How to Teach a Language

How to Teach a Language cover

This post is aimed at language teachers, but may be of interest to learners of foreign languages too. Besides, we do get a few Kiwis who are keen to travel the world by teaching English overseas.

Marty Pilott has recently published a book entitled How to Teach a Language.

Marty is a linguist who has been involved in studying, teaching and writing about language for over forty years. He has taught ESL and English in the UK, Iran and New Zealand and given presentations on language teaching in New Zealand, Australia and China, as well as learning languages while travelling or in classes. He is the author of text books and editor of a range of language texts. Currently he is working on a PhD on how employers accept migrant pronunciation. He has written this text to share his extensive knowledge of good teaching practice.

We recommend all teachers of English and foreign languages check this out. If you're a language learner and keen to understand a bit more about language teaching, this is useful for you too. You can purchase How to Teach a Language from in paperback ($21.98) or kindle ($3.99) format.

Here we publish an extract from his book:

Chapter 2: Central concepts of teaching

The time problem

Most people don’t have the option of studying a language full time, so your learners may have no more than a few hours a week to gain the proficiency they want in your language. This means that your time – and theirs – is valuable. In this brief amount of time you want to develop your learners’ skills as quickly as possible, which means teaching effectively (your methods work really well) and efficiently (no time is wasted). This doesn’t mean that each lesson has to be turned into a grim language factory – far from it! Learning a language should also be fun, otherwise learners will be put off or lose interest. But if the teacher uses effective teaching methods then the learners are going to have fun, enjoy the lesson and learn twice as much in the time.

How much time have you got?

You can estimate how much progress your learners are likely to make in the time available. For courses which run for only a couple of hours a week, the total may be very small – but this is where effective teaching and learning will make the best use of your time.

Let’s start with a full time course in English as a Foreign Language, as studied by many overseas learners. Full time study is about 25 hours per week, and it takes three to four months to move up one level in IELTS, the standard examination for overseas students enrolling at many universities. That’s 300-400 hours to move from, say, Elementary to Pre-Intermediate. So if your class is two hours a week for ten weeks, then you have only 20 hours in which to achieve a significant change – a pretty big order. But please don’t give up! There are some pointers in favour of your learners.

  • Full-time learners don’t really learn for 300 hours – the actual learning time may be half that, taking into account how much time is being used effectively and attentively. Learners in short classes can give the language a higher level of attention.
  • You can ensure your learners are working in between classes
  • You can teach them how to learn better
  • They may have family or friends to help them practise
  • You can use this book to make sure you are using the most effective teaching methods.

So if we agree that TIME IS LIMITED, we can work on a strategy to overcome the shortage of time.

Strategies – a quick summary

Use effective teaching methods

If your activities use effective ways of teaching, your learners will remember much more. Chapters 4 and 5 in particular will explain how to do this – as well as some do’s and don’ts.

Plan your course well

If you are well organised, then your lessons will run smoothly, and every minute will count. You also need to keep your learners engaged. You may be busy all the way through your class, but are your learners? What are they doing while someone is reading aloud, or while you are talking with another learner? Plan your lesson so that each learner always has a task to do. Chapter 4 provides effective teaching methods and techniques and Chapter 7 explains ways in which to plan your lessons.

Have some good resources to teach

It’s all very well reading about the theory of teaching, but it’s much harder to convert that theory into actual classroom practice. This book describes communicative language teaching, but what does that mean when you have to put a lesson plan together? Chapter 6 gives examples of resources  you can use to enhance your lessons.

Teach learners to be independent

To make progress, your learners will have to make use of time between lessons and become independent learners once they have finished your course. Most people don’t know much about learning a language and become dependent on their teachers, but this is not going to help them once the class finishes. If you provide your learners with these skills they will be equipped to learn faster and to go on learning. See Chapter 5 for suggestions on how you can do this.

Base the course on your learners’ needs

Learners will be far more responsive if you are doing what they want and need, but this doesn’t mean constantly changing your lesson plan every time someone asks a question. Chapter 3 explains how to do this.

Manage your class effectively

Becoming more learner-centred means that the teacher needs new ways of making sure that they are still in control. Chapter 4 shows you how to organise and manage a classroom, and use your lesson planning to ensure that management is not a problem for you.

Adapt classroom lessons to 1-1 work

Working 1-1 with a learner is very intensive and does not have the opportunities for group work. However, planning for variety is still important. Find a variety of sources, including authentic written material from newspapers, magazines and the internet; and use a variety of voices and accents by downloading audio and video samples of language. This also takes some of the pressure off you to “perform” the whole time.

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