How to Set Your Own Agenda in Language Class

As it turns out, just blankly staring at your teacher during class isn’t enough to make the most of your class time! JCMU English Program Coordinator, Christopher Garth, shares his teaching insights below to help you improve your language study skills. 

I’ll have to admit: I wasn’t always the best student in school.

I could often just get by with some last minute cramming or by relying on whatever natural born talents that I did have to guess or figure out answers in the moment. These are strategies for slacking off that I’m sure most readers here will admit to using (or abusing) from time to time in school. However, approaching classes in this way might result in passing grades, but it won’t lead to you getting the most out of a course, and it will certainly not lead you to getting the most out of the money that you’re spending on classes.

I put in a lot of effort in order to make the most of my class time

What I have learned is that in order to really benefit from your classes, you need to have your own agenda as you enter the classroom.

What do I mean by, “agenda” here? Well, many people talk about general goal setting for language learning (e.g. learn 5 new vocabulary words each week, write your new kanji 10 times before the test, raise your TOEFL score by X amount), but what I mean is that although the teacher has his/her own plan for class on any given day, you should also have your own plan for what is going to happen during class. No more just sitting back and listening to what your instructor says and following along passively in activities. You are in charge of a lesson plan, too. You are going to make your own individualized student lesson plan.

The idea is actually quite simple and it came out of an idea that I had in graduate school. In one class, my classmates and I were given five or six dense academic articles to read every week, on top of readings from other classes. After struggling for a bit, I realized that what I could do in this class and the others, was skim and scan the information (I’m looking at you, abstract and conclusions!), see if I could understand the graphs and tables, and then for each article prepare:

  1. One thing to ask about the article
  2. One thing to say that I thought was interesting about the article (“interesting” here could mean, “surprising”, “doubtful”, “strange”, etc.)
  3. One comment about data (a graph or table)

On the surface, this may seem to just be a method to make my studying more efficient, but what I came to realize was that it also changed the way that I interacted IN class. Now, I was coming to share things, I had questions ready to engage the professor and my classmates, and I had my own opinions about the material. I certainly wasn’t going to spend time creating this stuff at home and then leave it unsaid. Heck no! I was going to class and I had things to say and do while I was there. I had my own agenda.

Below, I’ve reoriented my three-part preparation procedure to suit you, the language student. You can, of course, feel free to modify it in any way that you’d like.

Questions are key
  1. Questions, questions, questions

Spending a lot of time at the front of a classroom, it is obvious that some students manage to get more of my time and attention than others. I, of course, strive to give all students relatively equal amounts of my time and energy in class, but I am always extremely happy when a person actively seeks out my help with understanding the material that I am trying to teach. What I dread, though am prepared for, is a wall of silence if I just ask my students a general question like, “What did you think of the readings from last time?”

When I ended up back in grad school, I found that my professors were the same. I think that they were also quite pleased to have a student assertively asking specific, topical questions. It helps energize the classroom when the teacher doesn’t have to provide all of the content or discussion topics. It also helps the student by providing him or her with a concrete answer or further examples that elucidate a difficult grammatical form.

Step 1 for you is to look at what was covered in the previous class or what will be covered in the next class and prepare a question about it. Ideally this will be in the target language, but hey…whatever you can manage is fine.

  1. Make a sentence and say what you want to say

Most learners in a formal setting only respond to prompts in their homework and class work. In other words, the majority of students will only create language based on questions that they are asked or tasks that they are given to complete. What does this mean for you the student? It means that you are participating in an extended conversation based on someone else’s wants and needs, i.e. the teacher’s or the textbook writers’. As an adult, that is not a very satisfying relationship to be in, just riffing off of what other people are talking about. Instead, you should be actively planning things that you want to say or share in class.

One simple idea is to come up with something to tell your teacher or classmates about what you did the previous day, or what you are going to do in the future. Why not enter class, say “Hi” to your instructor, and then proceed to tell him/her, “I watched X TV show last night and it was X.” For bonus points, you can try to do something like this with the grammar pattern that will be covered that day in class.

Learn how to “Word Sneak” like a pro!
  1. Not data, but words

Honestly, you probably won’t have much data to talk about in your average language class, so my original third point won’t work for most students. However, let’s replace it with one of my favorite games that I give myself as a teacher to keep things interesting for me: Word Sneak.

This game was most recently made popular by a certain late night TV show in the U.S. My version as a teacher was to keep a list of vocabulary words for the class that I was teaching on my desk. I would choose a word and try to work it into as many conversations and examples as possible. Once I was satisfied with my efforts and believed that I had given the students a number of chances to hear the word in context, I’d put a checkmark next to the word on my list and then choose a new word. Rinse and repeat, as they say.

You can do the same thing with a vocab list or vocabulary cards that you keep on your desk or in a folder. This active, deliberate use of words will hopefully help you to remember them and be able to use them naturally. It also gives your instructors and classmates ample opportunity to hear you make mistakes with a chosen word, and then correct you on the meaning of the word, declension or conjugation problems, pragmatic issues, etc. etc. etc. Once you’re happy with your progress with the word or phrase that you’ve decided to sneak into conversations, you can move on to the next.

These are just a few ideas for ways to set your own agenda during class time.

You can take these, change them around, add more, or do whatever else you want. However you approach this it’s time to realize that the more assertive you are with your personal daily objectives are in the classroom, the more you stand to benefit in language learning.

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