How To Help Students Talk When They Are "Just" Starting

Teaching beginner students is one of the most rewarding experiences a foreign language educator can have. It is also an enormous challenge even for the most experience teachers. Beginners come to our classes, whether online or face-to-face, with little or no knowledge of the language, and it is our mission to help them feel comfortable enough to jump to the pool and start producing sounds they've never made before.

Though challenging as it may be, working with true beginners gives us the opportunity to be part of a rapid change in their fluency and performance. After only a few lessons, students are able to produce enough language to communicate with others in a basic and predictable way. This might not seem like a big accomplishment to many, but it is for anyone out there (myself included) who has ever embarked in the learning of a foreign language. The feeling of engaging in their very first prosperous interaction gives students the necessary courage to continue trying, and the gratifying confidence in themselves as perfectly capable of reaching their goals.

Here are some tips that have proven to be very effective when helping students produce spoken language when they are just starting:

1. First and foremost, our attitude as teachers and facilitators of their learning. We need to be (not just look!) approachable. Students need to feel like they can rely on us, and they need to be assured that we are here to help them, not judge them. Some strategies to be more approachable are: smiling; being soft-spoken (we are not talking ASMR here, but definitely controlling your pitch/tone/speed, etc.); establishing eye contact with the student; allowing them to ask questions; using your body language appropriately; or providing regular positive feedback focusing on what the student is doing well.

2. Let students know that it's ok to make mistakes. They are here (or in class) to learn, and I always tell my students that if they already knew how to speak Spanish, they would not be needing my services, and that would be a huge loss ;) (humor, as always, is key to lower their anxiety to speak).

3. Model your activities. Many of us use a communicative approach in which the use of target language approaches 90% of class time from day 1. This is hard on students, and a lot of them can feel frustrated by their lack of understanding, or by comparing themselves to their peers. Every time I introduce an activity in class (or online) I model it myself first. For instance, if your goal is to get learners to introduce themselves in ______ (language), you might want to introduce yourself first, and support your statement with some visual aids or some hand gestures, so that they can have a better understanding of what's going on.

4. Repetition. After you model your activities, you'll often find that students still don't respond as you would like them to. Don't fret! This is completely normal in the early stages of learning. That's when teachers need to repeat, or even rephrase, what they are saying. An important note here: repeating does not equal to saying the same thing LOUDER. We are not training puppies, we are helping human beings develop a new set of linguistic rules in their brain, and we need to be as understanding and supportive as possible. (Disclaimer: if you are a professional puppy trainer, don't take offense! Also, lucky you! 😄 )

5. React. Another important aspect of the learning process. Every time a beginner student utters a word or a sentence, they want to know if they said it right, and their first hint to find out is our reaction. I'll use the earlier example again. Let's say that you are teaching a student how to introduce themselves. Then, you introduce yourself first (modeling), and you ask the student what their name is. If they respond appropriately, you might want to respond to them with "nice to meet you", and a hand shake (if it's allowed where you are teaching), or a head nod, if you are teaching online. This is letting the student know that they were successful at getting their message across. If the student does not necessarily respond as you consider appropriate, you would need to repeat the process, and consider supporting your message with some extra pointers.

In general terms, most students respond very well to these basic strategies. Learning a foreign language is an incredible adventure, and a substantial effort for students. We, the teachers, should provide them with the necessary tools to ensure this adventure is safe, fun, and fruitful.

Thanks for reading!

-Borja Ruiz de Arbulo, M.A.
Spanish Lecturer at Boston University


October 4, 2018
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¡Hola! Me llamo Borja, y soy instructor de español en la Universidad de Boston. Hello! My name is Borja and I'm a Spanish Lecturer at Boston University. I am a native speaker of Spanish, and I'm also fluent in (American) English, a language that I've been speaking every day since I moved to the United States in 2008. I have an undergraduate degree in English by the University of the Basque Country (2007), and a master's in Spanish Linguistics by Purdue University, in Indiana (2010). In the summer of 2010, I worked as a Spanish teacher at the Middlebury Summer Academy, in Vermont, where I gained experience teaching mainly high school students. In the fall of that same year, I joined Black Hills State University, in South Dakota and I taught intermediate and advanced Spanish to college students and young adults. Later in 2011, I decided to move closer to family and took a position at Saginaw Valley State University, in Michigan, where I continued to teach all levels of Spanish, while I collaborated with different local organizations such as the Saginaw Crime Prevention Council. Thanks to my experience and continuous professional development, I was offered a teaching position at Boston University in the fall of 2014. This is where I am now :) BU is my dream job. It's a vibrant, eclectic and respectful environment where teachers and students get to learn from each other on every day basis. In Boston I teach Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced Spanish courses. I also coordinate the Introductory Spanish program, and I make sure our new teachers receive guidance while they get used to being in the classroom. In addition, I am in charge of the proficiency exams we administer to new incoming students who wish to prove an existing fluency in Spanish. This part of the job allows me to put into practice my skills as an Oral Proficiency Interview certified tester, a designation I received from the American Council Teaching of the Foreign Language in 2015. At Boston University, I have been involved in distance/online education projects, such as an AP Spanish MOOC, or an Online Beginner Spanish course that launched for the first time in the summer of 2018. In general terms, my approach to teaching is a student-centered one, where my main role is that of a facilitator. This means that you, the student, are the center of attention, and I will be there to assist you by means of personalized feedback, suggestions for improvement, and strategies for further growth. Whether you are looking to learn Spanish for work, for school, or simply for fun, I am confident I can get you to speak Spanish in no time. So, schedule a free consultation with me and let's figure out a plan for you. Thank you for checking out my profile, and I look forward to hearing from you! Un saludo, y hasta pronto. Borja
Flag
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Speaks:
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English
C2
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Swedish
A1
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Japanese
¡Hola! Me llamo Borja, y soy instructor de español en la Universidad de Boston. Hello! My name is Borja and I'm a Spanish Lecturer at Boston University. I am a native speaker of Spanish, and I'm also fluent in (American) English, a language that I've been speaking every day since I moved to the United States in 2008. I have an undergraduate degree in English by the University of the Basque Country (2007), and a master's in Spanish Linguistics by Purdue University, in Indiana (2010). In the summer of 2010, I worked as a Spanish teacher at the Middlebury Summer Academy, in Vermont, where I gained experience teaching mainly high school students. In the fall of that same year, I joined Black Hills State University, in South Dakota and I taught intermediate and advanced Spanish to college students and young adults. Later in 2011, I decided to move closer to family and took a position at Saginaw Valley State University, in Michigan, where I continued to teach all levels of Spanish, while I collaborated with different local organizations such as the Saginaw Crime Prevention Council. Thanks to my experience and continuous professional development, I was offered a teaching position at Boston University in the fall of 2014. This is where I am now :) BU is my dream job. It's a vibrant, eclectic and respectful environment where teachers and students get to learn from each other on every day basis. In Boston I teach Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced Spanish courses. I also coordinate the Introductory Spanish program, and I make sure our new teachers receive guidance while they get used to being in the classroom. In addition, I am in charge of the proficiency exams we administer to new incoming students who wish to prove an existing fluency in Spanish. This part of the job allows me to put into practice my skills as an Oral Proficiency Interview certified tester, a designation I received from the American Council Teaching of the Foreign Language in 2015. At Boston University, I have been involved in distance/online education projects, such as an AP Spanish MOOC, or an Online Beginner Spanish course that launched for the first time in the summer of 2018. In general terms, my approach to teaching is a student-centered one, where my main role is that of a facilitator. This means that you, the student, are the center of attention, and I will be there to assist you by means of personalized feedback, suggestions for improvement, and strategies for further growth. Whether you are looking to learn Spanish for work, for school, or simply for fun, I am confident I can get you to speak Spanish in no time. So, schedule a free consultation with me and let's figure out a plan for you. Thank you for checking out my profile, and I look forward to hearing from you! Un saludo, y hasta pronto. Borja
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