Small Teaching for Instructors of Foreign Languages

Peter Knapczyk

This post is authored by Peter Knapczyk, from the Middle East and South Asian Studies (MESAS) Program. Knapczyk developed this contribution as part of his participation in the CAT’s New Faculty Learning Community (FLC) last year. 


I was introduced to James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (2nd Edition, 2021) as part of a New Faculty Learning Community organized by the Center for the Advancement of Teaching. This book is full of practical teaching tips and model activities based on current research in pedagogy and student learning. Small Teaching is intended primarily for post-secondary instructors who are interested in revamping their teaching methods and enhancing student engagement and learning. What I found most refreshing in Lang’s approach is that he recognizes that few instructors have time to do a large-scale overhaul of a course, especially once a semester is underway. The premise of Small Teaching is that instructors can make significant improvements to their courses with small interventions in the form of brief five to fifteen-minute lessons. These lessons—designed with busy instructors in mind—can be implemented with little preparation or grading and are easily adaptable to a range of subjects and teaching styles.

Small Teaching in the Foreign Languages

In my role as an instructor of Hindi and Urdu languages at Wake Forest, I found that most of the interventions and general lesson models proposed by Small Teaching can be applied productively to foreign language teaching and learning. Although Lang organizes the book around nine learning principles, I believe the chapters on interleaving, practicing, and explaining are particularly relevant for foreign language courses. Here I’ll describe some of the ideas that I have found most productive in my own courses and share examples I’ve found effective for students of foreign languages.

Strategy 1: Interleaving

One principle that resonated with me was interleaving, a term which describes a process that I have long observed as both a student and instructor of foreign languages. Lang explains that interleaving involves both “spacing out learning sessions over time” and “mixing up your practice of the skills you are seeking to develop.” In my experience, these processes are adopted by all successful language students. Outside the classroom, students of a foreign language realize that when they engage in conversation with the target language community, they must be ready to encounter the range of vocabulary and grammar available. Yet courses in foreign languages tend to downplay this comprehensive experience of the language. Instead, courses typically isolate particular topics and structures, and move through these as learning blocks one by one during a semester. The problem with such “massed” or “blocked” learning is that older lessons are often left unrevised and unintegrated with newer ones. This is detrimental to language learning because it fails to prepare students for how they must use their language skills outside the classroom in an integrated way.

To remedy this approach, interleaving provides a model for revising and integrating material repeatedly throughout the semester. It aims to prioritize students’ cumulative knowledge of the language, rather than isolated blocks. Following the premise of Small Teaching, Lang offers some brief interventions to facilitate interleaving.

  1. Instructors should make all quizzes and exams cumulative in order to encourage students to review older material frequently and to convey the importance of constantly integrating their knowledge. To add this to an existing course, an instructor might simply reserve a certain number of questions from each quiz or exam (Lang recommends 20%) to focus on material from previous units.
  2. Break up class time that is focused on blocks of particular vocabulary topics or grammar structures by adding short review activities that highlight material from previous lessons and units. If we expect students to use their knowledge of the language in an integrated manner, we must allow them time to regularly revise and practice.
  3. Ask students to create mock-test questions on the material at the end of each unit. Later in the semester, the instructor can draw from these questions to create short warm-up or refresher activities.

Strategy 2: Practicing

The second learning principle that I have found useful for foreign language courses is practicing. While the concept might seem obvious, we often fail to make time for students to engage in structured practice. The key to helping students learn a complex skill is to first identify the individual cognitive tasks it entails. Speaking a foreign language successfully involves mastering and coordinating a seemingly infinite number of tasks, from pronunciation and grammar to social and cultural knowledge. Likewise, a language course should structure practice in a way that allows students to develop and combine these skills step-by-step. As an amateur musician, I often think of the process of language learning as similar to playing an instrument. Both are skills that are developed with the end goal of performance, whether this be a successful conversation with the target language community or performing a piece of music in a concert. For a musician, there are many steps between learning scales and performing a recital, and we would never allow a student to take the stage without adequate practice of the performance itself. Likewise, in a language course we must not make the mistake of focusing on the “scales” and “exercises” of a language at the expense of practicing “making music.”

One strategy from Small Teaching that I have developed in my courses is to guide students in practicing presentations. Giving an effective presentation is challenging in one’s first language; doing this in a foreign language can be extremely daunting. To help prepare students for this task, I break the assignment into multiple parts, ranging from content and structure, to performance and speaking skills. Rather than asking each student to present from beginning to end, I begin with short timed sessions in which students take turns in small groups presenting only a small fragment. For beginning students, we may begin with just the first 30 seconds of the presentation, which students repeat several times. Then we move to the following section, gradually combining these fragments to create the entire presentation. This repeated practice allows me to circulate and make small corrections individually in a relatively discrete way. It is remarkable how after just a few repetitions students’ fluency and confidence shows a marked improvement.

Strategy 3: Explaining

The final principle from Small Teaching that I found fruitful for foreign language courses is explaining. By this Lang means that instructors should involve students in the teaching process. The process of preparing to teach another person a concept or skill requires a level of clarity and active mastery that is difficult to otherwise achieve. I have implemented this strategy in my courses by using peer teaching, where students teach one another mini-lessons related to aspects of language and culture. I have also been pleasantly surprised with having students prepare more formal lessons and activities to review material from earlier in the semester. This is particularly effective at the end of the semester as a strategy for students to help each other prepare for the final exam. I ask each student to prepare a short explanation of a concept followed by examples and exercises for practice. The simple act of switching roles and having students lead the class seems to revitalize the review process and infuse the group with new excitement. I have often taken inspiration from my students’ creative ways of explaining and practicing material, and proudly admit to borrowing their ideas to create my own future lessons.

Overall, I would recommend Small Teaching to anyone interested in experimenting with simple yet effective enhancements to their courses. While the book is primarily a practical guide with ideas for interventions, the pedagogical principles have provided me with a theoretical structure for focusing on aspects of the learning process such as interleaving and practicing. These were already familiar to me in an intuitive way, but Lang’s interventions helped me better understand how to build these into the structure of my lessons and courses. Although I have focused on the application to these principles to foreign language courses, I believe the ideas in Small Teaching are applicable to a range of subjects and well worth the time and effort to explore for all courses.

Reference

Lang, J. M. (2021). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning (2nd ed). Jossey Bass: Hoboken, NJ.

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