Teaching a foreign language in a virtual classroom for specific purposes – vocabulary – Part 5

There is no exact recipe to follow when teaching a foreign language in a virtual classroom for specific purposes. However, some challenges tend to be continuously present. Breaking down texts into their basic components is indispensable for these type of courses.

In the previous article we discussed the particularities of the audience and the materials necessary for this type of course. In this situation this is not an ordinary audience, mostly because of the fact that the students are not coming from a similar learning background, which creates difficulties in establishing group cohesion. Materials should be designed in order to correspond to the specific fields of the students, as well as to their skills. In order to teach a course for specific purposes, it helps to have students who are at a B2 level.

Once the subject is identified, the teacher should start to break it down into its components. These components are, generally speaking, grammar and vocabulary. However, since we are talking about students at a B2 level, these components are, more specifically, connectors consisting of complex syntax and logic of the text (written or oral). In this way, the teacher can align their course with the general B2 level. In addition, they have assembled many specifics about the subject: what type of logical connections it requires, what syntax is needed to best convey them, or, on the other hand, what is the regular type of expression in this field.

As easy as it may seem, this kind of work requires a lot of effort directed towards the analysis and understanding of data, which is usually done before the beginning of the course. In reality, though, much of this effort goes into revising already designed lessons, changing some pieces here and there, and monitoring progress during the course itself. Before the course is over there may be moments when the teacher needs to change entire lessons in order to meet the needs of the group. Don’t worry! A language teacher is not supposed to be competent in the specific field, but only in the types of documents that they are teaching their students to produce.

The use of an e-learning platform

The use of an e-learning platform in this process can prove invaluable in regards to providing resources, analyzing data, and correcting the students’ work. In a physical classroom, teaching and learning are limited to viewing a few videos, writing down new words, and correcting students’ writing or oral performances. Let’s take a closer look at these parts of the lesson.

When presenting new vocabulary to a particular group of students who have studied the language in different environments, the list of new words is never the same. Not only should the teacher explain specialized vocabulary, but they also need to be ready to define general (non-specific) terminology Moreover, it is very important that they learn to differentiate between specific and non-specific vocabulary. In my practice I often begin with a small activity that is specifically designed to differentiate between these two types of vocabulary. This way I am sure that students are aware of this difference.

Here is an example of how things can change from group to group and from class to class. Let’s say that you created a list of words for group A that you would like to keep and refer to in future lessons; the problem is, however, that the same list could not be used with group B. If you have to remember or write down after class everything that you explained, wrote on the board, drew and showed, this would double your work. But what if you could simply keep the file and change it whenever needed. This is where the features of an e-learning platform prove very useful. Let’s suppose that you decide to give the group something to read on their subject; then, after a certain amount of explanation and discussion, you will have come up with a vocabulary list. In the e-learning platform, you can use and reuse this list multiple times, which saves time and turns the list into a sort of a textbook page. Students can be assigned the task of working from the list. For example, you can start by using some techniques for learning the words and then you can reuse them in different contexts. Basically, you can simply share the list with them and in this way they will have all of the tools in their possession.

Giving students what they need in order to achieve their goals is very valuable to them and they will have the impression that they are getting something more from every lesson – not only files and materials, but also competences. In order to build these competences, they need to be able to “put their hands” onto something.

Once you have worked with the vocabulary, the students can be assigned a subject on which they are expected to write a short essay or to give a brief speech. Once they are ready, they will submit their work to the teacher. The teacher will evaluate their work and, if needed, correct it. When the class is finished the students will feel like they have worked on something meaningful and that their studies are progressing. Student presentations and essays can be analyzed by the teacher to determine the progress of their students and how well they are adhering to grammatical rules. As a teacher it is important to remember that it is always better to provide positive feedback relating to the work of your students than just harping on all of the errors that they made.

A very rewarding activity in this context is designing and building a project together with your students. This may be participating in a blog on a subject or joining a forum in their specific field. The group may even want to attend and present at conferences on their subject, in which case they will need to show motivation and an abstract of their presentation. You can learn more on applying a project-based approach here.

In the next article of the series we will discuss teaching grammar in an online course for specific purposes. Developing writing and oral skills in the presence of grammatical inadequacies is not easy, especially when it is the teacher’s role to identify areas for improvement in their students and methods to help them achieve their goals.

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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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