Teaching in the L2 at the Novice Level: Guidelines for Foreign Languages Teaching Assistants
By José Luis de Ramón Ruiz, Teaching Affiliate
Foreign Languages Departments are often keenly aware of the importance of maximizing classroom time to offer comprehensible input for their students. However, conducting an entire class in the L2 can be overwhelming for new instructors, especially for those teaching classes at the novice level. Will my students be able to follow my lesson? How can I make the input more comprehensible? When is it appropriate to use the L1? During the Foreign Languages session at the 2018 Teaching Assistant Orientation, we tried to answer these questions for the new Teaching Assistants in the French, German, and Spanish Departments.
1) Will my students be able to follow my lesson?
Having a routine will help you create a space where you can stay in the L2 without losing your students along the way. The content of each class will be different, but maintaining a similar structure will help the students follow the lesson. A great way to structure your class is around the experiential cycle. In addition to the research behind the benefits of the cycle to promote learning, its four steps will give each class a foreseeable structure that will help your students stay on track.
Start your class with step 1 by offering your students an authentic experience. For instance, when teaching commands, I give my students a paper boat, a new sheet of paper, and the folding instructions for building the boat. Then, I ask them to work in pairs and try to reproduce the boat by reading and following the directions. In doing so, they start using commands before we even start talking about them. In step 2, through a questionnaire, they reflect about the new grammatical mood they have been using. In step 3, they receive formal instruction on the grammar. And finally, in step 4, they get to use commands to teach their classmates something they know: how to get to the library, how to make a cake, how to draw something, etc. The experiential learning cycle provides a model that you can reproduce for every grammar class you teach.
There are several ways in which you can structure your class. However, the main takeaway here is that having a specific structure in your class will help your students follow your lessons better when you teach only in the L2.
2) How can I make the input more comprehensible?
In addition to having a routine, successfully teaching a (novice) class in the L2 requires great amounts of comprehensible input. If the students cannot make sense of the L2, they will not process the input and language acquisition will not take place. However, making input comprehensible, especially at the novice level, can be quite challenging. Here are some suggestions that may help you make the input more comprehensible:
- Cognates and simple sentences. Think ahead about how you can deliver the input in simple sentences and with as many cognates as possible – do not forget to speak clearly and slowly!
- Visual aids. Use the board or the projector to offer visual aids for those words that might be more difficult to understand. Acting out certain verbs (running, swimming, etc.) is also an effective way to make them more comprehensible.
- Vocabulary checks. Instead of asking if there are any questions, use vocabulary checks to make sure that the students have understood the material. For example, if they are learning the word “pencil,” ask them if we use a pencil to eat or to write with.
- Language patterns. Pattern recognition is essential for language acquisition. You can repeatedly work with the same structures and progressively introduce changes to them (new vocabulary, new verbs, etc.).
3) When is it appropriate to use the L1?
The role of the instructor is to maximize classroom and homework time to offer comprehensible input in the L2. However, there are instances when it may be appropriate to use the L1. Specifically, English may be appropriate when it comes to creating an inclusive teaching environment and to reducing students’ anxiety during the first days of classes.
Feeling welcome in the classroom is important for learning to take place in any discipline, but it can be even more so in language learning, where affective factors play a great role in the acquisition process. A great way to make sure that the first day is comfortable for everybody is to touch base with your students in the L1 via email and ask about pronoun preferences for gender nonconforming students, disabilities, or any other relevant information that your students would like to share with you before they get into class. You can also remind them that they are welcome to talk to you in the L1 about anything concerning inclusivity in the classroom throughout the semester.
Similarly, receiving instruction only in the L2 can be, at first, overwhelming for certain students. If those students feel too much anxiety in the classroom, their high anxiety levels will be detrimental to language acquisition. To help reduce it, you can use the L1 to reiterate key portions of the instructions or to clarify some of the hardest grammatical points, especially during the first days of the semester.
As with any other skill, learning how to teach in the L2 at the novice level requires time and practice. At the Teaching Assistant Orientation, we encouraged participants to take advantage of the resources offered by the Center for Teaching and the Center for Second Languages Studies for further support in L2 use. Moreover, there are language teaching communities where you can find additional resources and listen to other instructors talk about their experiences teaching in the L2.
 Johnson, S. M. and Finch, V. (2016). Leveraging Travel Abroad: Collecting and Teaching with Authentic Resources. Retrieved [3/13/2019] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/leveraging-travel-abroad-collecting-and-teaching-with-authentic-resources/.