How to Be a Good Language Teacher: 11 Tips to Help You Succeed in the Classroom and Beyond
If you’re reading this post, you’re already on your way to becoming a good language teacher.
And no, I’m not just saying that because I wrote this post—though I’m reasonably confident in what I wrote!
The fact that you’re reading this means you’re willing to improve yourself in some way, which is a hallmark of a good teacher in my opinion.
Ready to learn how to be a good language teacher? Read on!
- 1. Learn the Finer (Read: Technical) Points of Your Native Language
- 2. Get Certified in the Language You Want to Teach
- 3. If You Can, Take Some Courses on How to Teach in General
- 4. Tailor the Learning Environment to Your Students’ Specific Learning Needs
- 5. Don’t Forget Your Students’ Age and Level, Too
- 6. Use Positive Reinforcement Liberally
- 7. Give Your Students a Solid Reason to Want to Learn
- 8. Link Language Lessons to Your Students’ Interests
- 9. Make Sure Your Students Actively Participate in Their Own Learning
- 10. Give Responsibility Where It’s Due
- 11. Take Constructive Feedback Seriously and Gracefully
1. Learn the Finer (Read: Technical) Points of Your Native Language
I cannot stress this enough: just because you’re a native speaker of a language doesn’t mean you’ll be able to teach that language well.
For example, if you’re a native English speaker, you instinctively know that “their,” “there” and “they’re” mean different things even if they all sound the same. But if you want to explain why they’re different to someone who didn’t grow up speaking English, you have to be familiar with concepts like “(possessive) pronouns,” “contractions” and “homonyms.”
Granted, you don’t want to bombard your students with terminology, either. But you have to know the technicalities of your native language so your non-native speaking students can easily grasp why a certain grammar point applies in some contexts but not others.
If you don’t have a degree related to education or linguistics, you can always use these language learning resources to get you started on your journey to becoming an expert language teacher.
2. Get Certified in the Language You Want to Teach
After going through all the language learning resources I just mentioned, you need rock-solid proof that you’re qualified to teach your students’ target language.
Usually, you achieve that by taking and passing language proficiency tests. Through these, you can demonstrate that you’re skilled in all four of the major language competencies: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
Keep in mind that these tests typically have limited validity dates, so make sure your language certificate remains valid throughout your teaching career. Your employer will probably remind you to do that anyway, and your students will be thankful that you’re going out of your way to keep your skills up to date.
3. If You Can, Take Some Courses on How to Teach in General
It’s one thing to be knowledgeable in the language you want to teach. It’s another to teach it.
There are many ways to teach languages, and some of them are more effective in certain contexts than others. If you have a solid background in education, you can figure out what your students need faster than someone who doesn’t have that background.
This isn’t to say that formal education, by itself, will make you a better language teacher. As you’ll see in the next sections, “soft skills” matter just as much—if not more than—”hard skills” like your linguistic knowledge. But formal education can give you the tools and framework you need to build the foundation upon which your language teaching skills will stand.
Don’t have the time or resources to enroll in a four-year education course? The great thing about the internet is that it helps you pick up practically any skill, as long as you know where to look for reliable and in-depth sources of information.
For example, Harvard University has a number of online teaching courses you can take and get certified in. You can also head over to places like Coursera and edX for more accredited courses taught by teachers from some of the best educational institutions around the United States.
4. Tailor the Learning Environment to Your Students’ Specific Learning Needs
You may have a solid grasp of how to teach students in general. But do you know how to teach your students in your classroom? The best teaching method for your specific situation depends on what will work best for the particular group of students you’re teaching.
For example, if you have a classroom full of visual learners, they might benefit from educational video content. If they’re auditory learners, they’ll probably learn best from the audio-lingual method (ALM) of teaching. And if they’re kinesthetic learners, you can give them a ton of modern foreign language (MFL) activities.
But what if they all have different learning needs? That’s where your creativity as a language teacher comes in. Mix and match the activities you incorporate in the classroom (whenever they’re appropriate to the language lesson you’re teaching), so no one gets left behind.
5. Don’t Forget Your Students’ Age and Level, Too
A language learning classroom will look significantly different depending on your students’ developmental stage—that is, their chronological age and emotional maturity. These two things usually (but not always) have a direct relationship with each other.
Younger students, for instance, may benefit from activities that incorporate total physical response (TPR) methods, which give them an outlet for their immense amounts of energy. They also learn best from visual tools, since they’re probably still at the stage where they’re learning to write by hand.
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 two 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.
6. Use Positive Reinforcement Liberally
Essentially, positive reinforcement consists of rewarding the behavior you want your students to continue.
A great example is using specific and intentional encouragement and praise whenever it’s warranted, like:
- Nice job!
- Great point, can you further clarify?
- Stick with it!
- You’ll get it!
- You learned that fast!
- Well said!
Phrases like these can mitigate your students’ frustration, doubt, insecurity and even lack of interest in the target language.
Positive reinforcement also requires you to be empathetic and attentive to your students’ needs. For example, if you see a room full of confused faces when you teach them a complicated grammar point, slow down and ask, “How’s this going? What’s the trickiest part of this?” Remind them that you too were a student back in the day (just like them), and that they’ll get it!
7. Give Your Students a Solid Reason to Want to Learn
Inevitably, you’ll encounter students who, for one reason or another, seem bored, uninterested or just don’t want to be there. If you continue to try to teach these students without getting to the root of their lack of interest, it’s going to feel like pulling teeth out of a whale.
That’s why it’s important to infuse passion, playfulness and creativity into your classes. Make sure there’s an abundance of fun, immersive activities to keep your students engaged.
If, despite these activities, you still notice a few students struggling to get motivated, you can ask them these questions in class:
- 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?
By (gently) reminding them of why they’re in class in the first place, you may just give them the push they need to keep going.
8. Link Language Lessons to Your Students’ Interests
For example, if many of your students are on a certain social media app, you can use popular posts from that app as learning tools. If you have athletes in the class, incorporate sports activities into the lesson.
Not only will this allow you to teach vocabulary and grammar points that your students will actually be interested in, but you’ll also create a positive connection between what your students love and the language you’re trying to teach them. Eventually, your students may learn to love the language itself outside of its connection to their personal passions.
9. Make Sure Your Students Actively Participate in Their Own Learning
Students who are actively engaged in their lessons are more likely to absorb what they’ve been taught than those who aren’t.
If you notice that a student (or two) seems to be hesitant to raise their hand in class, you can discreetly request to see them after class, and ask what’s going on. Avoid being confrontational in your approach—you want to come across as a concerned teacher rather than an intimidating authority figure.
You can ask something like:
- I’ve noticed that you don’t raise your hand in class whenever I ask a question. Is that something you’re not comfortable with?
- As a teacher, I’m concerned when I notice my students aren’t participating in class, because there’s no way for me to know whether they’re actually learning or not. If you have any questions or concerns about the lesson or how the class is being conducted, please feel free to let me know.
In all your interactions with your students, make sure they feel heard, safe and respected. This way, they’ll be more willing to make mistakes in class and participate regardless of whether they get the answers right or not.
10. Give Responsibility Where It’s Due
Even if you’re the absolute best teacher in the world, it’s important to keep in mind that learning is a two-way street.
You can use all the tips, tricks and pedagogies up your sleeve, but if your students aren’t motivated to learn at all, then there’s only so much you can do. If your students are having problems at home that are serious enough to interfere with their studies, you probably won’t be able to solve those problems for them—not on your own anyway.
However, you can always offer them constructive feedback on how they can do better in class. Here’s a more in-depth article on how you can do just that.
11. Take Constructive Feedback Seriously and Gracefully
As I’ve said, learning is a two-way street. If you have the right to give your students feedback, so do they.
Pay attention to any common threads in what different students are saying. What do most of them like about your class? What don’t they like about it? By knowing the answers to these questions, you can figure out your strengths and how to play to them, as well as how you can improve your lessons and classes in the future.
It’s also important not to take criticism personally, even if it’s phrased in a way that seems like the critic has qualms about you as a person. For example, if someone says, “You’re a bad teacher!,” you can take a deep breath before you respond and say, “I see. Can you be more specific about what makes me ‘bad’?”
As you’ve seen, these tips on how to be a good language teacher don’t only cover your language skills.
More importantly, you need to know how to connect personally with students, encourage them to learn creatively and collaboratively in ways they enjoy and respond to their unique preferences and needs.