How to Teach a Foreign Language in High School: 5 Tips That Will Keep Your Students Coming Back for More

“Know your audience.”

(Before you open your mouth.)

It’s as good of a piece of advice as any other, and is applicable not only in sales and public speaking, but also in teaching foreign language—a rarefied form of sales and public speaking.

So do you know what goes on inside the heads of your high school students?

What makes them tick? What is it that interests them?

Would you like to know? In this post you’ll learn how, and you’ll also come out with five explosive tips for holding court in a roomful of vibrant high school students.

Teaching Foreign Language to High Schoolers

Every language teacher dreams of teaching effectively, of knowing that the lessons they’re lobbing daily are hitting their marks and helping their students master the language.

But how do you get to that place? How does one teach effectively to high school students?

Well, it’s really simple. You need to know the people sitting behind those desks. You need to know what works with them. Take careful note, today’s high school students are of a different breed. Okay, they might be as bold and seditious as teens of previous generations, but they have something else that those folks didn’t have.

And what is that?

Technology. Every generation has theirs, and this one has smartphones, hypermedia and high-speed internet.

Yesterday’s teenagers call back irate when the pizza doesn’t arrive within 20 minutes. Today’s teenagers go ballistic when the internet connection goes down for two. They’re also warming up to the idea of drones delivering anything and everything they can purchase online.

In addition to the usual suspects of issues and concerns that high school students always have, technology has shaped so much of their experience and expectations. When you stand in front of them in class, understand that this is an important and unique part of their psychology. For example, whenever they’re struggling with something, they’d be quick to ask themselves, “I wonder if there’s an app for this?”

Never for one second think that their youth is a disadvantage. Because of the internet, you have some of the most well-informed and well-updated demographic ever. Actually, they might have seen and know more about today’s world than you.

It’s easy to dismiss high school students as kids in grownup bodies. Don’t. That’s the surest way to alienate them. They think of themselves bonafide adults and you need to treat them as such. That is, if you want them to be an effective language mentor. For sure, they have a lot to learn, but the things they know are nothing to sneeze at. Seriously.

What follows are five concrete tips that will help you educate today’s high school students. Observe them, and your students will respond to you like sunflowers to the sun.

5 Hot Tips for a High School Language Teacher’s Soul

1. Get Your Hands Dirty with Technology and Media

If you haven’t already, please consider having Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts for teaching.

Here’s why: Your students are there.

You want to know what’s on their minds? They go on those platforms and reveal themselves there. You may realize how different these folks are online and in person: The shy guy is suddenly so eloquent online, or the class clown gets philosophically deep. So be excited, and have them friend and follow your teaching accounts.

If you want to understand, you have to invest the time in familiarizing yourself with the tools that are occupying a majority of your students’ time.

(You might even discover that high schoolers have since migrated to other sites. But still, get yourself acquainted with the basics of these three sites—if only to discover how fast teenagers adopt new and emerging technologies.)

Another reason to get your feet wet in these social networking sites is that you can use them to communicate class-related information. Hey, you didn’t create those accounts just to be a lurker. You should actively be posting and sharing—but I’m not just talking about announcements here. For example, you can tweet bits and pieces of the lessons. Like bilingual tweets that students might both find interesting and educational.

A first tweet from you might be:

Coucou! (That’s “Hey there!” in French. And yes, and I’m talking to you, my students.)

Or you might ask for food recommendations:

My tastebuds are tingling, and I need something sucré. Anybody know a place?

If they didn’t know already, your students would probably be curious to find out what sucré (sweet) means.

Clearly you can adjust the content of your tweets based on your students’ level. You can really improve the in-person, in-class rapport between you and the students by getting into their world.

You also might encourage the proper use of smartphones and laptops during class instead of banning them. Allowing use of phones during class can enrich discussions as well as make lessons more interesting.

Be sure to set the rules clearly and early, though. Phones should only be used for sanctioned activities—not listening to music, watching videos or playing games to pass time.

That is, unless they’re listening to music in the target language at an appropriate time, playing a language learning game or watching FluentU videos.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

See what technology can do?

You can decide based on your students and your school’s policy. If you do allow smartphones every day, definitely have a solid 15-minute block where everyone puts them away. That’s when you summarize your major points, or teach the most important part of that day’s lesson.

If you already have personal Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, I recommend making a separate account for teaching—though ultimately it’s up to you.

If exposing your account and previous posts makes you feel kind of iffy, and the thought of students looking through your personal profile, prying at your throwback pictures makes you feel vulnerable, then definitely create a separate account solely for class.

The next thing you need to do is to keep your classes organized. With Facebook, you solve this by creating Groups for each class. That way, students in the same class can get to chat with their own classmates. With Twitter, you can easily organize your different classes by using hashtags (#) in your tweets. Assign each class a different hashtag, or better yet, ask them to get creative and make their own. This sly technique of involving the class in creating their own hashtag makes them more likely to be active in the online venture.

Now once you have that sorted out, get into the groove and really get into the online discussions.

Just a caveat though, don’t try to be cool. High school students are very adept at sniffing out the fakes online. They have developed the skill over the years. So if you’re just starting out and know very little about any of the platforms, be quick to tell your students, and get them to help you. They’ll be so honored to give you a hand, and it’s actually a very good technique to get them to open up—let them know you’re on the same team.

Be yourself, and watch the online interactions trickle into improved classroom communication and atmosphere.

2. Let Pop Culture and Trends Be Your Guide

An effective way to catch a teenager’s attention is to make a language lesson out of what they’re already thinking about. When I stand in front of high school students, I already know the topics that will stir them in their seats—the issues that’ll get them giggling and shouting answers from the back of the class.

It’s important not to make any judgments on the things your students find interesting. You might consider some topics superficial and unimportant in the long run, but to your wards, they are the important stuff of life.

Talk about crushes, infatuation and love and your sleepy students suddenly come to life. Issues like Justin Bieber’s behavior (from a PR standpoint) will divide the class into pros and cons. Have they read “50 Shades of Grey?” Or is it better to watch the movie version first? “Can you believe what happened in ‘Games of Thrones’ last night?” “What Town Hall are you in ‘Clash of Clans’?” “What’s the latest on BuzzFeed or The Daily Beast?”

The point here is simple: Know some of the same things that your high school students know. Be updated with what’s going on around the world, especially pop culture. Learn the music, the movies, the Hollywood stars, the viral videos and the trending topics.

Check out some of these sites for inspiration: (celebrity gossip), and (humor), and (viral stories).

And then, when you have these things in the bag, incorporate them into your lessons. Discuss them in the target language. You are in effect using a powerful anchor for the language. For example, if you’re teaching family terms, you might as well use “Game of Thrones” characters and create a family tree. Since the lesson is embedded in a naturally engaging plot, your students will find it much easier to remember.

The above are topics that high school students naturally gravitate towards. Master them and you master the class.

3. Don’t Teach the Language

You already know this, but students hate pop quizzes, exams and practically anything that has something to do with textbooks. Veer away from these things because teenagers have already judged them as “No fun!”

Instead of working hard to teach the language, find creative ways that inspire them to actually use the language. I’m talking about tasks that can only really be completed by getting into the language.

This is the communicative and task-based approach to teaching language—putting your high schoolers into situations that allow them to practice.

For example, you can ask your Spanish class to role-play mini-scenes from “Frozen.” Give them a few days to prepare and ask them to present it in class. Now, what happens in these few days is when the most learning takes place. They will have to grapple with the language.

In this particular task, first they have to translate the script. This would require a lot of research, looking up the proper translation and sentence construction. Then, they would have to memorize the lines and actually get a feel for Spanish in their mouths. Their tongues would get a taste of Spanish while practicing, and these behind-the-scenes moments are actually the most important for language development.

It’s the process that they have to go through to comply with the task, that’s the secret here. The actual presentation can take just a mere 45 seconds, but the process that they went through for those 45 seconds, that’s what really counts.

You can let your class do many different tasks. You can ask them to share their hobby, their favorite food, movie, writer or song. Let them tell the class all about it in the target language. For those inclined to sing, how about an original composition? Or perhaps a translation of the English, like the classics from Beyonce or Backstreet Boys? How about role-playing the role of a field reporter or news anchor? Or role-playing the question and answer portion of Miss Universe? Or say, “You want to sell the Eiffel Tower, persuade the class in French.”

Now these tasks, especially if presented in front of the class, are inherently nerve wracking. That’s why it is extremely important that you inculcate in your class the value of making mistakes. Make it clear that what’s infinitely more important than spotless grammar and spot-on pronunciation is that fact that they are actually applying language in different situations.

Make the classroom environment so safe, so judgment-free that they’ll be excited to butcher the language in front of their classmates.

When students are making mistakes, working on the language, reworking the presentations—that’s where the most learning happens.

4. Learn from Your Students

Teaching has always been a two-way street. If you know you’ll learn a lot from teaching grade schoolers, imagine how much you can learn from high school students.

And I’m not just talking about life lessons here. I’m talking about applicable language lessons that you can use in class. We’ve always wondered what works with students, right? Well, the advantage in handling high school students is that they are in no way silent about what works with them. All you need to do is ask.

They’ll tell you everything (and more) that you need to know about teaching them. You can ask them anything from which language topics they want to explore, to the kind of activities they want to do that day. As long as you’re serious about getting feedback, the students will reveal to you where their mind’s at.

But honestly, in the past six months, how many times have you asked questions like, “So class, what do you want to learn next?” “What do you want to do today?” “Do you need to spend more time on [specific topic] next time, or do you feel ready to move on to [specific topic]?”

I know it can sound scary to let students have the rein in these moments. It’s always so safe to have a lesson plan ready and teach from it. But with high school students? You’re going to have to be prepared for anything, have a lot of flexibility to run with an idea in the moment just because it was suggested by somebody. Somebody from the back of class might scream out of the blue, “Boy versus girls! The team that loses gets to buy pizza!” (The fact that it’s spontaneous, so unplanned and raw will tickle the nerves of your high schoolers.)

The advantage of student-centered and student-led teaching is that it plays right into the teenager’s need to be heard, to be able to have a say in things. So if your students are resisting or are not the least bit interested in the lesson, perhaps you need to backtrack and listen them. Do a survey on Facebook, for example. Ask them what they want to learn, or which type of project they prefer. Ask them if what they thought of the activity you did yesterday. Ask them what they would have changed.

Involve your students in planning your lessons and believe me, they will be much more interested when you teach them.

5. Simply Inspire

It’s not easy to admit as teachers that all the important language learning that happens may actually take place behind our backs, away from our unforgettable class lectures—behind the scenes, when students are working with the language on their own.

We tend to think that we have control over what they learn. The reality is far from this. As teachers, at best, we can only be facilitators and guides.

High school students are at the stage in life when so much is going on inside their heads. Their personal beliefs have not yet ossified and they are trying to form the different elements of their self-concept. They are undergoing emotional turmoil and the smallest thing, like a zit, can affect their sense of well-being and self-confidence.

Many folks in your class may not even have the nerve to look you in the eye, much less raise their hands.

If you really want to touch the lives of your high school students, you need to address these needs and concerns, even as a language teacher. Yep, they may not come out fluent in Russian at the end of the course, but the most important thing you can do is buck them up, make them believe that they can do whatever they set their minds on.

It takes more than a course to be fluent in a language, but if you’re the teacher who is able to inspire a student to continue studying, to keep on learning, to keep going despite the setbacks, then you have gone beyond being a simple language teacher. You have helped your students become better people.

That’s the opportunity you’re presented with as a high school language teacher, so be careful not to squander it. That’s why you need to make your foreign language classroom as safe a place as possible. All the other places are hard enough for high school students, why not be a breath of fresh air?


And with those five tips, I reckon you’re more ready to face a class of high school students. They may be a challenge, but they are a beautiful challenge that will expand your horizons and tease out the best in you. You shall be looking back with fondness on those times you invested teaching and learning from these folks. Believe me, you will.

Have a great one!

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe