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Tips for Teaching a Second Language

written by: Makoto • edited by: Trent Lorcher • updated: 9/11/2012

Both new and experienced teachers have their own way of sharing knowledge. There are tips and strategies which are generally accepted as constructive in the classroom. This article describes a few strategies which will surely help you out.

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    Teaching Abroad: Are You Ready?

    Being an English teacher in a foreign country is rather common. Every year, people of all ages travel to exotic (or not so exotic) locations to teach English.

    Unfortunately, the training provided in TEFL courses, although useful, is more often than not limited. From my personal experience, those courses provided an introduction to teaching more than anything else.

    New teachers thus find themselves making all kind of speculations (due to their lack of information) as to what involves teaching a language. Although some of those assumptions make perfect sense, how effective are they in reality? Are students genuinely learning something? Is their grasp of their language improving?

    Getting up to date in the latest discoveries in language acquisition has pointed some rather disturbing flaws about my own ways of teaching. It would be naïve (not to mention a bit arrogant) to believe that there’s only one way of proceeding when it comes to teaching a second language.

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    Correcting Students

    Every teacher who has taught at least one class has had a student who would make mistakes while attempting to learn and practice their second language.

    What should one do when such a situation occurs? Should the teacher correct every single mistake in front of the classroom in front of everyone? Should the teacher avoid correcting the student in order not to lessen his motivation to practice the language?

    It is difficult to evaluate which action is considered the “best". Systematic correction prevents the students from fossilizing (from developing wrong habits) their mistakes. On the other hand, there’s a great risk on constantly focusing on the negative and harming student motivation.

    On the other hand, avoiding correcting mistakes will increase the chance of students developing incorrect language habits (repeating systematically the same mistake until it becomes very difficult to fix).

    An interesting alternative lies in what is known as “recast". A “recast" means to rephrase the incorrect sentence rather than explicitly pointing it out. This has the advantage of not interrupting the flow of conversation. It also allows for a polite and subtle way of correcting a mistake instead of putting the student “on the spot". “Recasts" are particularly effective among adult learners who respond especially well to his kind of indirect correction. Younger learners might require more explicit forms of feedback. That is to say, using a certain tone of voice, gesture or facial expression might help in pointing out that the reformulation is the correct way.

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    Learning New Vocabulary

    What is the best way to teach students new vocabulary? The answer is: reading. This however, is only part of the “truth". Actually, older language learners will prefer to read information which is interesting or important to them. This is important to keep in mind when handing out reading assignments. Another thing to keep in mind is to provide reading material which is adapted to the level of students as research implies that 90% of the words of a sentence must be understood in order to grasp meaning.

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    Teaching Grammar

    This is probably one of the most popular ideas regarding second language teaching. Unfortunately,language learning isn’t exactly a linear process. Language learning isn’t just adding one rule afteranother until the language is learned. According to Spada & Lightbrown (2006): “[…] it involvesprocesses of integrating new language forms and patterns into an existing interlanguage, readjusting and restructuring until all pieces fit."

    This is all very well, but what exactly does this imply as far as classroom planning goes? The problem lies in teaching a language in several, isolated sections. For instance, a lot of language teaching material will teach one aspect of the language before moving on to the next one without ever giving to the student the opportunity to continuously practice what has already been covered. This lack of continuous practice will more likely result in students forgetting what has already been covered as they explore new aspects of the language. For this reason, the various aspects of the language which are being taught should constantly be practiced and integrated to the whole rather than being separated from it.

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    In Conclusion

    The tips and suggestions provided in this article are mostly based upon the material written by Patsy M. Lightbrown and Nina Spada in their book How Languages are Learned.

    I would strongly recommend both new and veteran teachers to browse through the content of this book as it provides information about the process involved in learning languages. Having a better understanding as to how languages are learned by students is of paramount importance when trying to teach to those very students.