Dr. Heather McCoy is the program director for French and Francophone Studies at Penn State University. As program director, she is responsible for designing the French language curriculum at PSU, as well as supervising the graduate students who teach this curriculum to Penn State's undergraduates. Recently, LoveToKnow French had the privilege of gleaning expert tips on teaching and learning French from Dr. McCoy. Professor McCoy has many years of experience in teaching French, paired with extensive knowledge of the theories of foreign language education. LoveToKnow is excited to share Dr. McCoy's expert insight in this fascinating field with readers interested in becoming French teachers.
LoveToKnow (LTK): How is teaching French different from teaching History or English? What makes it an exciting or fulfilling career?
Dr. Heather McCoy (HM): Language teaching is exciting because you are able to provide students with tools for communication as well as the frames they would need for understanding many aspects of the culture. I see my role as a language teacher as that of someone who guides students towards making meaningful communication possible in a variety of contexts. To me, language teaching is about showing students the various choices available to them as they seek to make their own meaning. Ultimately, teaching a language is exciting because you are helping students find a whole new way of being in the world.
LTK: What kinds of courses do students have to complete in order to become French teachers? How does the training process work?
HM: For students looking for K-12 certification, the curriculum consists of coursework in French and in curriculum and instruction, foreign language pedagogy, and other courses in the field of education. Most M.A. and Ph.D. students have some sort of research agenda and are in a graduate program so that they may receive training. In most cases, they fund their studies by serving as teaching assistants in the French department. My role of the language coordinator, in this case, is to supervise and provide them (the graduate students) with the necessary training and materials to carry out their jobs as well as keep them up to date on the most current teaching practices and new ideas from the profession.
Interaction of Theory and Practice
LTK: How do theory and practice interact in the training of French teachers?
HM: This is a very interesting question. Sometimes people eschew theory, deeming it to be too abstract and instead adopt the position that good teaching has nothing to do with theory; but instead, is all about knowing what works in a hands-on, practical sense. It is important to recognize that all language teaching is rooted in a theory. Whether you are having your students memorize dialogues, translate passages of classical texts or write journal entries for an imaginary trip, the activities that you choose for your students are sure to be a reflection of the language teaching methodology that you received as a teacher. We are always operating within the grips of a theory, even if we don’t realize it! Since teachers tend to stick with the methods they were trained in, it is vital that teacher-training be as comprehensive as possible; teachers-in-training need a program that is both theoretically based, as well as attuned to what that theory might look like in terms of classroom tasks and assignments.
My goal is for every teaching assistant in my purview to be aware of the history of foreign language education, know the various methodologies and the theoretical underpinnings of each, and be able to articulate her own vision and understanding of the methodology that informs her own work. When graduates go on the job market, whether it be for a position in medieval literature or as a language teaching specialist, knowing the current trends in language teaching and having the vocabulary to talk about them is crucial. All but a few jobs these days at the post-secondary level will require instructors to carry out language instruction as some level. I seek to instill in language instructors, no matter what their field of specialization, the development of a reflective teaching practice, one that allows them to evaluate materials, continually adapt to new insights, and maintain a perspective on why they do what they do.
Essentials of Teaching French
LTK: What does the 'ideal' beginner French class look like in your opinion? How can a teacher achieve this?
HM: The ideal beginning-language classroom starts by giving students the immediate opportunity to see a lot of models and use the language to create their own meaning. Students are given tasks that are level-appropriate, and ideally, are rooted in real-world activities. For example, a beginning French student would be asked to fill out a hotel registration card with his own personal information, because this is a task that he would likely encounter outside of the classroom. The key is for instructors to choose tasks that are level-appropriate and meaningful. Many activities fall flat and don’t succeed, leaving beginning teachers perplexed and doubting their abilities, when really the problem is that they’ve asked students to do something that is not yet within their grasp. An example of this would be asking beginning students to engage in a political debate in French. Students at this level simply don’t have the requisite linguistic tools to be able carry out this task without becoming frustrated.
LTK: Learning a language involves learning to read, write, speak, and understand the language. How do all four skills develop?
HM: Much current thinking about this topic tends to move away from the ‘four skills’ approach, as this tends to create an artificial separation between modalities that rely on one another. Instead instructors should think about how their class activities in different modalities build upon and reinforce one another.
LTK: How long does it take for students to really become fluent in a foreign language? Is there any shortcut?
HM: I don’t like to use the term fluency as it can set an unrealistic standard for language learners. Instead I like to emphasize the concepts of literacy and proficiency. I like to know what a student’s learning objectives are, and why they want to learn French. Is it for study abroad? Working for a French company? Taking an Art History class? All require different levels of proficiency and imply different language-use contexts.
LTK: How much French is actually spoken in a beginner class?
HM: A lot! It is very important to me that students start right away using the language. It’s important to instill a sense of participation and ownership of French, in the students. They obviously won’t achieve advanced proficiency overnight, but they can begin communicating right away.
Becoming a French Teacher
Teaching a foreign language is an exciting and fun career, and there are many reasons to learn French. If you would like to become a French teacher, learn more about the various French degree programs you are considering in order to earn certification for teaching French. While some programs are very focused on a subsequent teaching career, others may not offer considerable support but instead focus on learning French to pursue higher academics. Discuss your plans with advisors in each department you are considering before making a choice. As Dr. McCoy states, the importance of developing a reflective teaching practice is essential; becoming a French teacher means adapting your working methods each year, but this is just one of the positive aspects of a career in teaching French.