10 tips for teaching native speakers

Tips for teaching native speakers in foreign language class

Teaching native speakers in foreign language class is not easy. They have the oral fluency that your other students lack. Their use of idiomatic expressions is superior. They don't need vocabulary lists to work with, and they don't want to learn from a textbook. But ... they might not know how to read or write at all, and what do you do when it comes to verb conjugation?

I've been there! I've had classes with native speakers, plus students who have gone through 9 years of immersion sitting right beside students who are in their third or fourth year of French. I've taught middle school where all students were required to take a foreign language but the only level offered was French 1, so any native speakers ended up in a class where I was teaching colors, numbers, and family vocabulary!

It can be really difficult to keep the learning experience meaningful and respectful for all students. Here are some tips for teaching your classes with native speakers.

1. Be clear in your expectations.

A lot of native speakers will try to slide by when they realize they know the vocabulary you are teaching. They need to understand that correctly using the grammar (in writing, too!) is a part of foreign language acquisition. Do they need to do every vocabulary activity? Probably not. Could they find a more meaningful way to practice the spelling of the words they know? Definitely.

Rather than have the students complete every assignment, quiz, or test, you could choose certain activities together that the students will skip. In exchange, the students can complete an alternative assignment, such as a presentation, a reading assignment, or a project instead. You'll need to be clear from the start what assignments he/she can opt out of, and you'll want to have alternatives ready to offer.

2. Provide opportunities to read in the native language. 

For students who have some literacy skills, reading is always an acceptable swap. If you don't have texts in your room, a quick online search will help you find some short articles about a variety of topics. I kept a binder in my room divided into subjects such as sports, fashion, food, movies, music, and other topics of interest to teenagers. From that binder, students could pick an article that interested them. Sometimes I had the time to create questions about the article. If not, I had a general question form that had questions like these below. I would have students pick five questions to complete. Questions are in English for the Spanish teachers reading this. ;)

1. Why did you choose to read about this topic?
2. What is one thing that surprised you?
3. If you learned anything interesting from this article, tell me a bit about it.
4. Is there anything from the text that you disagree with? Explain.
5. Would you recommend this article to someone? Why/why not?
6. What could be another title for this article?
7. Why do you think the author wrote this article?
8. What is the main idea of this article?
9. If you could ask the author any question about this subject, what would it be?
10. What questions do you still have about this subject? 

You don't have to have a large classroom library to offer reading activities to native speakers.

3. Let them choose what they'll learn.

Native speakers get so bored in classes when all that is presented is what they already know. For each unit, allow students to opt out of a few assignments in exchange for something that is interesting to them. Maybe they can go to the library to do some research for a day where you are doing an activity they find really easy. Then, they can come back and present their findings to the class.

For example, if you are doing a unit on food, does your native speaker need to memorize a categorized list of fruits and vegetables? Doubtful. Could they go to the library and research a famous restaurant and do a quick presentation (or a big one, if you prefer)?

Choosing what they learn doesn't mean they don't have to acquire the necessary skills. It doesn't mean they don't have to learn to spell. It does mean that instead of a translation quiz, they might benefit more from writing a paragraph. It means that instead of memorizing vocabulary they already know, they can learn even more terms by focusing on what they don't know yet. In the end, it means that they aren't bored with activities that are too easy for them.

4. Keep them engaged.

When you hand out a new vocabulary list, you might get the eye roll or the bored look when students are asked to memorize words they already know. Some of the words might sound outdated to them, or maybe those words simply aren't relevant. You might even find that they disagree with the terms, because they say it a different way. Keep them engaged with your vocabulary by mixing up their lists a bit.
  • When you pass out a new list, have them mark the words they may not know. They will be responsible for knowing all these words, just as the rest of the class is. Take it a step further, and for words they are familiar with, have them list words they might use instead (or even antonyms for the words). For example if the word is heureux, they might write joyeux. This shares more vocabulary with the class and helps the native speaker think about his/her language.
  • If you have native speakers in a beginning course, they will likely know all the vocabulary on your lists. Another way to keep them engaged with vocabulary is to allow them to make their own lists (again, choosing what they'll learn). For each vocabulary unit, have them add a set number of terms that they will focus on.  You and the student can decide on some words that correlate to the unit that the student would focus on. The student will not need as much time to memorize the list, but he/she will still need to work on spelling those word. Don't have time to create a list for the student? Let him/her look up a few words using a bilingual dictionary.
Native speakers have different vocabulary needs than other students.

5. Help them balance their skills.

Native speakers need meaningful practice to learn verb conjugation. Honestly, a lot of them will use every tense correctly without knowing what it means to conjugate a verb. That's okay! Your job isn't to make them learn only the present tense simply because that's what you are doing. You need to help them where they are. They will benefit from your presentation of the concepts, and they will still complete tasks to practice, but you don't have to give them ALL the same tasks as their classmates.

For me, grammar worksheets have never been effective with native speakers. They don't always understand the terms we are using (what is the passé composé?) but they can use the concept orally with no issues. They find the worksheets irrelevant and boring. They confuse the students, because the grammar worksheets we often use in foreign language class are geared towards students learning a second language. Native speakers need a different type of practice to review and perfect what they already inherently know.

When working on a grammar concept, here's what I like to do:
  • If they can write, even if it isn't perfect, I have them write. While the rest of my class might complete a verb practice sheet, I would ask the native speaker to write a paragraph using that concept.  When studying the passé composé, the student can write a paragraph about what he/she did last night. Then, you can focus on helping that student correct the grammar you are focusing on. I also love to find fun pictures and have them describe what's happening. You can ask them to focus on a specific time, so they will be using the tenses you want without you having to give them a list of verbs on a worksheet.
  • Do a lot of speaking activities. Yes, this is so important for all students, but it is really helpful for native speakers. They might speak well, but they are still kids, and they all are bound to make grammar mistakes that you can help them correct. 
  • If they are able to read, even at a beginner level, find interesting topics they can read about rather than having them do a conjugation worksheet. Because they will understand the verb tenses a bit more than others without direct instruction, you could have them highlight or circle verbs of certain tenses. If they are able, you could then have them write those sentences in a different tense. For example, if the text is in the present tense, you could have them choose 5 sentences to write as if it happened yesterday (so using the passé composé and imparfait) or writing those sentences with the future tense. 
  • If completing grammar sheets is something you absolutely want them to do, try to find a few activities that will encourage them to work at their level. You can swap out a page, or even add an extra page and ask them to complete the same number of activities as the others, allowing them to choose what they would like to work on.

6. Encourage them to share their culture with the class.

Too often we forget that our native speakers are experts on culture. They have so much to offer in terms of cultural relevancy, and I've never had a native speaker who wasn't proud to talk about his/her country. If you are doing cultural projects, allow them to choose their own country, but don't MAKE them pick this country if they want to do another one. If you allow the others to pick, then it's only fair to allow them to pick!

It's also very important to allow students to speak their language with their vocabulary, rather than asking them to restrict their language to what is being taught in class. Too often, we teach one term as the only correct way to say something, and this can cause the student to be frustrated when he/she perceives his language as less valid than the form you are teaching. Encourage your students to use all the terms they know, and they'll have pride in their language.

Vocabulary can vary greatly from one country to the next, but this doesn't mean all the terms aren't correct. You only need to observe a conversation between someone from France, Canada, and Senegal to see the richness of the language you are teaching! As a teacher, it can be intimidating to realize that we don't know all the words, and that's okay. The students might know things you don't know. Allow them to teach you.

Encourage a native speaker to share a bit about his or her culture.

7. Vary your questions and your student groups.

You can ask basic yes/no questions to the rest of the class while you are using more advanced vocabulary with your native speakers. If they use a word you aren't familiar with (which happens if you don't speak the exact same French or Spanish as they do!) then ask them to explain it, write it on the board, and add it to your word wall or working vocabulary list.

If you have several native speakers in one class, don't assume they always want to work together. Yes, they might speak with more ease than the others, but kids can see this singling out (even when we think it is for a positive reason) as punitive. Even if they speak more fluently than others, they might not always speak as correctly! I've taught mixed classes with native speakers, immersion students, and FSL only students, and at times, the FSL students outscored the immersion and native students because they used structures correctly instead of relying on what felt right. How many times do you hear your English speakers say things incorrectly in English even though they've been speaking and hearing English at home and at school for many years? It's hard to break those bad habits, and native speakers and immersion kids acquire plenty of them!

8. Learn from them.

Native speakers are bound to understand things that non-native speakers just won't know or understand. If you aren't a native speaker yourself, as many foreign language teachers are not, then you will run into a time when a native speaker knows something you don't know. It's okay. It's best to have a conversation with the students early on and let them know that even though you aren't a native speaker, you've studied a lot and you can teach them a lot.  In return, let them know that you understand that there are things they can teach you. Build the relationship on mutual respect and the students are likely to respect you and want to learn from you.

Let your students know that you will be working together and that their viewpoints are valued.

9. Give them the role of class expert in a subject.

I once was lucky enough to have a class with a student from Haiti and a student from Cameroon. I learned so much about their cultures that I didn't know, and it was the most amazing experience for me and all the other students. They shared their favorite musicians, pictures from home, and talked about their own countries, allowing us to learn so much from them. They were the experts in our classroom, and we learned so much, but as they had grown up in other countries, too, they learned some things about where they were living that they didn't already know. It really brought together all of the students as they learned more about one another.

10. Connect with their families.

This is so important with all students, but I think it is especially important with the families of native speakers. After all, you are teaching their child the language they speak at home. There is already a bond there, and with some nurturing, you can form a great connection that will only benefit the student. If the parent doesn't speak English well, you could be a contact at the school that would encourage the family to get more involved. And who knows? Maybe speaking with that parent would spark some ideas for how you could help the students.

What do you do to help your native speakers? I'd love to hear your ideas below. :)

How to teach native speakers in your foreign language class

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