Introduction

Preparing to teach effectively is a complex and time-consuming process which, if carried out well, brings its rewards for both the teacher and the students. Knowing how much preparation is needed comes with experience. And yet, however much experience one may have, every year there are new students, new groups to teach, existing materials to update and new materials to prepare, so even experienced teachers keep on learning, and cannot rest on their laurels.

The pages in this chapter do not claim to be an exhaustive guide but, rather, a quick guide (and an aide-mémoire) relating to the things one needs to think about when preparing to teach a language course. Every teacher’s approach, and the requirements of every course or group of students, will be different, so it is best to use the techniques and approaches that work best in a given situation.

For a useful introduction to the issues which language teachers need to consider when preparing to teach, see the presentation by Anne Pauwels (Faculty of Languages and Cultures, SOAS): Insights into language pedagogy and second language for Languages of the Wider World: The essential guide with podcast (CEELBAS Language workshop in June 2013).

Modes

How you, as a teacher, deliver the content of your courses to students is likely to depend on a number of factors:

  • your own learning experiences and how you were taught
  • any language teacher training you have undergone
  • the views and policies of your language department / teaching institution
  • your teaching experience and personal teaching philosophy.

As a result of the above you may be involved in the delivery of courses in a number of different modes:

  • Traditional ‘chalk and talk’, consisting entirely of face-to-face student-teacher interaction, using textbooks, teacher-produced course materials, handouts etc.
  • As above, but with the regular or occasional incorporation of audio-visual resources (songs, podcasts, slides, videos etc.).
  • Online courses which mirror the above, but where all teacher-student contact is online. In this type of course the teacher delivers content in the traditional manner, using a textbook or their own course materials, but this is done online, using general software such as Skype, or educational software such as Viber, Backboard Collaborate etc.
  • E-learning, through virtual learning environments (VLEs) or personal learning environments (PLEs).

The latter mode is capable of reaching a global audience by giving learners open access to the course. A comprehensive learning environment is created by collecting, in one platform, all the resources students will need, including modules (sometimes called ‘toolkits’) for individual topics, and links to online resources freely available on the Internet. By definition, this mode excludes regular teacher-student contact time, although there may be provision for contact with the PLE author/moderator, through email or software such as Pingpong, and also for peer learning.

The recent development of Massive Online Open Courses (Moocs) has provided any interested learner with easy access to courses (university-run and other) on a wide range of topics. Examples of Moocs are Coursera (produced by a partnership of US universities) and FutureLearn, sponsored by a consortium of mainly UK universities and led by the Open University. Opinions on Moocs are divided, however (see discussion on this issue on the BBC website), and even a brief look at any Mooc website will show that language courses are, for the moment at least, almost non-existent.

The interactive nature of most language learning requires some contact with a teacher, either face-to-face or through Skype or similar software. Attempts are being made, however, to set up language learning courses consisting entirely of PLEs, where everything the student needs for learning a language is presented online, in the form of toolkits, links etc., with, possibly, the opportunity to contact a tutor with queries.

One such pilot project is PROeLANG, a CEELBAS-funded pilot project aimed at conceptualising and designing e-learning toolkits for independent learners of Polish and Romanian. Another project delivering fully online language learning is e-Slovak, Slovak as a Foreign Language.

Preparation

Knowing what we are to teach (knowing the material and being prepared) is, of course, of the essence. However, how we teach will also have considerable implications for students’ levels of interest, satisfaction and course outcomes. This sections deals, in a practical way, with selected aspects of preparation for language teaching.

Most of the overall course preparation can be done well in advance, including:

  • the course and lesson content: the course outline, individual lesson plans, handouts, slides, audio-visual material and any other resources to support the efficient conduct of the lesson;
  • the practical aspects: seeing the teaching room in advance and checking its layout and general condition, whether it has basic equipment such as a board (cannot always be taken for granted!), board rubbers and markers (whose importance, even in this technological age, is not to be underestimated!), the functioning of projection and AV equipment, whether there is a managed PC etc.

Whilst each of the above may appear minor in itself, they will all contribute to the efficient running of the class. At the individual lesson level, though, there will always be things which can only be prepared once the outcome of the previous lesson is known. Some of these are:

  • was all the material covered and, if not, how will this affect the next lesson?
  • did any questions arise during the lesson which need addressing the next time?
  • did all the students appear to understand the material covered and, if not, how can it be consolidated in the next class?
  • was the teacher’s approach to presenting the material successful and, if not, how could this be re-thought for the next time?

And, of course, a very important activity for preparing for the next class is the marking and feedback on assignments and tests.

Preparing lesson content

When preparing the content, a wide variety of  issues need to be considered, including:

  • the place of that particular lesson in the overall structure and aim(s) of the course
  • objectives for that particular lesson
  • expected outcomes
  • language content
  • materials
  • activities by means of which the above will be realised
  • maintaining interest, pace and variety
  • creating a business-like but relaxed atmosphere, in which students feel comfortable and ready to learn
  • involving students as much as possible
  • keeping to timings for the beginning, end and the various stages of the lesson
  • effective use of the board.

Most lessons will include a variety of tasks and activities:

  • presentation by teacher
  • question-answer teacher to students
  • question-answer students to teacher
  • group work
  • two groups working together
  • pair work
  • two pairs working together
  • individual work.

Whatever the type of course you are teaching (even if it’s a ‘reading course’) it is always a good idea, at the beginning of each class, to engage students in some straightforward communicative language (this will add value to the course and equip them to handle straightforward social situations); it will also use time beneficially if you’re waiting for half your class to arrive from another lecture (at this point, on one side of board, make a list of the language points used, so that the latecomers don’t lose out). A typical introductory session could include:

  • courtesies (how are you? did you have a good week? did you do something nice recently?)
  • study-related talk (do you have a lot of work at the moment? any deadlines this week? for which subjects? when are the deadlines?)
  • plans (are you going away/home this weekend?).

At the end of the lesson, it is good to conclude with courtesies in the language (when you will see students next, wish them a good day or week-end etc.)

If you are teaching a translation course, you can vary the type of activity by introducing some production (always making sure students see the relevance of this to their course). For example, at beginning of the class, for a few minutes, you could get the whole class to produce a narrative or dialogue in the language being taught. This can then be written on the whiteboard or smartboard (with correction, if necessary), then translated, with discusssion of translation issues.

Preparing the room

The successful outcome of a lesson depends not only on what we teach and how we teach it, but also, at least in part, on where we teach and how we manage the space.

Most university language classes are held in medium-sized or small seminar-type rooms, usually with tables laid out in a square or rectangle (see Figure 1 below). There is normally an empty area in the centre, but space can be tight on the outside since, usually, as many tables and chairs as possible are fitted into the rooms (to accommodate maximum numbers of students). Some small or medium-sized teaching rooms, however, may be set up in ‘lecture’ format (see Figure 2 below). In exceptional circumstances (when there is a shortage of suitable rooms) language classes may be assigned to slightly unusual premises, for example a small (raked) lecture theatre or computer cluster.

Different types of seminar set-up

Figure 1. Different types of seminar set-up

Lecture set-up

Figure 2. Lecture set-up

Whatever the type of premises, if one plans ahead, and adapts class activities to the layout, one can ensure the best possible outcome of the lesson in the circumstances.

Adapting to the room layout

A ‘lecture-type’ layout (see Figure 2) can be rather formal and inhibiting, especially for language classes, where you want students to interact with each other (and not just listen and ask the teacher questions). To get students to work in pairs or groups, ask some of them to turn round in their chairs, so that they are working with people behind / in front of them (the obvious solution is for them to work with the person sitting next to them, but this should be varied). Try to ensure that you, as the teacher, have access to each pair/group, so you can monitor their work, answer questions and help with any problems (there is limited benefit in pair/group work if the teacher does not engage with and monitor what the students are doing).

If you have to use a room with lecture layout, try to include, in each lesson, at least one activity which gets the students out of their seats. This could be a survey, for which they need to walk round the class asking questions, a role-playing task, a game etc.

In a room with lecture layout, try to include activities which will involve students (volunteers, initially) coming to the front of the room, whether to give short presentations, or to write on the whiteboard. As above, this breaks up the formality of the layout and dispels the physical teacher-student divide.

In a room with seminar layout (see Figure 1 above), try to create a small gap between the teacher’s table and the rest, to allow you to move from the front of the class into the area inside the tables. This gives you the best possible access to the students, not only for pair/group work, but also when you are interacting with the class as a whole or with individual students. This is preferable to moving around the class on the outside of the table formation, as it gives you face-to-face contact with the students (rather than talking to the backs of their heads!). And don’t be afraid to leave the safety of the teacher’s table – engaging with the class more directly is good practice and a sign of self-confidence!

If you have to teach in a small lecture theatre, try to work out, in advance, where it would be best for the students to sit, so that they can relatively easily carry out the various activities planned for the lesson. Importantly (as in any room layout), students need to be concentrated near the front, so that they have direct contact with the teacher and each other. You may need, in the first few classes, to ask them to sit where you want them to (if left to their own devices, most students will unerringly head for the back of the room!).

In exceptional circumstances, you may be asked to teach in a computer cluster. This is particularly tricky, as these premises are designed primarily for individual, rather than class, activity. So, again, this needs to be given some thought:

  • which places in the room allow for maximum interactivity and cohesiveness of the class?
  • how can students be found space for writing and making notes (around the computer screen and keyboard)?
  • where should “Class in progress: Please do not disturb” notices be placed?

Finally, why not make use of the fact that each student has access to a computer, and plan a part of the lesson around this? This could be going to websites in the language and looking at, say, news headlines, using interactive language websites, or writing emails to the teacher and other students in the class. This type of activity needs careful planning, but can be very motivating, as students are using the language in an authentic context.

Finally – if you are very lucky, your lesson may be timetabled in a custom-designed language space, with an interactive whiteboard or ‘smartboard’ (see how this is used in the teaching of Russian), customised AV equipment, a computer for every student and software installed specifically for use in language teaching. In that case, the world’s your oyster!

Environment

The room layout, as discussed above, is an important factor in the success of the lesson you have planned. There is, though, one final point to be made. Students should enjoy their language lessons, but you, as the teacher, will also do everything you can to create a professional and ‘business-like’ atmosphere, in which everyone can learn and feel they are making progress. The general appearance and feel of the room will contribute to this. If at all possible, try to get to the teaching room a little in advance, to:

  • tidy any furniture which has been left out of place;
  • clear any rubbish or hand-outs which have been left from the previous class;
  • open the windows (if there are any, and if they open) to let in some fresh air; if, in the previous hour, there has been a number of people working hard in the room, the air will be stuffy; even if, after a few minutes, you are asked by freezing students if they can close the window, at least you will have improved the air quality to greet the students as they come into the class!

Structure

The length of language classes will vary from institution to institution, and you may be asked to teach in blocks of one or two hours. A one-hour class might have the following structure:

  • 10.05: oral courtesies, take in homework (in the language), ask how students are, etc. (note key vocabulary on the board)
  • 10.10: revision of material from the last class
  • 10.15: whole-class presentation of new material, questions
  • 10.25: whole-class consolidation of new material (interactive short exercise)
  • 10.30: individual or pair-work consolidation (short exercise, dialogue, rôle-playing) with the teacher going round and checking clarifying, explaining)
  • 10.40: final whole-class consolidation (song, poem, quiz, game)
  • 10.50: setting homework, concluding courtesies
  • 10.55: end class.

If the class is scheduled for two hours, each of the above stages can be extended, or activities may be varied. If the students are well engaged, it may not be necessary to have a break half-way through, but this will very much depend on the circumstances. If, in the teacher’s judgment, a break is necessary, it should just be for a couple of minutes, so that precious contact time is not wasted.

What’s next?

Courses Skills