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How to Teach German
Teaching any foreign language can be a difficult but rewarding experience, and German is no exception. One of the major challenges you will face is deciding on your approach to teaching. This will depend on your audience and the individual strengths and preferences of both you and your students. Once you’ve decided how to teach German, work on helping your students get the basics of the language down. Make your students’ experience more meaningful by helping them connect personally with German language and culture.
Developing Your Approach
Identify your audience.The best approach to teaching German depends a lot on whom you are teaching. Teaching adults, for instance, is different from teaching children. Ask yourself some of the following questions about your students and their circumstances:
- “How old are my students?”
- “Do they have any prior experience with learning German or other foreign languages?”
- “Do they have any family members or friends they can speak German with at home?”
- “Will I be teaching a large group of students, or working closely with individuals or small groups?”
- “What do my students hope to gain from this experience? Do they want to use German in casual conversation, or are they hoping to pass a graduate-level reading exam?”
Try traditional teaching methods for a structured approach.Traditionally, foreign languages have been taught with an emphasis on the rules of grammar and vocabulary, with lots of repetition and rote memorization. However, immersive or task-based approaches are becoming increasingly popular.Both approaches are useful, and which approach works best will depend a lot on the individual needs and learning styles of your students.
- Traditional methods that focus on grammar, syntax, and vocabulary may be best for students who want to focus on building their German reading proficiency.
- Some teachers and students may find it helpful to combine both methods.
Use immersive or task-based methods for a more natural approach.Immersive or task-based methods allow students to learn more naturally by jumping straight into using the language without worrying about rules or memorization. This approach may be most effective for students learning to speak and understand spoken German.
- Immersive or task-based teaching focuses on engaging the students through topic-focused conversation, activities, and play.
- For example, instead of giving your students a vocabulary list to memorize, you might start a unit on the human body in German by teaching them to sing “Kopf, Shulter, Knie und Fuß” (“Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”).
Gather resources and teaching materials.Before you start teaching German, look for materials that support the approach you’re interested in. In addition to print textbooks, there are plenty of lesson plans, teaching tips, immersive learning communities, cultural resources, and other tools available online for German teachers.
- The University of South Dakota’s library has put together a useful list of online resources for teaching German here:
- For more tips and teaching tools, visit the website of the Goethe Institute:
Teaching the Basics
Work on speaking and listening.Speaking and listening are both vital skills for students learning any living language. Encourage your students to learn actively by engaging them in conversation in the classroom. Have your students converse with you and each other in German. Choose topics of conversation that your students find relatable and interesting.
- For example, ask your students to bring pictures of their favorite pets, and have a conversation about the pictures. Give them a prompt, such as: “Christine, deine Katze ist so süß! Wie alt ist sie?” (“Christine, your cat is so cute! How old is she?”).
- Develop active listening skills in a fun way by having your students listen to German songs or watch films in German. Ask them questions about the song or film when you are done, and get a conversation going.
Go over the basics of pronunciation.The pronunciation of German may differ considerably from what your students are used to in their native language(s). Take some time to familiarize your students with how German words are pronounced, and help them with any areas that they find particularly challenging.
- For example, English-speaking students may need some help learning how to pronounce accented vowels such as ä, ö, and ü.
- Focus on ways that the pronunciation of written sounds may differ from what your students are used to. For example, in most cases, “ch” in German is pronounced differently from the same combination of letters in English.
Get your students reading.Reading German will help your students develop a stronger grasp of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, as well as the rules of spelling and pronunciation. Reading German texts can also enhance your students’ understanding of German culture.Pick reading assignments that are appropriate for your students’ level of understanding. Build their comprehension skills by asking them questions about what they have read.
- For example, you might have your students read a short essay in German. Ask them to summarize the main point(s) of the essay in German, in their own words.
- If you are using a more traditional approach to teaching German, ask your students questions about grammar. For example, select a verb from the reading and ask about the tense (“Welche Zeitform ist das?”).
Ask your students to write.Writing in German will help your students gain a better understanding of the mechanics of the language. It will also build their confidence in their ability to use German as an actual communication tool, as opposed to something they just passively receive and understand.
- Provide plenty of structure and give specific topics for your writing assignments so that your students don’t feel overwhelmed. For example, you might ask them to write 3 paragraphs summarizing what they did last weekend.
Expose your students to a variety of vocabulary.The best way to help your students build a rich German vocabulary is to put that vocabulary in context and encourage them to actively use it.Introduce a wide variety of vocabulary words by organizing your lessons around different themes. Come up with a list of words that you would like to use in each lesson, and reinforce the use of those words through homework assignments, in-class discussions, and repetition in later lessons.
- For example, doing a unit on German foods is a great way to introduce vocabulary relating to food, eating, and cooking.
- Have your students use their vocabulary by describing how to prepare and serve a traditional German dish, or by acting out ordering food in a German restaurant.
Teach at least a little bit of grammar.Even if you are using an immersion-based process, your students will probably benefit from hearing some basic explanations of how German grammar works.German grammar can be difficult for non-native speakers to get used to. Talk to your students about how German grammar compares to the grammar of their native language.
- For example, while the forms of English nouns and adjectives vary depending on number, they do not usually change based on gender or grammatical case as German nouns and adjectives do. Take time to explain these concepts to your students.
Putting the Language in Context
Incorporate German culture into your teaching.Your students will find the experience of learning the German language more enriching and meaningful if they understand the cultural context of the language. Find ways to incorporate cultural themes into your lessons. For example, you might include units on:
- German popular culture, such as music, films, or comic books.
- Traditional German cuisine.
- German holidays and customs.
- Popular German sports and pastimes, such as Fußball (soccer) and Formula 1 racing.
Encourage your students to interact with native speakers.One of the best ways for your students to practice their German is to converse with people who speak it fluently. If your students have friends or family who speak German, urge them to practice German with these people outside the classroom. You might also connect your students with German pen pals or have them participate in German-language chatrooms or online discussion boards.
Help your students connect with the language on a personal level.Encourage your students to think about why they are interested in the German language, and what it means to them personally. Do they have close family or ancestors from Germany? Are they particularly interested in German history or culture? Do they want to travel, study, or work in Germany some day?
- Work these questions into an ice-breaking activity early in the class, or ask your students to write German-language journal entries reflecting on their learning experience and what it means to them.
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