The remote classroom has presented challenges for students in all subjects, from band directors trying to hold auditions to chemistry teachers hoping to create safe labs. Foreign language instructors are also affected. Their field trips are canceled, their food days aren’t possible, and it’s hard to recreate many of the same lessons through a video screen.
However, it’s possible to create engaging lesson plans in the virtual classroom. Here’s how teachers can revamp their world languages class.
Tips for Foreign Language Teachers
The first step to create engaging lesson plans is to understand what you want to change about your existing lessons and what can stay. While it may seem easier to use your in-person activities, this process could be more confusing in the long run.
“Instead of trying to transfer your in-person strategy to digital, accept that digital teaching has a different flow,” says Devon Gunning of La Libre Language Learning. “It’s very student-driven and self-directed, and highly individual. Let it be that way rather than trying to recreate your classroom.”
Similarly, get an idea of how you plan to connect with students. Language learning is so individualized it’s difficult to get an idea of what each student knows based on full-class activities.
Mary Straub, a high school Spanish teacher, struck a balance between live and recorded classes. She ended up hosting one live class per week and then used recordings so students could learn on their own time. This actually freed up space for her to help learners with individual questions so they didn’t fall behind.
Along with modifying your lesson plans, consider how you can use the online teaching environment to your advantage. Kelly Burch at We Are Teachers suggests having students create labels for household objects. This can make language learning a family affair, as everyone in the home can learn the names of different appliances and pieces of furniture. Students can also create sentences and conjugate verbs based on that vocabulary.
Let Students Choose Their Methods of Study
In order to keep students engaged in remote learning, look for ways to give students more freedom in what they learn or how they learn. For example, you can let students choose their reading materials to develop their vocabulary.
“Self-selected pleasure reading is the source of most of our vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and the ability to write with an acceptable writing style,” says University of Southern California Emeritus Professor of Education Stephen Krashen.
By letting students choose their own reading materials, they can develop vocabulary around their interests. Students can choose books that they are interested in (like Harry Potter in Spanish) or subscribe to international newspapers to keep up with global events.
Elena Spathis, a high school Spanish teacher, uses texting to create assignments for students. She asks her kids to have conversations in Spanish via text messages as part of their homework. To complete the assignment, they send screenshots of the conversations to Spathis, who edits them for spelling and grammar. Texting is a more casual format for students, and this process feels fun for them and less like homework.
Both reading for pleasure and texting puts the learning process in the hands of students. They develop the skills they need but in a method that works for them.
Learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all process, says high school teacher Larry Ferlazzo in his video that includes tips for remote teaching. Students have different interests, hobbies, and reasons for the language they chose to learn. By building flexibility into your world language lessons, you can let students follow their own interests while learning another language.
Tap Into Project-Based Language Learning
It may seem like project-based learning is harder when students are restricted to online learning in their own homes, but you can still engage kids in long-term projects. In fact, project-based learning may be the key to engaging students through their screens.
Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, COO at Calico Spanish, shares 10 project-based language learning ideas, many of which can be modified for the virtual classroom. These include creating social media campaigns related to certain businesses and writing reviews of their favorite places.
Different projects will require different levels of writing and language mastery. You can also revisit the projects throughout the semester as students learn more.
As you evaluate which projects you want to bring to the classroom, consider which activities really provide meaning and will benefit students.
“A project must engage students in a situation that is not manufactured solely to target prescribed verb forms or practice an arbitrary list of words,” says Spanish teacher Laura Sexton. “If they’re really going to use language for something other than passing a test, students need language they’ll actually hear outside of Spanish class.”
While both verb tense and vocabulary are certainly important, that knowledge doesn’t get to the roots of the language and the people who speak it. This is where project-based activities come in.
“It’s important for students to experience the culture of a foreign language they are studying,” says project based learning coordinator Angela Marzilli. “It can make the language more engaging to learn, can help with vocabulary understanding, and creates more empathetic students. The trick is to be sure that a culture-based project is authentic.”
Marzilli compares a food expo with a project based on the types of food in different regions of one country. The first is fun; the latter provides more history and context related to the culture, which adds authenticity. The latter also happens to be easier to do in the virtual classroom.
Take a Virtual Reality Field Trip
If you want to break up the week, look for ways for students to explore the world outside of their bedrooms and away from their kitchen tables. Many organizations have created virtual field trips for students and most can be used in the foreign language classroom.
“I’ve found that with my kids one of the big disappointments during this crisis has been missing out on field trips, but we’ve been really impressed with the VR field trips we’ve done,” says Rich Henderson, director of global education solutions at Lenovo. Some VR trips allow students to interact on their own computers. In others, a teacher wears a VR headset and leads students to different areas.
Educator Matt Miller at Ditch the Textbook shares 25 virtual reality field trips for teachers. This is a great jumping-off point to discover more places to take your students related to the language they are learning. For example, students can take a tour of the Great Wall of China or learn about the ecology of Peru and Columbia. You can tie VR tours into art, nature, history and culture, all with a language-learning focus.
Connect Students With Pen Pals
The use of pen pal friendships is having a rebirth in the digital era, where students can write letters, emails and texts to friends around the world. You can tap into these in your foreign language classroom.
For the duration of the pandemic, for example, PenPal Schools is offering its services for free. Students collaborate on a global project that interests them. The project can range from dispelling fake news to implementing robotics to solve problems. On a smaller scale, students can join topic discussions on the website and share their thoughts on global issues.
This is a great way to practice the language they are learning and connect with the people who speak it. To date, PenPal Schools has more than 300,000 participants across 168 countries.
There are also pen pal organizations that don’t specifically cater to students but may offer a way for your pupils to connect with other people. The Geek Girl Pen Pals Club is open to all gender identities, 17 years and up. The goal is to connect geeks from across the world who have similar interests.
Additional Resources for Your Remote Foreign Language Classroom
If you feel stuck in the lesson plan development process, turn to other education professionals who are eager to help.
Sarah Wike Loyola, for instance, curated more than 30 authentic activities for the world language classroom. Many of these are already digital (like YouTube videos) while others can be adjusted for the remote classroom. Many of these activities won’t take up a whole class period (like posting a word-of-the-day on Instagram) but can further engage students in the materials they learn.
Additionally, the team at FluentU has language-specific resources for educators. You can read blogs related to general language education as well as ideas for Japanese, Arabic, Korean and Russian educators (to name a few). Their team recently created a series of templates you can follow as you create projects and plan for your classroom.