How to Be a Good Language Teacher: 7 Tips for Success
Are you a good language teacher?
I certainly hope you are! And if you’re reading this, at the very least you’re motivated to improve, even if you’re already excellent.
But even if you’re an amazing teacher, you can probably think of a language teacher who wasn’t so great.
This may come as a shocker to many of us, but being an expert in the language you teach doesn’t necessarily translate to teaching well!
While your language acumen is undoubtedly crucial, it’s only one prerequisite to awesome teaching.
Just Because You Can Speak a Language, Doesn’t Mean You Can Teach It Well
Let’s do a quick example. Think back to one of your favorite language teachers from your past. What was it about them that you remembered and adored so fondly?
I’ll bet you it wasn’t their knowledge of the language!
Yes, if you want to become a language teacher, you need to know how to explain grammar concepts like conjugation, comparisons and tenses.
And yes, you must also have the language proficiency and skills to easily pass the standardized language tests, and you need to be competent in writing, reading, listening and speaking. And of course you should have the ability to explain key grammar skills clearly and effectively in the target language…but is that all?
So the million dollar question is: Besides your language skills, what else is vital to awesome language teaching?
Make That Connection
The often overlooked ingredient to awesome teaching is your ability to connect with your students, even difficult ones, on a personal level, in ways that may have little to do with the language you teach, the materials you use or the specific educational methodologies you implement. The American Psychological Association has even said that this connection is crucial for students’ social and academic development.
That’s what this post is about!
The relationships you construct with students may be just as important (if not more important) than your language knowledge.
This means tuning into and expressing interest in your students’ interests and personalities. This is often what allows you to build positive, long-term relationships with your students, and those relationships often become magnificent catalysts for students’ language skills to grow.
Students feel comfortable and push themselves to learn, grow and practice language with native speakers when they feel respected, comfortable, safe and somewhat connected to their teacher. They need to feel that their teacher actually cares about them in order to take the risks necessary to venture out of their comfort zones, make mistakes and learn!
So beyond your language abilities, it’s paramount to construct helpful, supportive relationships with students. This brings us to our next million dollar question: As language teachers, what skills are necessary to cultivate and maintain helpful and supportive relationships with our students?
Let’s go over my 7 tips!
How to Be a Good Language Teacher: 7 Tips for Success
1. Personalize the Learning Environment
How do students respond to your lessons and educational activities? Do they give you any feedback? What kind?
Awesome language teachers are able to cater to the specific needs and preferences of each class and manage each classroom by implementing adjustments that favor students’ language learning. A basic example of this is discovering what your students enjoy the most, whether it’s doing hands-on activities, incorporating apps and tech, reading stories, practicing conversation or making a game out of conjugation drills. They’re much more likely to learn and remember language vocabulary and patterns when they’re enjoying themselves—as long as it’s a little challenging, of course!
Language learning can already be challenging enough when we’re having fun. Imagine trying to learn when the activities put you to sleep! Awesome language teachers don’t let this happen because they’re able to connect with students and let them influence their pedagogic choices.
2. Infuse Hopefulness
Your level of hopefulness is contagious. It inspires students to learn and believe that they can pick up the language! Try to use verbal, specific and intentional encouragement and praise (such as “Nice job!” “Great point, can you further clarify?” “Stick with it!” “You’ll get it!” “You learned that fast!” or “Well said!”). This is what helps allay their frustration, doubt, insecurity and sometimes even mere lack of interest in the language.
In this sense, effective language teachers need to be sensitive enough to detect where students are emotionally regarding the language and tailor their educational activities appropriately. This implies responding empathically to the language’s complexities.
For example, this may mean taking a mental note if you see a room full of confused faces when you teach them a complicated grammar point. If that’s the case, slow down and ask, “How’s this going? What’s the trickiest part of this?” and remind them that you too were in their shoes as a student back in the day, and that they’ll get it!
Hopeful teachers are sensitive to students’ discouragement, which lets them readily assuage it and validate students’ feelings. The truth is that languages can be especially difficult, and we play a central role in encouraging students and believing in their abilities and efforts. It’s crucial that they notice your hopefulness, as it’s part of the effective helping relationship that propels student to learn, try, practice, study and grow!
3. Infuse Passion
Infusing passion, playfulness and creativity into your classes is essential as well. Classes have an unfortunate tendency to feel drab or routine if you don’t use stimulating activities or if you do the same thing every time, and that’s even truer if your students perceive their previous language teachers as boring, uninspiring or too demanding. You most likely won’t get anywhere with those kinds of students if you don’t spark their interest in the language beforehand.
To light that spark, both you and your students should consider and discuss these questions: Why is this language so useful to learn? How can it benefit your lives? What’s so amazing about learning this language? What are the tangible and non-tangible advantages of learning it?
Taking some time to infuse passion into the language will help you appropriately challenge their knowledge of the language and push them to learn.
4. Be Connectable
As previously mentioned, there is a schism between your knowledge of the language and your teaching skills. Therefore, your ability to connect and form relationships is a vital skill. Many of us have had accomplished language teachers in high school or college who didn’t teach us much, despite their expert status in the language.
This is likely because we felt they didn’t understand or care about us. Or possibly we perceived their classes as unstimulating or too challenging. Our job is to discard the specialized language and learn to explain key language concepts, patterns and ideas in ways that students can relate to.
For example, if they love Snapchat (or whatever app is popular this week), use it as a learning tool. Or if you have athletes in the class, incorporate sports activities into the lesson.
Make the language more connectable and “friendly” for students by using mnemonic devices, stories, songs, pictures or anything else “out of the box” that links the language to the students’ lives in a personal way.
Your ability to do this well stems from the professional relationship you build with your students, which we know by now is crucial to their learning!
5. Elicit Student Participation Often
Effective teachers elicit student participation as much as possible. Studies show that student participation is directly related to successfully learning a language. Passive, quiet students most likely aren’t learning as much as those who participate actively and regularly. If you notice a more reserved student, there’s no need to panic; just make your approach more collaborative.
You can ask something like, “How can I make this a better experience for you so we can work together?” If it’s especially problematic, you can say, “I’m not sure I’m being clear, so could you let me know when I’m not, or ask questions, so I know I’m not losing you?” Again, the importance of relational skills (connect-ability) cannot be overlooked, as students will participate more when they feel respected by you, and that it’s safe to make mistakes.
6. Be Hyper-aware of Your Students’ Development
A language learning classroom will look significantly different depending on a group’s developmental stage. Remember those language teachers who went too fast for us? Or too slow? Remember how frustrating it was? This doesn’t need to be us! We can be the ones students remember for decades to come. It’s all about tailoring our classroom to our audience.
With younger students, for instance, language learning should integrate visual tools, playful activities and less reading and writing (because they’re still learning to write with a pen). Development doesn’t only refer to students’ chronological age, but also to their overall level of emotional maturity.
Language learning is a challenging endeavor, and students ideally should gradually learn to handle the discomfort of feeling confused and needing you to clarify points along the way. Their prior language knowledge and experience, as well as their intellectual capacity, also especially matter.
As you learn where your students are in their development, you’ll get a better feeling for things like the optimal amount of time to spend on each activity (which can usually range anywhere from 2 minutes to over an hour), which activities don’t work well with which class, when it’s time to incorporate new activities and which parts of the textbooks are too advanced.
7. Hold Students Accountable
I saved the most important tip for last. Remember that the most effective teachers can’t “make” a student learn or pass the class if the student doesn’t focus, engage with the language and put in the effort. Students should ideally always work hard too! Whether students learn, pass or take advantage of the classroom is also a reflection of their effort, and not only your teaching abilities.
While this is comforting news, by no means does it nullify your role in being the best teacher you can be, in connecting with them, caring about them, tuning into their needs and catering your teaching activities accordingly!
But ultimately, if your students don’t bring their focused brains, they can only learn so much!
You could have the highest language acumen in your city, but being an awesome language teacher encompasses much more.
Beyond your language skills, teaching well ultimately depends on your ability to connect personally with students and to encourage them to learn creatively and collaboratively in ways they enjoy, and to respond to their unique preferences and needs!
Jason Linder, MA, is a doctoral student and intensely passionate Spanish tutor and blog writer. In his free time, he enjoys Telenovelas, traveling around Latin America, meditation, yoga, exercise, reading and writing. Learn more about his free Spanish learning resources and tutoring.