7 Most Common Mistakes in Teaching Foreign Languages And How To Avoid Them


This post is about regular language education in schools. For most of you it wasn’t the best experience, but let’s try to see why, and how the things can be improved. If there are any school teachers reading this, I hope they will benefit from my observations.

During my elementary and high school education, I’ve encountered some very common mistakes that teachers make, and which produce the all-too-common phenomenon of: “I’ve studied French for 10 years in school, and I can’t say a word in French”. In my case it wasn’t French, but German, but you get the idea.

More precisely, the mistakes I’ll be talking about cause the following:

  • extremely inefficient lessons, and students who don’t make any real improvements in their language
  • confused students
  • unmotivated students
  • students who, even if they were motivated to begin with, lose their motivation

Now, let’s see what these mistakes are:

1) Teaching out of context and not explaining why

You know the drill: The teacher enters the classroom, writes the title on the blackboard (or the whiteboard) and starts teaching right away. The fact that the previous lesson was maybe a math test and that you’re totally NOT in the mindset for a new lesson, especially when you don’t know why you are supposed to learn it, and how to place it in context of other elements of the language learning process is of no concern for the teacher. He just starts teaching the new unit right away. The result: The students are confused, they are neither motivated nor concentrated, and they can’t wait for the lesson to end.

The solution: The entire school year should be some kind of planned journey and students should be informed about the plan from the very start. I would recommend using first few lessons at the start of school year, just for informing students in details about the plan, so that they know:

  • what are they expected to learn
  • how much they should improve in their language
  • what areas of vocabulary they need to learn
  • what areas of grammar they need to learn
  • what skills they need to practice
  • in which ways each element that will be covered during the year will be useful for them, and how will it contribute to their general goal of reaching a higher level in their language

Printing a syllabus and giving it to students at the start of school year is also recommended.

Also, the first few minutes of each lesson should be devoted to orienting students in their journey and motivating them for the new lesson.

2) Giving incomprehensible input

Using a foreign language in the foreign language classes is a great thing: it helps students gain exposure to the language and it makes them unconsciously acquire certain linguistic elements while focusing on other elements. However, it works ONLY if students understand the lesson. The input in foreign language should be comprehensible and this is the best way for students to improve in their foreign language, but if the input the teacher gives is way above their level, the whole thing is completely useless. They will just spend the whole lesson waiting for it to finish, fidgeting or being generally confused.

If you are a new teacher, or just started teaching in a certain class you should first evaluate the level of your students and adapt your input accordingly. If you just start speaking in a foreign language without making sure they understand you, you might simply  build a big wall of nonunderstanding between you and your students that will demotivate them and prevent them from improving in their language.

3) Too strict adherence to the textbook or to official syllabus

If your students notice that you’re just following the official plan and program mechanically, they’ll conclude that you’re not truly interested in teaching them language and they will lose their motivation. While adhering to the textbook and the program is a good thing and can keep your students oriented and prevent them from being confused, if you ONLY use the textbook, and never deviate from it, the students will get bored and you might even lose their respect. So the solution would be to ask them sometimes about the  stuff they would want to learn, how they are progressing, what  their weakest points are etc, and adapt your teaching style to their needs.

4) Being too formal, being a “teacher’s teacher”

If you make your students feel very clearly that YOU’RE THE TEACHER and that they are just students, this will create a distance between you and them, they will not feel comfortable asking you questions and this will increase their anxiety, which can seriously impair their language acquisition. I’m not saying that you should behave as if you were their best buddy, but you should be as informal as possible, as approachable as possible, while still making it clear what they are expected to accomplish and what their goals are.

5) Being too strict

The easiest way to make your students hate you is to be too strict. While maintaining high criteria is important, if you are too pedantic and if you lower their grades for errors that are simply the product of poor concentration or hurry, and not the real lack of knowledge, you’ll alienate your students and they will be happiest when they are free from your lessons. When you are giving a grade you should also take into account things such as student’s effort, whether their errors were the result of not studying or just poor concentration, etc.

6) Having too low criteria

You should not fall into trap of the other extreme: grade inflation and having too low criteria. If you distribute A grades just like that, many students will simply stop studying. School can be a difficult period and everything has an opportunity cost. If they know they can get an A grade from you without much studying, they will not study. Not because they hate you or don’t like your subject, but simply because they have an urgent math test for example and they need to study for it, and they know that if they don’t they’ll fail. So if your criteria is too low, it stops being their priority and they will dedicate their time to other subjects. Also, what’s even worse, they might, over time, lose respect for you and your subject, and feel pity for you… but the pity is never a sufficient motivator to make your students study. So you need to have firmly established criteria. Realistic, not too strict, but not too easy either.

7) Not being a coach

Being a teacher is not enough. For the best results you need to be a coach as well. What does it mean? It means speaking often about the whole language learning process, and how to improve in it, how to make progress, what are the best study strategies, etc… And not only that: you need to mention often what are the benefits of learning that language, you need to speak about culture of the countries where this language is spoken, you need to mention work opportunities and other opportunities that this language offers etc. If you’re just teaching them lessons without being passionate about it and without making them believe they will truly benefit from it, they will just give their minimum effort to get a passing grade and to eliminate your subject from their life.


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