Foreign language teaching in a virtual classroom – Part 2: The gap between the mother tongue and a foreign language

The article addresses the topics of foreign language teaching in a virtual classroom, and gives some insights into easier management of classroom resources and providing students with tools for learning.

Beginners, as well as intermediate and advanced students, are often confronted with the unexplainable rules of a foreign language. This can be found even in languages from the same family; for example, these may be words that sound the same but have different meanings. In less closely linked languages, unexplainable rules often begin with pronunciation, continue on through grammar, and usually end in vocabulary and prepositions. Every foreign language teacher has experienced a class where the students just couldn’t understand the explanations provided for a specific topic.

When this happens, online teaching provides some welcome solutions to meet a teacher’s needs. Using the resources of a virtual live classroom proves very helpful in these cases. Let’s take a deeper look at the above-mentioned problems. In addition, you can also find some useful tips on this topic in the following articles:

  1. E-learning Trends For 2018-2019 That You Should Know About
  2. Get Into The Mind Of Your Online Audience And Learn More About Your Online Students
  3. Behind The Scenes Of E-Learning: See Why Online Courses Help People Learn Fast
  4. Did You Know That? Surprising Facts About Online Education

Pronunciation / Phonetics

Pronunciation may be one of the most difficult items to learn and integrate into a foreign language. As easy and straightforward as it is for some, for others it takes hours of repetition. Nowadays there are tons of online resources on pronunciation; nevertheless, a teacher’s help is still much needed. They can assess a student’s progress and adjust their teaching to meet the specific needs of the student. Students can use all kinds of resources at home, but there should be someone who tells them if the result is satisfactory or not. Once students start to achieve better results, they feel more motivated to study the language. While in a traditional classroom the teacher can play some CDs and/or sound files and have the students reply, in an online environment the teacher can focus on their response and, thanks to the virtual classroom’s software, can better hear their students. There is a big difference in hearing the way students pronounce words in an online vs. conventional classroom. The use of a microphone and speakers allows for much better sound quality. And we shouldn’t forget that many students are shy at first! In the presence of their classmates they may not really feel comfortable trying to pronounce strange foreign words. Finally, students can record themselves, which makes for some new teaching and learning material.

Explaining Grammar

I believe that many foreign language teachers have come up with their own explanations of bizarre grammar rules that they have come across while teaching. I admire the effort that lies behind every table, diagram, and infographic drawn on the chalk board. And I find erasing it a real pity. The links between the different parts of the demonstrated rule are not always remembered the same way by everyone; in addition, in the next class, when the teacher wants to remind students of the same rule, there may not be enough time to redraw it. Resources should be available at all times so that they can be used and reused. The classroom management system provided in e-learning platforms is a tool that perfectly meets a teacher’s needs. They can always find everything that they prepared beforehand, and it stays just a click away ready for the next class.

In the second case, there are even more advantages. Classroom resources can be shared with students. Every file that a teacher creates can be used for future reference; in this way students can compile a real textbook for the course. In order to create the feeling of making good progress, it is very important not to have the impression that you missed out on something or that you don’t have something on hand to look at. This helps students be more confident they have a certain level of knowledge and competence in a foreign language. Self-evaluation is a cornerstone of modern foreign language teaching and learning. A student should have an image of their learning process and know what they have covered. And shared files make this a lot easier.

Vocabulary

Teaching vocabulary is relatively easy, especially for beginners who share the same mother tongue. Many teachers refer to the traditional method of translating words. However, in a growing multicultural environment, and, moreover, in e-learning, students are unlikely to share the same origins and/or mother tongue. At this point the teacher needs to refer to more widely shared knowledge in order to translate the idea – this is very easily done through images. Foreign language teachers often have handouts with words linked to images so that the students don’t rely on translation. Although these can be printed out as posters in a physical classroom, they have many disadvantages: first of all, adapting them to a new class proves very difficult. However, in an e-learning environment, any poster or handout provided for students can be easily adapted, updated, or renewed. It is then stored and can be made available at the click of the mouse for the next class.

Teaching vocabulary in advanced classes, or for specific audiences and subjects, is even trickier. Advanced classes often deal with abstract notions, phenomena, and processes. Not being able to translate this terminology leaves the teacher with two choices: either providing a very detailed oral and/or written explanation, or referring to a video, interview, or 3D design so that the students can grasp the idea. Again, in a physical classroom resources can be available, but it is still the teacher who decides whether they will play the video once or twice, whether they will stop it at a certain point, etc. Sharing these resources with students is a precious step towards their autonomy in learning. Assigning the following task can be quite useful for both teachers and students: divide the students into groups and give every individual in the group a term that they need to explain in their mother tongue. Then ask them to prepare their own video explanation, which then becomes part of the virtual classroom’s resources. By participating in their own learning process, students feel much more empowered and motivated to continue with their online course. Nevertheless, this approach should be used sparingly so that students do not feel like they are doing their teacher’s work.

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Emanuela Svilarova is assistant-professor in French as a foreign language at Sofia University "St Kliment Ohridski". Her activity includes classes for beginners up to Advanced - B2 levels, and classes in French for specialized domains - humanities, economics. Apart from language teaching, her fields of interest include French and Bulgarian contemporary literature and comparative literature. She has participated in the creation of textbooks for high schools of intensive French classes, the handbook "Laughter in class" and in various teaching- and learning-oriented projects.
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