This section discusses the range of courses a teacher might need to teach in the UK higher education sector, the aims and expected outcomes of those courses and the profiles of learners who are likely to make up the teaching groups.
Imagine that you have been asked to teach two beginners’ language courses: one for undergraduate students who are starting their first university degree, and one for PhD students who will be researching different aspects of the culture of the country whose language you are teaching.
What will be some of the issues that you will have to take into account when preparing and teaching your classes?
Note some of your thoughts down before reading on.
When preparing to teach a course, teachers need to ask themselves a number of questions, including:
- what type of language course is it?
- what are the profiles and previous language-learning experience of the students in the group?
- what is the starting level of the learners’ language competence?
- what are the aims and expected outcomes of the course?
- what skills will students be expected to acquire and to what level?
- how will learners be assessed?
- how much contact time will be available?
- how much independent study will students be expected to do?
For example, if the aim of the course is to provide students doing Master’s degrees with reading skills (so that they can access original materials for their dissertations), then the acquisition of reading skills has to take priority.
Even for a ‘reading course’, though, it is useful for students to acquire some oral communicative and writing skills (even if this is for functional purposes only). Students need to understand, though, why these skills are being taught, and how they are relevant to their learning goals. It is the teacher’s job to explain this, and to integrate the acquisition of these skills into the teaching so as to consolidate the main content of the course.
Teachers of Slavonic languages across universities in the UK may be asked to teach a wide variety of courses, with a range of aims and expected outcomes. Once you know which course you are to teach, it is worth asking yourself (and the line manager, if appropriate) some further questions, including:
- who will be attending the course?
- will they be undergraduate or postgraduate students?
- will the students be mainly language specialists or doing degrees in other subjects, for example political science, history etc.?
- is this an established course or course component, or is it being taught for the first time?
- how prescriptive or open-ended are the instructions for teaching the course?
- is it a general course, teaching all skills, or a specialised one, for example, teaching translation or reading skills?
- is there a syllabus, course description and course outline available?
- are teachers expected to use a specific commercially-published textbook?
- do other (in-house) course materials already exist or will you have to create your own?
- is there a learning platform / virtual learning environment (VLE), e.g. Moodle, and how is it used in the department?
- is there a policy on the mode of delivery, for example face-to-face, online or blended teaching?
- how much independent study are learners expected to undertake, and are there materials to facilitate this (online or otherwise)?
There is rarely, if ever, a homogeneous group of students, making up a class which is very easy to teach. Any group learning a Slavonic language is likely to have some or all of the following features:
- A wide range of language-learning experience – On ab initio courses, in particular, you may find that some students in the group have never learned a foreign language. Previous UK government policy on language learning in schools has resulted in a significant number of students, and potential university applicants, who cannot bring any kind of meaningful language-learning experience to their studies of the language you are to teach them.
- Students from abroad who will, by definition, have learned English to a reasonable standard (most university courses require a 6.5/7.0 IELTS score, and probably other foreign languages as well.
- A range of language learning ability – Depending on the type of course, you could have, in one beginners group, very successful learners of other languages together with someone who is desperate to learn the language, but whose abilities really don’t lie in that direction. This can happen in, for example, reading courses for postgraduate students: someone may be a very successful and motivated researcher in their chosen field, but may have difficulties learning a new language.
- Native speakers of other Slavonic and East European languages, who are indeed beginners in the language you are teaching, but have an instinctive understanding and feel for your language which even advanced learners will have not acquired.
- ‘Heritage’ speakers, who may have an unrealistic view of their language competence (which is understandable, as they will have been encouraged and praised, by their family and community, for any communication in the language of their heritage). This is not only an issue of competence: if the heritage speakers are from a generation born in the UK (and, perhaps, whose parents or grandparents were born here), the language they speak may differ materially from that spoken currently in the home country. This is an issue needing tactful handling by the teacher, and strategies need to be found not to discourage or de-motivate these students, while at the same time ensuring that they learn the current standard language. This issue for Ukrainian is addressed by Koscharsky and Hull, 2009.
- Successful learners of non-Slavonic languages, who have absolutely no knowledge of any Slavonic language, but could well be in the same group as native speakers of other Slavonic languages.
- Students with an interest in linguistics and how the language works, as opposed to those who need to learn it more for communicative purposes.
- Students with learning difficulties, for example attention deficit disorders, dyslexia etc., or disabilities (e.g. visual or audial impairment). If this is the case, one, obviously, does one’s best to support such students, but the challenges cannot be underestimated, and resolving them requires collaboration between the teacher, the department, the institution’s disabilities office and other agencies. Additionally, particularly for students with visual and audial impairment, the resources and support in Slavonic languages are far fewer, and of poorer quality, than for mainstream languages such as English, French etc.
- A range of learning styles – Some students, for example, find it easier to retain information they hear, while others may need to see it.
- Undergraduate students who may not be too interested in learning a language, but are taking the course as an ‘easy’ way to make up the number of credits they need for their degree.
Finally, because people are individuals, the cohorts for exactly the same course will vary from year to year, even if all the students have satisfied the requirements for acceptance on the course.
So what do you do if you have a class with students of mixed language learning experience or ability? This may be a problem in any language class, but for Slavonic languages, in particular, classes often consist both of students who are native speakers or competent learners of a related language, and of students who have no previous experience of a Slavonic language.
How this is handled will depend very much on the individuals in the class, and, let’s have no illusions, this is a situation which isn’t easy even for experienced teachers. There are, though, a number of things you can do to ensure that all students feel they are learning, that no one is bored, and that everyone is making progress and achieving as well as they can.
A few strategies:
- Explain to the group, right at the beginning, that all of them are expected to cover the same material, but that each student will be given individual goals to attain.
- If at all possible, meet students individually (or in small groups consisting of students of similar linguistic background) and set each their individual goals.
- Explain to the less linguistically experienced that, wherever possible, you will be giving the more experienced students extra challenges – this will not affect their learning outcomes or their individual goals.
- Explain to the more experienced learners that you will be giving extra examples/practice to the others, and that this is a good way for them to revise and double-check their own knowledge.
- Get the more experienced ones to “buddy up” with the others, and to help them in class in pair work.
- As an extra challenge, get the more experienced learners to think through how they might teach/explain a particular point (a transferable skill!). You could ask, for example, whether they found a particular point (e.g. aspects of verbs) easy to learn when they were taught it for the first time in another Slavonic language. Would they be prepared to share some tips with the class as to how to learn that point?
- Set differentiated tasks on the same text. For example, the less experienced students could be given the task of identifying key vocabulary or phrases and their meanings, while the more experienced could be asked, in addition to the above, to identify emotions, reactions etc.
Dealing with the issues identified above may look daunting at first, but, if you think things through and prepare well in advance, you should be able to handle most situations. Even with only a little experience, it is possible to find ways to accommodate the variety of courses, outcomes and student profiles you will meet. Some of these ways are discussed in the chapter on Teaching.
Preparing to teach effectively is a complex process and very time-consuming. If, though, you are prepared to invest time and effort in your preparation, the whole process can be immensely rewarding for the teacher and motivating for the students.