The Role of the Teacher

With BVP, Luca, and Carol
With BVP, Luca, and Carol

Last week I had the honor of guest-hosting Tea With BVP. It was tons of fun. The main feedback I got from friends and colleagues who listened was variations of “you should have said more.” So here I’ll say more about that episode’s topic, which was the role of the teacher in helping students acquire another language.

Here’s what I think. The teacher’s role boils down to providing these two things:

  1. Input
  2. Opportunities

I really think it’s that simple!

But here’s a slightly longer version. Teachers should

  1. Create an environment filled with target language input appropriate for learners’ proficiency and interests.
  2. Create or seize opportunities for students to use the language meaningfully.

That’s it. Sure, there are other things a person with the occupation of teacher may be required to do or choose to do–give formal assessments, help students interact with target cultures*, create products in or about the target language. But these things are, technically, not part of a person’s acquiring a language: that is, they don’t cause the changes in the brain that constitute moving from being a person who doesn’t know language X to being a person who does know language X. This doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. We just need to be clear with ourselves about what we do that supports students’ acquisition of the language, and make sure we are doing those things enough to justify calling our courses language courses.

*interaction with the products, practices, and perspectives of other cultures will necessarily take place as the relevant products become part of the “target language input” referred to in #1.

If you want to know more of what I think it means for the teacher’s to provide input and opportunities, read on. Then you can tell me in the comments section what I’ve missed!

1. Create an environment filled with target language input appropriate for learners’ proficiency and interests

Input is instances of the target language that are intended for communication and that someone actually hears or reads. “Intended for communication” means that samples of the language used simply to show how the language works may not qualify as input.

Input can be created by the teacher or curated and introduced by the teacher. It can also be sought by students, but this is unlikely to happen efficiently in the early levels, and takes training and motivation to happen at any level.

Especially in the early levels, the most efficient way of exposing students in class to language that is at just the right level and that interests students enough for them to want to continue being exposed to it is through the teacher’s speech, continuously adjusted based on comprehension checks, “teaching to the eyes,” direct feedback from students, and conversation with students. “Just the right level” means likely to be understood, containing some language that learners haven’t yet acquired, but nevertheless understand in real time through the immediate linguistic context, through extralinguistic information, or through students’ having just been told what the “new” language means. (Just remember that telling someone what something means, or why it means that, isn’t what causes acquisition; rather, the accumulation of instances of understanding this language later in meaningful contexts is what makes the form~meaning match necessary for students to develop a Mental Representation of the language. This is also why I use the phrase “understand in real time.” If using context or extralinguistic information takes additional time, the input isn’t comprehensible yet, and “figuring out” what something means doesn’t bring about acquisition. Again, if a learner soon encounters language she has figured out, and understands it in real time during that encounter, the encounter will help cause acquisition.)

The most efficient way for learners to be exposed to sufficient amounts of less customized, but still comprehensible, language in or out of class is Extensive Reading.

Interest isn’t technically necessary for acquisition of a language, but–both in the case of teacher-produced/curated input and in the case of Extensive Reading (/Listening/Viewing)–students will be most likely to choose to continue to pay attention and participate in the interaction if they are highly interested in the thing actually being said.

2. Create or seize opportunities for students to use the language meaningfully

Input is what the brain uses to create a Mental Representation of a language. Improved use of acquired language comes from engaging in the actual activities in which one wants to be able to use it: enjoying a song, arguing, drafting an email, playing party games, reading a book. For students to get good at these things, students need to (a) have a sufficient Mental Representation of the language from input, and (b) have opportunities to actually do these things. If students want to get “good at” listening to French songs, they need a ton of input and they need to listen to a lot of French songs. If students want to get “good at” interrogating Dutch people, they need a ton of input and they need to interrogate a lot of Dutch people.

This part of the role of the teacher, then, calls for teachers’ finding out what it is that students want to be able to do with the language and creating or seizing opportunities for students to do so.

There’s an important point that’s often overlooked here and that can save teachers and students a lot of time: Most of the skills developed through component 2 (opportunities) transfer from already known languages. If you know how to get directions in English and you have a sufficient Mental Representation of German, then you can get directions in German. If you know how to argue in English and you have a sufficient Mental Representation of Spanish, then you can argue in Spanish. There may be some cultural or pragmatic issues you need to get the hang of, but this doesn’t really take practice.

To become a Master Questioner equipped with even more ways to form and use questions to sustain compelling interactions, check out my recorded webinar It’s All about the Questions!

3. Okay, this stuff helps, too

There are some things teachers can do that aren’t technically part of second language acquisition, but can impact it in a good way. These include

For tons of ideas about creating an environment rich in target language input and in opportunities for language use, see the posts tagged lesson plans.

Happy input-and-opportunity-providing!

Posted in Teaching and tagged , , , , .


  1. Thank you for this post. As usual, excellent food for thought!

    You say one of the teacher’s jobs is “finding out what it is that students want to be able to do with the language.” That is a good point and I definitely don’t do it enough. However, as you know, I’m a Latin teacher. There are no Romans to interrogate or ask for directions.* I suspect that for many of my students the only goals they have for taking Latin would be “get a good grade in it” or at best “build my English vocabulary.” I have never seen even the slightest twinkle of interest in reading Latin literature in its original form, unfortunately. Do you have suggestions for some things kids might want to do using Latin?

    * and all they ever said was ‘all roads lead to Rome’ anyway which is only helpful if it’s Rome you’re trying to get to…

    • I hear you, Ellie! I don’t have a game-changing answer, but I will say that students don’t have to know in advance, or even very early in their time with you, what things Latin might allow them to do or enjoy. They can get those ideas from you, gradually. I usually think of this process in two categories: Wowing and Wooing.

      Copied from another post:
      “Few students enter a language class, especially a required one, eager to advance in proficiency, and especially few come with eagerness that isn’t tied to the desire for a particular grade. Telling uninterested students that knowing another language will boost their brainpower or their employability will bring in only a few more. For our students to travel the path of proficiency as “love goes toward love,” we need to wow and to woo:

      We need to wow students with the capabilities of language itself and, especially, with students’ own ability to acquire and use it successfully and joyfully.

      We need to woo students, in the loving, trusting setting we create, with the delights of the language and with the prospect of acquiring more of and doing more with the language.”

      In practice, with Latin as with other languages, Wowing comes largely from setting students up for success in understanding what they hear or read and, eventually, in expressing what they want to express. Wooing comes largely from exposing students to quirky, surprising, or otherwise interesting content that might lead to their catching the bug.

      I survey my students at various points in their Latin careers about what sorts of things they want to be able to do in/with Latin. I give them 10 or 15 sample answers in addition to write-in spaces. Almost all the things that students say they want to do are things they’ve done–things they’ve learned are possible and enjoyable–in our class. In other words, they may not have had any idea of (or interest in) what they could do with Latin before joining the class, but the class itself has given them ideas and interest.

      I’ll see if I can track down the sample answers from one of those surveys. They’re things like “read myths in Latin,” “write my own Latin stories, songs, or poems,” “chat with my friends in Latin,” “be the Latin expert in my home,” “read Latin love poetry,” “understand Latin signs and inscriptions when I travel,” “participate in a Latin immersion event,” etc.

      What are some of your ideas?

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