Many schools have closed their doors until at least September – and that means a lot of learning is taking place online. It’s no walk in the park; both teachers and students are facing a range of challenges with technology and pedagogy. This is especially true for modern language teachers, who not only have to navigate technology, but also make themselves understood.
It can be tricky to engage students in foreign language study at the best of times, so for teachers of subjects such as French, German and Spanish, it’s important to make your online classes fun and engaging.
We spoke to Rebecca, who teaches German at secondary level in an international school in Spain, and learned about her experiences and listened to some of her advice.
“It’s been difficult on a personal level – as a teacher I like the face-to-face interaction, so missing out on that has been challenging,” she says. “The other difficulty at the start was managing the screen time – eight hours on a screen wasn’t working for either students or teachers. There was a lot of trial and error.”
Here are some strategies you can use to overcome some of these difficulties, and make the transition to remote teaching as smooth as possible:
1. Make sure you have the right equipment and tech setup
A good headset is an important investment when you’re making the shift to online teaching. Clear pronunciation is a key part of language teaching, so it’s important that students can hear you clearly and that you can hear them too. A headset with a microphone will reduce background noise, which will help to give your voice more clarity.
Another important part of preparation is to make sure you are confident in the video-conferencing technology that you are using. Rebecca benefited from an existing familiarity with Microsoft Teams, so she was building on that knowledge when her school shifted to online teaching.
However, if you’re starting from scratch with the technology, most platforms have tutorials available online. It’s always worth maximising your skillset here to really get the most out of the teaching technology that you are using.
2. Adjust your teaching style to online teaching
There’s no denying that video conferencing technology has made a world of difference to the process of teaching online. However, it’s still not a straightforward replacement for standing in front of a class. Being present onscreen is different from being physically present in front of a class, and you’ll need to adjust your teaching style accordingly.
Exaggerate your body language a little more to come across on screen and make sure you are enunciating fully when you speak. It might feel over-the-top but it will be easier for your students to understand – especially when you’re communicating with them in a second language.
“I usually teach in the target language for most of my lesson, using gestures to support what I’m saying,” says Rebecca. “But that has been tricky. I’m still using a lot of target language which the students are used to hearing, but it’s harder than teaching in a real classroom.”
Consider giving more written direction than you would in a classroom. It can be harder to pick up the cues that a student hasn’t understood the instructions over video.
3. Make the most of free apps for language learning
Duolingo, Memrise, Hellotalk and other disruptive language learning technology can be seen as an alternative to more traditional ways of teaching and learning a foreign language, but in fact, it’s more productive to view them as complementary to your teaching.
If you’re teaching a language at secondary level, the vast majority of your older students will have smartphones. They can use them to access apps which provide a flexible way of learning outside of traditional classroom activities. That being said, many apps can be used on a desktop computer as well. What’s more, Duolingo has a leaderboard which you can set up with all your students, so you can see who is progressing through the levels and who isn’t.
4. Use technology to your advantage
You’re teaching in a new medium, so it’s a great opportunity for you and your students to get creative.
Consider voice recordings or videos for speaking and listening practice. You can use apps like Kahoot to set quizzes, which is fresher and more exciting for students than a traditional test. And instead of setting written homework, encourage your students to make fun presentations or film themselves. They might just surprise you with how sophisticated their grasp of technology is!
5. Tailor your lesson plans to remote teaching
In a bricks-and-mortar classroom, it’s normal to assign students reading activities, or give them a quiet five minutes to write a short text or work on their own. But quiet time doesn’t translate well to online teaching – it just creates opportunities for students to get distracted. Consider using some flipped classroom techniques such assigning a grammar point for students to research before class, and using classroom time for discussion, elaboration and further activities.
Depending on the platform you are using, students might still be able to work in groups – but try to limit the amount of text they’re reading on screen, and instead focus on more speaking activities such as role plays and debates.
“I’ve had to rethink things like board games,” says Rebecca, “and instead focus on speaking and group work, where they’ve prepared role plays and even included sound effects – that’s been working really well as a way of assessing speaking.”
6. Add in cultural elements
When you add cultural knowledge to a language learning classroom, it provides your students with the relevance of and context for the language that they are studying. It shows them the advantages of learning that language, and raises their awareness of the possibility of travelling in the future.
So what could this look like in practice? Well, there are lots of options! Students can use Google Earth or Maps to explore towns and cities in the country where your target language is spoken. They could even create an itinerary for their ideal day in Madrid, for example, researching cultural landmarks, museums and restaurants they’d like to visit. For an offline activity, you could get your students to cook a traditional recipe and then take photos of the result and ask their family members to review the dish. Encourage them to watch appropriate documentaries, films and television programmes in the target language. All these activities will give a new dimension to the language they are studying.
7. Keep the focus on engaging your learners
When you’re improving your online teaching skills, it’s important to remember that your focus should always be on what will engage your learners. Talk to your colleagues about what is working for them. Share successful strategies and tips.
“Some students who struggle with organisation have needed some additional support,” says Rebecca. “They’re stuck at home, just like we are, and it’s hard for them too. Younger students particularly need support, so it’s good to be aware of that and make sure they’re staying on track.”
There are lots of resources to help you with online teaching in the time of coronavirus, and advice on keeping your students motivated through these big upheavals.
Further resources to help you teach Modern Foreign Languages
For further support, including free samples of brand-new endorsed resources for Pearson Edexcel International GCSE (9–1) languages, take a look at our website pages for French, German and Spanish – you might find some useful content for your online lessons in the samples!
These new IG Student Books and online Teacher Resource Packs are publishing now and available to order through your local Pearson representative.
If you’re looking for language resources for KS3, 11–14, take a look at our Modern Languages from Pearson web page for information on teaching French, German and Spanish.