5 Terrific Technology-based Tools for the Foreign Language Classroom
Don’t let your classroom end up behind the times.
Modern blogs for ancient Greek? Why not!
We all know technology can be a powerful teaching tool.
I mean, we pretty much use it in every facet of our lives these days.
But what are the best ways to maximize the effectiveness of technology in the language classroom?
In a classroom setting, technology can help or hinder, focus or distract, depending on its application.
There’s a fine line we have to be careful not to cross.
Doing individual exercises on personal devices can isolate students and rob them of the interactive experience that language learning should be. However, collaborative tools such as Google Docs and blogs can help fuel interaction and keep students focused on a specific learning goal.
Makes sense, right? In this post, we’re going to continue exploring technology-based tools for teaching any language, along with their best applications.
5 Most Powerful Tech-based Tools for the Foreign Language Classroom
1. Music and Videos
If you’re not using this one already, you’re really missing out! Remember the first rule of language learning: Input, input, input!
Students can’t sustain their skills on textbook explanations alone — they need the constant reinforcement that authentic sources provide. An important part of the language learning process for your students will be simply listening to native speakers and picking up new phrases, grammar patterns and more. When they hear their language lessons brought to life, they will better understand how to employ their knowledge.
Audio listening exercises can be good for testing what students can distinguish on their own. That being said, when it comes to music and videos, the video is the pedagogical powerhouse of the two. The combination of pictures, intonations and gestures gives students context clues that they can’t get from classroom interactions alone. So, the next time you think about teaching the German subjunctive, consider something like Die Prinzen‘s “Ich wäre so gerne Millionär” for catchy input.
2. Educational Websites
After your students have been getting good input from authentic sources, have them try some guided practice activities provided by useful websites. Here are some of my favorites from the (digital) vaults:
Quizlet is a powerful and flexible online learning platform based on a tried-and-true memorization tool: the flash card. The “sets” of digital cards can be used to drill vocabulary, but also work well for grammar topics like gender or verb conjugation. Teachers can create and organize sets for their classes and monitor students’ activity and progress on a given set. Students in turn have access to a huge archive of sets and can easily search for topics like “Konjunktiv I German” or browse by language. The activities are fun, with plenty of opportunities for working in pairs. All in all, a great tool for homework and in-class playfulness. Try it on for size.
Foreign Language News Sources
What could be more authentic and relevant than current events? News in the target language affords the student a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life and attitudes of people who speak it. These are also topics that your students should be somewhat familiar with, giving them a clear context to build from. A photograph of houses lying in rubble with the headline “Erdbeben!” will be enough to communicate the idea “Earthquake!” If they’re familiar with the story from NPR (…or Facebook), the word “China” will be enough of a hint. In addition, many national news sources, such as BBC and Deutsche Welle, offer slowly-spoken news and supplementary activities specifically for language learners.
FluentU teaches language using strictly authentic materials such as news, music videos and movie trailers. This has the major advantage of ensuring that all material is up-to-date and culturally relevant. In a word: meaningful. This is just the thing students have been missing during hours of regurgitating fabricated textbook conversations about what they like to buy in the supermarket.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
3. Collaborative Tools
The second rule of language learning? Output, output, output! Living languages are living for a reason. They need to be produced in spoken and written form. Here are some tools to get students to work together!
For those of us teaching without Smartboards, Google Docs can be a useful tool when collaborating on a single assignment. You can load up your Google Drive with tons of in-class activities or start a new document on the fly. With the click of a mouse, any of your students can edit the document. It’s perfect for doing writing activities in pairs!
I know what you’re thinking: “wait a minute…isn’t this what we try to get students to avoid doing during class?”
Forget NPR and BBC! Most of what your students know about the world? Yeah, they get it from Facebook. But this is precisely what makes it such a juicy source of information that you can be sure will reach them! Encourage your students to “like” a page about something of particular interest to them in their target language. Alternatively, start a Facebook group for your class! Make it a place where they can have casual conversations with each other and native speakers of the target language.
Facebook interaction not enough? Start a class blog! Platforms like Tumblr and WordPress are great places to encourage more advanced students to strut their stuff in a blog post.
In fact, if you want to go all out, there are many benefits to designing your own class website, which you may be able to achieve more easily and quickly than you think with ed2go’s Creating a Classroom Website. This is an affordable online course that gets you set up with all the basics in just six weeks—and your own blog is only one of the perks. In addition, you’ll be able to organize assignments on your website and create WebQuests for your students, using technology to the max.
In addition to a class blog, blogs about the target language — such as the ones provided by FluentU — are a great resource for students and teachers looking for more material.
Speaking of output: Give your students the opportunity to interact with a native speaker in their native environment!
Language and culture are intimately connected, making it essential that your students get a good feel for the target language in a cultural context and not just in the classroom. For more reluctant learners, the appeal of an exotic culture might be just the motivation they need to finally master the genders of common toiletries. This kind of cultural exposure can be difficult to get, especially if you’re not a native speaker of the target language yourself. Never fear, modern technology is here!
The free online video chat program Skype provides a useful way to connect with people, groups and places across the globe. Explaining cultural differences and nuances is one thing, but transporting your students to an environment where they can witness them is another! Aside from its use as a transportation device, Skype is also a good way to get your students to interact with a speaker other than, say, you.
Activity idea: Plan a Skype date with a native speaker in another country. As a homework assignment, have your students each come up with three questions they want to ask the visitor. After the Skype call, ask your students to recall the answers to their and others’ questions.
5. Apps for Smartphones and Tablets
Highly motivated learners will always be on the lookout for supplementary materials that will help flesh out and diversify their language-learning experience. Here are three of my favorite (free!) apps that you can recommend for practice at home or on the run.
The FluentU website is an outstanding learning and teaching tool on its own. But for the hungry student it also serves as a great source of meaningful and interesting supplementary materials. Thankfully, the scores of videos, trailers, quizzes and other authentic language learning materials are available as an app to take with you on the go!
For those students who just can’t get enough practice: there’s an app for that. DuoLingo is a free language-learning platform for beginning learners who want to really nail the basics, but it also works well as an after-class review of important grammar and vocab topics.
The magic of Quizlet in an optimized portable app! Memrise includes “courses” (similar to “sets” in Quizlet) composed of hundreds of meticulously selected words and phrases in the target language. Perfect for getting in a little vocabulary expansion on the weekend!