I didn’t start out teaching in the target language. I struggled a LOT with this when I first became a French teacher. How was I supposed to speak in French when they couldn’t understand me? Weren’t they going to give up? Weren’t they going to miss the instructions? I wanted so badly to do a good job, but teaching in the target language was just not natural for me.
Here’s how it all started out for me.
I wasn’t a certified teacher when I began teaching. I had been planning to be an English teacher in France, but falling in love meant I left France and moved back to the U.S. to get married. While I didn’t really want to teach English to English-speakers (although I did for a while), I loved all aspects of language teaching. As a French-speaker, it only seemed natural to find a job teaching French to American students.
I had no idea it would be so HARD!!!
I got hired with a provisional certification, meaning I could teach without a full certificate, provided that I complete the coursework to complete accreditation through night classes while I was teaching. Having always been a good student, I told myself that it couldn’t be difficult.
The actual coursework was really easy. I mean, I was learning about teaching AS I was doing it everyday. I had so many beginning PD sessions combined with the coursework that I was getting so much information so fast. In order to keep this provisional license, I had to undergo a TON of observations from the administration, professors at the university, and a few of my advisors. It felt like someone was always in my room!
I don’t say that because it’s a bad thing. I absolutely think anyone in my situation should have a lot of support, because I did not know what I was doing! Honestly, no books could teach me as much as the experience was, but the pressure to become a good teacher quickly was huge! I mean, I was in charge of an entire program, and all the students were depending on me.
My early teaching challenges
I had textbooks that were thirty years old, and the first year book didn’t even coordinate with the second year book. What did that mean for me? Well, my students couldn’t even understand most of the second year book, so I couldn’t use it. I had to write all the materials, because back when the internet was in its infancy, there was no way to find good materials online. I also had to figure out what I was supposed to be teaching, because we had no curriculum.
So, I set out to teach the vocabulary, verbs, and grammar that I thought students needed to know. I made worksheets. I made games. When I wanted to teach some culture, I borrowed VCR tapes from the library. (I am that old.) I thought I was doing a good job. The kids really seemed to like it. We had a lot of fun and they were doing great on my written quizzes.
Of course I was missing something huge! I wasn’t teaching in the target language. Like, at all. I pretty much only spoke English in their class. It wasn’t like I couldn’t speak French. I had just moved from France! The problem was, I didn’t think they would understand me if I spoke French. So I didn’t. And guess what happened? My students never spoke French, either.
I didn’t even realize it until my advisor, a Spanish teacher from the education department where I was getting my Master’s degree, was pretty harsh with me after she observed my class one day. She pretty much told me I was not doing a good job, because I only spoke English in class. She wasn’t wrong, but I felt so defeated. I mean, how was I supposed to speak French with students who didn’t understand me? It wasn’t like I had the easiest group to begin with, so to throw that into the mix seemed terrifying. I had JUST gotten classroom management down (a little bit).
What did I do?
I made a resolution to get them speaking more French and to begin teaching in the target language at least part of the time. I didn’t have a goal for how much, because at that time, anything would have been an improvement.
The first thing I did was make some posters to hang in my room. I used these signs to help them use basic expressions, such as I need help, I have a question, or Please repeat that.
From there, each week, I used a few new basic expressions to give them directions, like:
Ouvrez vos livres à la page__________.
Levez la main.
Each week, we focused on three to five new directions, and pretty soon, I was able to speak a LOT more French with them! In turn, they were also using a lot of basic expressions in class, so it was working!
How did my students react when I began teaching in the target language?
Honestly, right away, some of them quickly decided they no longer liked me. They thought it was all fun to play bingo or have board races for vocabulary, but now they had to work harder.
I got some attitudes. I definitely had a few who put their heads down and ignored me. Some told me I was boring. Some told me what I was doing didn’t matter and that my class was dumb. I went home and cried more than a few times. BUT, I did not give up. You see, I couldn’t. If all I was doing was asking them to memorize vocabulary and verbs, I wasn’t teaching them to actually do much of anything WITH the language. I knew I needed to do better.
The benefits of using the target language?
Suddenly, I was reaching students who I hadn’t before. Those students who hate to write but love to speak suddenly got so engaged. They wanted to participate. They even began to do their homework, because hearing the language so much helped them understand in a way that they hadn’t before.
By asking them to use French for everyday tasks, and by using more French in the classroom, it helped French become less awkward for them, and we actually began to do a lot more French speaking activities.
One thing I wish I had known:
Something I came to realize was that I was often too worried about using the language that students would know. Irregular verbs come up often in language, but often textbooks won’t introduce some of the most common verbs until well into the second year of language learning. By using common verbs often (like je veux, je connais, or je dois) when I spoke, my students started to use them, too. I didn’t formally teach them for a long time, but when I did, students got it so much faster!
So, don’t be afraid to use words they don’t know. It will only help them later on when they do formally learn them!