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Foreign Language Classes

Generally, the amount of material to be covered each week has been mapped out in advance by a supervising instructor. Be sure to discuss fully with your department what formal components are expected of you in terms of grammar, sentence patterning, drill instruction, language labs, and the like.


In planning your own sections, figure out, IN ADVANCE AND ON PAPER, how much time you plan to allot to each aspect. Creating an outline of material to be covered is an invaluable aid in helping you structure your class time for maximum effectiveness and can be as simple, as, for example:

10 min. - Warm-up, announcements, go over homework.
15 min. - Drills using the subjunctive.
20 min. - Conversation using passive and reflexive verbs.
5 min. - Wrap-up, homework for tomorrow.

Another advantage of writing out a timetable for yourself is that the act of doing so will help you prioritize your material. If students get hung up on a particular point, something which inevitably happens, you will be in a better position to know what it is you will be willing to leave out and pick up the next day.

WARNING: Don't get so involved in covering your material that you forget to notice whether or not you're leaving the class behind. You might well ask, "But how can I tell?" Check for blank stares, rustling, miscellaneous coughing. Pause several times in your presentation to ask if students are following you. If you don't get a roomful of nodding heads, start over. Assume here, as with all general questions to the class, that no acknowledgment may mean the same thing as "I'm too shy to admit it, but I don't get what you're doing."

Aside from formal requirements, TAs are usually given encouragement and latitude to develop their own teaching styles. Structuring the classroom, kinds of drills, types of questions, number and kind of teaching aids-these are areas in which you can begin to develop informal skills which will serve you well in your budding career as a college language instructor.


Beginning foreign language TAs often see their 50-minute section only as a test of their ability to cram as many drills and grammatical points into the heads of their students as they can. But within the basic drills and grammar requirements lie a variety of creative approaches to instruction which can make learning easier and time spent in the classroom more fun for both TA and student. A few of these approaches follow.

1. SMALL GROUP WORK provides an opportunity for students to practice speaking and listening without being on public display. It also is a chance for them to get to know one another better, since people generally feel more comfortable sharing in a small-scale discussion. Small groups can be set up for dialogue and homework review, for "free conversation" time, for working on projects-for almost anything. Having the class move from large to small to large groupings also helps in breaking up the hour into manageable time blocks and combats boredom and "drill fatigue".
2. USE MORE THAN THE TEXTBOOK IN CLASS. Many departments ask their TAs to teach using only the text and their imagination. Recently, however, some departments have begun to incorporate videotaped dialogues keyed to a textbook. If your department uses a textbook only, THINK ABOUT ADDITIONAL WAYS IN WHICH YOU CAN ADD INTEREST TO YOUR CLASS. Try slides. Or cartoons on the board. Role-playing dialogues and acting out simple plays can be used to enliven even a beginning language section. If you yourself are not a native speaker, try inviting one or two natives as guest lecturers each quarter. Use all your resources-the more ways in which students are offered foreign language input, the more they will absorb.
3. WHENEVER POSSIBLE, DEVELOP QUESTIONS, DRILLS, AND EXAMPLES THAT RELATE TO STUDENTS' LIVES. Students will be more interested in even the most routine work if they have an opportunity to share information from a personal perspective rather than deal solely with abstractions. The personal approach also has the added advantage of helping students get to know one another, which will in turn make for a friendlier classroom.
4. USE YOUR OFFICE HOURS CREATIVELY. Many TAs complain that they sit passively in their offices, forlornly waiting for students to show up week after week and no one ever does. It is a good idea, at least in the beginning, for TAs to extend invitations to their offices to help instill an "office hour habit" in their students. One enterprising language TA sets aside one hour for individual consultations and another for group conversation practice. Some TAs also schedule an hour to meet with students in the language lab, an extra which beginning students especially appreciate.


If you recognize yourself in any of the items listed below, don't panic and turn in your office key. Common pitfalls are common only because many people do them. Most of them are unconscious habits and reflexes which can be broken by cultivating awareness of how YOU ARE in the classroom and by monitoring the effect your behavior has on that of your students.

  • RESCUING STUDENTS is a common reflex of beginning TAs who think that being as helpful as possible is not only a hallmark of good teaching but also earns their students' respect and admiration. Unfortunately, neither of the above is likely to be true. A teacher who consistently "bails out" students does not help them learn to think for themselves; students unconsciously come to expect the TA to do all their work for them. They also pick up the not-so-subtle message that the TA is the only one in the room with the "right" answers.
  • TALKING TOO MUCH is another common problem for TAs. One of the TA's tasks is to teach students how to speak, not to perfect their own oratory prowess. The TA should not be the one doing most of the talking.
  • REVERTING TO ENGLISH when the going gets rough. Many TAs give up after an initial attempt to get their point across in a foreign tongue. Meeting 20 or 30 blank stares is frequently misinterpreted as a signal to retreat to the safety of English. Rephrasing, trying another tack, or finding just ONE student who understands and asking that student to translate are better alternatives than giving up entirely. If you revert to English it implies that students can do the same. Automatically switching back to English gives students the implicit message that they don't need to put forth an extra effort to understand. This kind of learned helplessness could have unfortunate consequences should students actually visit the countries whose languages they are studying.
  • GETTING STUCK IN A "QUESTION RUT" can easily happen. If the TA ONLY asks questions, then students only learn how to respond. A balanced format can be achieved by having students engage each other in conversational dyads and triads, asking and responding among themselves. Asking the same kinds of questions or using the same types of drills over and over again is just plain BORING and ends up lulling students into a stupor. A judicious use of surprise, varied drills, and pacing can improve even the most uninteresting grammatical points.
  • LOSING YOUR PATIENCE is a guaranteed way to block student participation and create an intimidating atmosphere in the classroom. Praise the efforts of slower students, and also encourage them to come for additional language lab practice or office visits.

While we're on the subject, the PRAISE ISSUE deserves mention here. Many TAs who have acquired fluency in a foreign language start to forget how difficult and even embarrassing their first spoken words sounded. Remember those moments when your tongue just couldn't form those new sounds? Especially for first year students, lots of encouragement-"Bueno"-"Très bien"-"Molto bene"-can help get students speaking. It is always desirable to acknowledge a good effort or a good try. TAs should not, however, be indiscriminate in their use of praise; if everyone is praised all the time, it ends up having the same impact as if no one were praised at all.


Assessing progress with your class should be a regular part of your teaching and not a twice-quarterly affair. Depending solely on structured midterms and finals for evaluation purposes gives only part of the story. You end up cheating yourself out of valuable input not only about the individual progress of students but also about your own strengths and weaknesses as an instructor.

Evaluation in language classes can be divided roughly on formative and summative lines (see section on "Testing and the TA"). Formative evaluations will tell you how students are progressing towards your stated goals; summative evaluations will tell you whether they got there or not.


These are primarily techniques for assessing "in process" student progress. If you can cultivate awareness of what types of formative feedback you receive from students, you will have a continual pipeline into gauging the effectiveness of your teaching. Some examples include:

  • daily/weekly short, no-graded quizzes;
  • open-ended questions to monitor student understanding and pronunciation;
  • assignments and homework;.and
  • class discussion.

When you elicit formative feedback from students, remember that it is designed to TELL YOU something and should thus be non-punitive or only lightly weighted if it is to be graded. Students will NOT feel free to share with you if they think they will be graded every time they open their mouths or put pen to paper.


These are the midterms and finals, the nuts and bolts of academic instruction, and are designed to tell you how close students came to achieving your stated instructional objectives. While such exams are generally formally constructed, as your department dictates, even standard tests can leave room for creative approaches.

Remember, one of your objectives is to ensure that students can speak the language they are learning. Therefore, in the languages, it becomes especially important to set aside test time for questions which allow students to demonstrate both oral and aural proficiency!

consultation contacts

George Michaelsexecutive director2130 Kerr Hall
lisa berrysenior instructional consultant1130 Kerr Hall
mindy colininstructional consultant1130 Kerr Hall
Mary Lou Ramos database and ESCI administrator1130 Kerr Hall
Aisha Wedlaw ESCI assistant1124 Kerr Hall
Breana Barakoffice manager 1130 Kerr Hall
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