Language learning goals: the formula to better teaching

language learning goals

As teachers, we tend to spend the summer pondering what we want to do in the coming school year. One of the things that is important for us to consider before making big, sweeping changes to how we run our classrooms or what our policies and teaching methods will be is simple, but so often ignored. This important question we should ponder is “what are our students’ language learning goals?” What are your goals when you teach the class? What are the district’s language learning goals, and the parents? While sometimes these goals may mesh, sometimes they can be very different.

A wide variety of language learning goals

People have many different motivations for studying a foreign language. For adults, learning a new language can help with personal growth, career advancement, and to deepen cultural understanding. Adult goals of learning a language might be to open doors to new experiences and promote self-enrichment. As teachers with a clearer view of the future, we may see the value of language in meeting these goals, but are they really in line with our students’ language learning goals?

For many students, they are taking a language class because it’s a requirement. They may need a certain number of years for graduation or college admission. They may need elective credit and your class might be the most interesting of their options. Or, they may just be stuck there because everything else was full. These goals are going to affect the way they view the class – students who just want the credit don’t necessarily care about the content or life-long value of the material, they just want to know what they have to do to pass the class, get their credit, and move on.

Other students might be taking the course because they truly want to study the language. But what is it they are hoping to get out of it? Are they hoping to travel someday, or study abroad? Do they just want to be able to have a basic conversation or flirt in the language? Do they plan to study music or science and need a working knowledge of a language in order to continue their academic studies? Their language learning goals are going to be different from the majority of students, even though they all share the same class.

Parents might view your class as just another class that their children need to take, no more or less useful than any other. Or, they may have a view that your class is useless – after all, they live in America and nobody needs to speak (fill in the language) when everyone speaks English! They might believe that a language is useful – in my area, there are quite a few LDS students and some of them plan to go on religious missions at some point. Others might see the value in future academic areas. Parental language learning goals for their children can vary widely, ranging from hostility to ambivalence to very positive.

(As an aside, I will say that my track record with students going on missions is rather bad. One of my very first students ever went on a mission to Russia – and got kidnapped. Seriously. They even made a movie about it. The next one who went served in Cote d’Ivoire – and caught malaria almost immediately.

Another was dealing with his sexual identity and thought that a mission would help him in his struggle. He ended up in a very gay-friendly part of Québec and is now happily out – of both the church AND the closest. So parents, maybe you don’t want your kids in my class in order to prepare for a mission!)

As for our districts, there are a few basic reasons why our world language programs continue. Some get almost no support on a district level and have to fight for their existence every year. When a teacher retires or leaves, rather than finding a replacement, their program just ends. Other districts want the cachet of having students take the AP tests.

My district is pushing hard for the seal of biliteracy and has added a few languages in the past few years – Farsi, German, and Russian. Their language learning goals include getting more students to take four years of language classes to prepare for this.

Now that we’ve looked at the different viewpoints of what the different language learning goals might be, you can consider how that should affect your classes and how you run them. Sometimes this will lead to conflicting needs and preferences. But in the end, it’s your classroom and you call the shots. You can try to keep everyone happy, but it’s also important to keep yourself happy. Trying to be someone you’re not is not sustainable, and students will see through it.

It’s a good idea to take a few minutes to determine what your own goals for your program are – do you want students who pass the AP test? Students who learn to love a new culture? Students who can recite poetry?

How language learning goals affect your classroom

While we as teachers may be familiar with methods and which methods work to teach our students, if we don’t consider our students’ language learning goals as well it is a recipe for disaster. If your goal is to prepare students for the AP test and your students’ goal is to simply get their two years of language out of the way, you may find yourself at odds. Students who are trying to get the elective credit and who have no plans to take some high-stakes test four years away are less likely to spend time outside of class pursuing the language. So if your program involves lots of homework, you may be less successful with these students.

But of course you never know what students will end up doing later on – the same student who insists that they just want their credits for graduation may discover that they love the language and change goals a few months in. Or a student who thinks they want to study all four years might find that there is something else that catches their interest and that they’d like to fit in their schedule later on. Knowing that we have to deal with all types of students with different language learning goals means being flexible and finding a way to teach that will serve all of our students.

One thing that helps me with my planning is to view the level 1 and 2 classes as different from the level 3, 4 and AP classes. I haven’t taught levels 3 and up in a while (ever since we got a second French teacher on my campus), but when I did I saw that the students who continued past level 2 were very different from those who only took two years. They were more interested in grammar and practicing for accuracy than the level 1 and 2 students.

The vast majority of my students will only take 2 years of French. While some (a very small number) might choose to continue past second year, most will finish their two years with me and then move on to some other elective, or graduation. Knowing this, I focus my classes at those levels on survival skills and basic communication. These students aren’t interested in perfection and don’t care about writing essays – yet. These classes have a wider variety of students – younger and older, differing levels of motivation, different maturity levels.

In the upper level courses, the students have self-selected – they are the ones who were successful in the first two levels and likely are more concerned with perfecting their skills. This is when I can start focusing more on the traditional grammar activities, and things that are a little more challenging. These students are more likely to enjoy doing project-based learning that requires them to use the language at a deeper level than the lower-level classes. I’m less likely to have discipline issues due to maturity and motivation, so we can be a little more relaxed.

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