and modified NC slipped quietly in with the new millennium, and is a considerably simplified document. Don't worry about it. Just find out from your co-ordinatorhowit is interpreted in your school (because all is in the interpretation), and get on with it.
Taking the bull by the horns
Ignore the National C. for the moment, but don't forget to keep your eye on the ball. What is the ball in language teaching, you might well ask? The ball, I'm afraid, is examination success. That is what you will be judged on, what your school will be judged on and what you will have to have in mind from the earliest years. The four skills to be examined will be listening, speaking, reading and writing. In real life, all the skills are learned together in an interconnected jumble, but in the classroom, you have to be aware of each separately. It's simpler therefore to divide your teaching task into these four areas from the beginning. Ask yourself exactly what has to be learned in order to be proficient in each of the four areas:
(1) Listening and responding = lots of practice in listening to tape recordings of authentic French and answering questions about them. Main problem: finding sufficiently easy material at the right speed for the first year or two.
(2) Speaking = memorising and repeating fluently some common conversations. Main problem: motivation.
(3) Reading and responding = learning a wide range of new words (including different parts of the verb). Main problem: avoiding boredom.
(4) Writing = memorising and writing, with correct spelling if possible, some simple material e.g. a short letter. Main problem: many children cannot achieve this in their own language, let alone a foreign one ...
You are not Hercules
I have enjoyed working with foreign language teachers both here and abroad and I have found them on the whole to be, like me, a conscientious lot. I suppose learning to speak a second language involves a touch of perfectionism in the first place. To be done successfully it must be done correctly, and with a good eye for detail. Chemistry teachers do not expect every pupil to become a chemist, but second language teachers really do want every pupil to speak good German, Spanish or whatever. This expectation sometimes creates extra tension in the learning process, raised teacher blood pressure, and debilitating feelings of failure. These feelings of failure stem from:
The three common delusions of the beginning ML teacher:
(1) Children want to learn the language you want to teach them.
(2) Learning a foreign language is easy.
(3) All you need is a good coursebook.
A learner teacher in a no-win situation
I began teaching with no teacher training whatsoever and therefore underwent a long period of probation. Part of the probation procedure involved the headmaster standing outside my door and listening to what was going on inside! A somewhat riotous atmosphere had developed, as tended to happen, inexplicably, to my lessons in those days. My headmaster was a gentle and kind man, and naturally concerned. He enquired in a well-meaning sort of way, what exactly I had been doing at the time of his inspection. I explained to him innocently that I had been writing out on the blackboard the difference between the Perfect and the Imperfect tense, with examples and questions, the whole of which they were supposed to be copying into their exercise books. I could not understand his raised eyebrows. This was a Year 10 class, what could be more useful, essential even, for them to learn? The fact that they were not listening, learning (or doing) anything at all, had escaped my idealistic notice. I was too busy imparting knowledge. Aside from issues of class control (!), this was the moment of my first, and most important realisation – you can only teach learners what they want to learn.
You can reduce your stress levels
If you are working with mixed ability classes, accept from the start the fact that you are not going to be able to teach all the things on our skills list to all the children. Divide the learning load up into what you can realistically hope to achieve, and do not try to teach everything to everyone. Some will never learn to spell in French, some will never write well or at all. You are not to blame. This is not to do with good or bad teaching, it is to do with the innate ability of the child in those particular areas. Always bear in mind that a child is unlikely to be able to do in French what he cannot do in his native language. The different levels of exam paper allow for these ability gaps, and setting will hopefully transform the situation in Years 10 and 11. So do not worry too much about writing for the first two years, and concentrate on what the class can do. Do not discourage yourself and do not discourage the children.
Beware of 'old fogies'
The staffroom is a very important place for you, especially when you are new and lack confidence. This is the place where you will forge your identity, and where you must acquire most of your information and feedback. Assemblies and department meetings are not enough. Listen and you will find out how the school works. Most of your colleagues will be supportive, especially those in your own department. But never assume everyone will be on your side. As in any other group, each staffroom has it's quota of individuals with personality problems. If snide comments are made, ignore them, and don't take it personally. Within a day or two you will have picked up which are the colleagues you can learn from and work with, and which are not. You will also quickly identify who are the 'old fogies'. These are the people who have been at the school since time immemorial. They can be of use on matters of information such as where were surplus tape recorders stored before the inspection of '89, or how do you get keys for the store cupboards in your room, but ignore any comments they have to make on teaching methods. Their teaching methods will be as prehistoric as their careers. If one of them should start to mutter in the staffroom about yours, just remind yourself, silently of course, of their doleful French classes, and remember the lack of enthusiasm or achievement they engender by their noble pursuit of 'high standards'.
Simplification is everything
Around you in the staffroom you will notice teachers with a wild-eyed look. Say nothing – it is from too much reading of the National Curriculum. Take care not to become one of them. Just think of it like this – the class has four or more years to acquire the following, in order of difficulty:
(1) a large store of new words;
(2) recognition of new words by hearing only;
(3) fluency in common conversations;
(4) spelling of new words;
(5) ability to write from memory some simple material.
Let's narrow this down even further. For the first two years you can safely ignore the last two requirements. So you have only three main areas to address from the beginning. This is reassuring. Of course, there still remains the problem of the sheer volume of material to be covered, but that is not where your real difficulty lies. As a new teacher, your most challenging task is not the passing on of knowledge. If this is the only thing you have in mind, and if you dedicate your teaching time to it, you will be disappointed far more than you are satisfied, and your lessons will be dispirited affairs. You will find that learning is not taking place as you had hoped, in fact some children will be wasting their time. Only the bright few will be achieving anything.
You are on your own
What you have to do is to harness your own enthusiasm into finding ways in which to engage, and retain, the initial enthusiasm of the beginner. And there is only one way of doing so – by providing success and enjoyment in all your learning activities. And only you can do this. I have suffered from a common delusion throughout my teaching life. It is to do with coursebooks. It is particularly strong whenever a new course is introduced by one of the language publishers. The delusion consists of a belief that the new course will provide everything that my classes need for successful learning. Looking at the expensive, brightly coloured new coursebook, full of cartoons and quizzes and puzzles, you may know the feeling: how can I fail? Many of the latest courses use humour to good effect and have a splendid variety of materials and activities, attractive layout and beautifully coloured illustrations. (Visit the Centre for Information on Language Teaching in Covent Garden before you buy anything – you can see it all there). They have an air of gaiety and promise about them too, which is vital. But they are not enough. All is in how the teacher uses them. You will find this from the very first page. The most entertaining coursebook can be as dull as ditchwater with a dull teacher, and they cannot inspire a class which does not want to learn. Only you can do that. A course like this can be an important, even an essential, aid but in the end, you can rely on no-one but yourself to create the atmosphere of excitement and interest which will keep your classes learning over the long term. Before we go on to think about teaching methods which will achieve this, let's think about what I consider to be one of the main causes of lack of enjoyment in modern language learning – anxiety.
Q Does speaking in a foreign language come easily?
Q If fear of failure is normal, how can we get rid of it?
Q What does an anxiety-free first lesson for any age group look like?
Q Is homework fun?
Q Is homework assessment always possible?
Q Apart from thumbscrews, what techniques can be used to extract work from homework defaulters?
A Most of us find speaking to an audience intimidating, even in our own language
A By making sure the task is within their grasp
A Give them a very short speech act, attractively presented, and lots of practice
A I have not yet found a way to make homework fun. Other things are always more fun. Please write to me if you have!
A It has to be as constant and inescapable as the sword of doom. It is the onlyway to actually get homework done by all
A After one chance to catch up at home, it must be done at school in their own time
Anxiety – the demon of foreign language learning
Even confident adults find speaking in front of others difficult. Ask any best man. To speak in a new and strange language is even more intimidating. Children dread it. This is a perfectly natural reaction and one of the main reasons learners 'don't like French!'. It is your first and most important task to reduce this anxiety, and there are many ways in which it can be done. Firstly, have a friendly chat with the class before any teaching and share their anxiety. Make it clear that what they are feeling is normal. Then point out that we are all born with an innate speaking ability which varies from person to person and is not under our control. It can be developed, obviously, but with wide differences in effort needed. Some will find it easier to learn to speak a foreign language than others, just as some are born better performers at athletics or music. They will easily accept this idea, and be relieved. Perfection is not expected after all! Tell them that some will learn a lot, some less. Speaking ability is not a matter of intelligence. Make sure they understand that the speaking ability we already have when we approach a new language is to do with how well we speak in our own, which in turn depends on how much we have spoken, and been spoken to, in our lives so far. To achieve a good standard, all we have to do is practice. Remove the idea of failure. Fear of failure is the main reason learners hold back from speaking in a new language.
Excerpted from "How to Teach Modern Languages – and Survive!"
Copyright © 2001 Jan Pleuger.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
|Chapter 1||Keeping sane||4|
|Chapter 2||Creating confidence||10|
|Chapter 3||Your best friend - the Overhead Projector||17|
|Chapter 4||Close encounters of the flashcard kind||22|
|Chapter 5||Every child's birthright?||30|
|Chapter 6||A star is born||35|
|Chapter 7||The importance of the visual||60|
|Chapter 8||Working independently - the French folder||70|
|Chapter 9||Open evenings||79|
|Chapter 10||School visits - the day trip to France||87|
|Chapter 11||School visits - the exchange||106|
|Chapter 12||The four skills: listening and responding||119|
|Chapter 13||The four skills: speaking||126|
|Chapter 14||Target language||137|
|Chapter 15||The four skills: reading and responding||144|
|Chapter 16||The four skills: writing||155|
|Chapter 17||The sound of music||168|