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Motivating Students to Study a Foreign Language

Learning a foreign language enables students to relate to other cultures, expand their employment and witnessing opportunities, and sharpen skills in their own language. Many high school students, however, are not motivated to learn because of the boredom that often characterizes the foreign language classroom. Yet as a foreign language teacher, you have the potential to teach young people through creative, engaging experiences.

The key to an enjoyable experience in language learning is the direct involvement of the student. Seldom, if ever, should a day go by in which he does not actively practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing in the target language. Your main job is to motivate everyone to participate in these activities. Their increased level of interest and motivation will reward you for the additional time and energy you spend in planning student involvement.

Regardless of the methods you use, try to expose students to as much of the target language as possible. Research has established that the student who is exposed to the spoken language in a meaningful context outperforms the student who uses it only in drills and written exercises in class.

Why is this the case? Consider the differences and similarities between a child's learning of his native language and the acquisition of a second language. Obviously, acquiring a second language involves more reading and writing from the outset. Mastering one's own language is also easier simply because of the early age at which learning occurs. Children as young as nine or ten have passed the optimum point for rapid language acquisition. In addition, people spend their entire lifetime learning their native language while students usually do not spend more than two years studying a foreign language.

Nevertheless, significant similarities exist between the two processes. A child is not consciously aware that he is learning his native language. As he is exposed to it in everyday situations, he learns language structure principles. Eventually he creates entire phrases and sentences based on those principles. The child is motivated to communicate simply because he is placed in an environment in which this communication is necessary.

Likewise, the foreign language student should begin to speak and form sentences according to what he sees and hears. You can use visuals and act out vocabulary words to keep from using the student's native language in class. Encourage the student to identify objects by using words he already knows from previous vocabulary lessons. Permit him to see as well as to hear new vocabulary words in the target language.

Using the Total Physical Response (TPR) method, developed by James Asher, allows the instructor to teach the target language by training students to respond to commands. When the students hear commands such as run, jump, come, and go, they respond by acting them out. Student involvement is very high - instead of taking notes and doing written exercises with the imperative forms, learning comes through trial and error. The student experiences the concept. His participation increases his ability to recall.

Other means of exposing your students to the language include audio and video tapes, available at many libraries, and native speakers from the community. These will allow students to hear the natural flow of the language. Students may also engage in activity through flashcards and other interactions with the teacher. Let someone be Simon in "Simon Says," of call out numbers or letters for a game. Once the student feels comfortable listening to and speaking in the foreign language, he will be ready to begin reading and writing.

Adapting a common elementary school technique provides an interesting way to introduce reading and writing. Bring an object to class, such as a flag, an article of clothing, or even a cat. Pass it around the class, allowing students to examine and feel it. Ask students for the impressions of the object in the foreign language. As you write their descriptions and comments on the chalkboard, students will become familiar with the word formation and syntax in the target language. They will enjoy this activity even more if you can bring a native food for them to taste. On occasion, allow the students to write about the experience instead of dictating.

Here's an idea that will keep students active in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. When teaching family vocabulary, have your class construct a large family tree. Move the desks to make room in the center of the floor and use masking tape to draw an outline of a tree. It must be large enough for the students to stand on different tiers. Call each student individually and place each one on a different level to represent mother, father, daughter, son, and so on. As you introduce each new family member, keep reviewing the former ones, as well as describing the relationships between them. For instance: My mother's sister is my aunt.

Once the students are familiar with the vocabulary, have them work on an activity in pairs. Each student describes on paper the members of a well-known family, such as one from the Bible, the school, the government, or history. He then exchanges papers with his partner. The partner reads the description and tries to guess the family being described. By the end of this lesson, all the students will have listened, spoken, written, and read.

For variety, begin class by allowing students to work in pairs or small groups. Comic strips are usually a good source of visual aids. Supply each pair of students with a comic strip and have them think of as many words as they can to describe the pictures. Then place the pairs into groups. All the members will share their words, and the group as a whole should write a paragraph describing the comic strip. One member of each group should be appointed at the end of the allotted time to read the paragraph to the class. The groups should be small enough for each member to have a specific task. And the person who will read should not be appointed until the end of class, so that each member is prepared to speak.

Even reading in groups can prove to be a fun experience. Supply each group member with a cookie and have icing and candy on hand for decorating. Then give each group a difference set of written directions to decorate its cookie. Directions for one group might read: "Get yellow icing from the teacher." "Paint a yellow face with the icing." "Take four peppermints from the jar." "Make a smile with the peppermints." "Get a chocolate chip from the teacher." "Make a nose with the chocolate chip." These directions should not be written in order, so that the students have to communication with each other in the target language in order to unscramble them. Once they have deciphered the directions, have them circle nouns, underline verbs, and star adjectives in the directions. They will then be ready to decorate their cookie.

Part of the difficulty of keeping students actively involved in learning a language is the fact that students learn differently. One student will understand a new word the first time he hears it. Another will need to see it written. Still others may actually need to write the word themselves. Depriving a student of the stimuli he needs in order to learn causes frustration and slows learning. Your job as a teacher includes identifying and meeting the needs of each student. A variety of group sizes and activities in the classroom ensures that the needs of each student are addressed.

Perhaps more than any other teacher, the foreign language instructor is not only a teacher, but a motivator. Students will participate if they sense enthusiasm and fresh ideas originating with the teacher. Of course, there is no one right way to teach a foreign language, no single approach to follow every day. Occasionally, it will be necessary to define and explain English. You will need to do a great deal of pre-planning to organize lessons around usable vocabulary and appropriate themes. Success as a foreign language teacher demands a commitment to searching for the most dynamic and interactive method of presenting each lesson.

 by Melody Moore and Ken Casillas. Updated October 21, 2015.

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