Pleuger, Jan (2001) How to Teach Modern Languages -- And Survive!
Multilingual Matters, vi+178pp, paperback ISBN 1-85359-542-X,
USD 16.95, Modern Languages in Practice Series 17
Kristi Hislope, North Georgia College and State University
This book discusses every day experiences encountered by foreign
language teachers primarily at key stages 3-4 (the British equivalent
of American middle and high school). The book is written in a humorous
style which is accessible to laypersons. The strategies and discussions
presented are aimed at reducing anxiety for both the pupil and the
teacher. Pleuger believes that, "...the key to successful language
teaching is the enthusiasm of the ML [modern language] teacher her/
himself" (p. 2). However, she admits success is only obtained with
"...practical techniques for expressing ... enthusiasm and engaging
theirs [the students]" (p. 3). Although she claims that the ideas in
the book can easily be applied to adult learners, the vast majority of
the suggestions and activities in the book are better suited to younger
Pleuger presents a variety of suggestions from designed flashcards, a
script for Cinderella in French for middle school children, ideas for
incorporating music into lesson plans, to tips for taking children
abroad for a day or for an extended period of time. Each chapter
begins with approximately five to ten questions followed by concise
answers. This series of questions and answers is discussed later in
the chapter and alerts the reader to the contents of the chapter.
Chapter 1 reads like a self-help guide for the new teacher during their
first month or year of teaching. It is a description of what recent
graduates may be thinking when they decide to become foreign language
teachers and the reality they face at their first teaching job. This
reality includes having to abide by the British National Curriculum (or
your country's mandated curriculum guidelines), standardized tests to
"reveal exactly what your class has (or has not!) learnt" (p. 5), and
lastly, a class full of bored children. She reminds the new teachers
to calm down, that teachers before them have been successful and they
can be also by simplifying or breaking down exactly what the students
have to learn and finding a way to make it interesting to them.
Chapter 2 addresses anxiety and calls it "the demon of foreign language
learning" (p. 10). Students must be made aware that anxiety is
normal. The successful teacher must reduce it and take away their
students' fear of failing by doing such things as warm-ups, pairwork so
they can support each other and by having them decorate flashcards to
practice with later. To alleviate teacher anxiety, Pleuger suggests
not worrying if their homework is not done, just tell them to do it for
the next day and give quick, short feedback on speaking evaluations.
In an attempt to build learner confidence Pleuger is creating an
atmosphere in which students are not held accountable for the material
in class and who may use as an excuse that they were not ready to speak
yet. While this may work with younger students, older (teenage)
learners may take advantage of this situation.
Chapter 3 is dedicated to the advantages of using the overhead
projector and not the chalkboard. She says to "avoid the blackboard
like the plague" (p.18) and to cry or do whatever necessary to get an
overhead. In this age of technology, children like looking at screens,
so they will pay more attention to the overhead projector. When using
the chalkboard, your back is to the room and notes can easily be erased
in your absence. However, transparencies can be reused each year.
Chapter 4 describes the educational value and advantages of using
flashcards in your class. By designing the cards with many colors, the
students have a visual image as well as auditory stimulus when they
repeat the words on the card. Designing cards and giving prizes for
the best is something that all students can excel at and motivate them
to learn the language. Storing the cards at school and bringing them
out at different times is also an excellent review. They can also make
their own language dictionaries by drawing in notebooks.
In the middle of the chapter, Pleuger digresses by beginning a
discussion on the length of class time and the number of classes per
week. The argument is valid but misplaced in this chapter. It would
fit better in chapter one when discussing new teachers' misconceptions
about the classroom, class time being one of them. She offers funny
but impractical advice. She suggests jokingly that if you cannot get
your school to agree to more than meeting twice a week and "you are
under thirty-five, move to another school" (p. 27)!
Chapter 5 discusses competition as a valuable tool which does not have
to discourage or humiliate students. If competition is used as class
entertainment and not taken seriously, then it can have many benefits
such as enthusiasm, motivation, and giving every student the
opportunity to excel at the most basic tasks. She lets children see
her grade book so they can track their grades. This, she claims,
motivates them to perform better on the next assignment. However, she
also lets them see her whole grade book to compare their grades to
their classmates' grades (p. 34). What Pleuger suggests may be a
breach of student confidentiality in your country or district. If the
idea of shared grades appeals to you, check the legality of it before
Chapter 6 offers advice on how to put on a play or other performance
using different amounts of the target language. She suggests using a
universal story so that the audience will understand. The teacher can
write the script to accommodate the language level of all students that
want to participate. The students will learn because they are excited
and it is a fun activity. At the end of this chapter, Pleuger has
added four short French works that she adapted including Cinderella and
Joan of Arc. It is very useful to see the works she is describing in
Chapter 7 is all about using visuals as a way to promote learning and
to bring the foreign countries into your classroom. She discusses
bulletin board design in detail and suggests taking an empty suitcase
abroad to fill up with items which can be used in the class or having a
foreign friend send authentic materials for the board. She strongly
advises getting computers in your class. They can be used to download
and print many colorful pictures. She advises against using real money
on the boards. At this point she describes a student who stole the
money and was banned from the trip abroad. This anecdote would be
better served in chapter 10 (day trips abroad).
Chapter 8 is a description of making a country and language seem more
real to the students by having them design folders containing all kinds
of information on the country. It is a good way to teach culture and
answer the familiar question, "Why don't they do it like us"? They
love to have contests to chose the best folder, so, again, the activity
if fun for them. Another way to bring culture into the classroom is to
allow them to chose a name in the language.
Chapter 9 is filled with many excellent ideas on how to make "open
evenings" (a visitation or observation night) a success without going
overboard. Included is an amusing yet valuable list of "rules for the
art of hovering" (p. 84), or, in other words, how to appear
approachable yet not pounce on the parents.
Chapters 10 and 11 both relate to travel abroad with students. Chapter
10 describes a day trip to France from England. She humorously
describes a trip abroad "like childbirth - when it's all over, you
forget the pain" (p. 89). A trip abroad offers many advantages to
students: makes a reality out of fiction, broadens their horizons,
motivates slackers, etc. She gives practical advice on how to plan the
trip, how to prepare the students and parents, and what to expect on
the trip (everything will go wrong that can)!
In chapter 11 a longer stay abroad is discussed. Pleuger states that a
one week stay is usually long enough. Arranging families for students,
how to deal with homesickness, and advice on how to find an exchange
school are presented.
Chapters 12 to 16 deal with the four skills and use of the target
language. Chapter 12 presents practical suggestions on developing
listening skills. Pleuger suggests using visuals, asking comprehension
questions in English, doing your own voice recordings, and repeating
frequently until the students learn how to listen for information.
Stress that understanding half of the information is good in the
beginning stages of acquiring listening skills. She advocates using
songs, videos, and games to reinforce/teach listening skills.
Chapter 13 focuses on speaking. Pleuger calls speaking the language,
"the main and most urgent need of a foreigner" (p. 126). To lessen the
anxiety of beginners toward speaking, she emphasizes not stressing
perfection. Acting in role-plays is a good way to grab their interest
and get them speaking. She also offers other suggestions for practice.
She discusses preparing the students for the GSCE (British school exit
exam) oral exam. To prepare, set up many mock interview with the
students, and do not give them false hope of passing if they are poor
Chapter 14 calls for more target language usage in each year of
instruction. The language should be as authentic as possible to
simulate real language use. She recommends leaving a few minutes at
the end of each class for discussion in English. The chapter concludes
with suggestions again for preparing for the GSCE.
In Chapter 15 ideas for teaching reading are presented and suggestions
are made for passing the reading portion of the British school exit
exam. Teaching using fun activities such as translating songs and
making newsletters is fine at first, but they must practice reading
more serious material for comprehension as well. Strategies for
passing the reading exam are discussed (i.e. avoiding direct
translation and reading all questions prior to reading the passage).
Chapter 16 presents writing as a difficult task because of attention
that must be paid to detail. Pleuger claims that memorization and
constant repetition are the only ways to improve writing grades (p.
156). She recommends copying. She claims, "If they copy and learn
nothing but material which will appear in their writing exam paper, you
are focusing their effort where it is most needed, simplifying their
task, and equipping them with a priceless store which they can draw on
almost effortlessly when the time comes" ([. 158). This suggestion
turns language learning into a rote exercise in which all meaning is
reduced to a memorized form void of any meaningful language practice.
It is teaching with only one goal in mind, to pass the test and not
with any real communicative values. To her credit, she does mention
ways for getting a higher score, such as adding transition words (p.
Chapter 17 concludes the book with music as a technique to teach
language. Students should learn the words without having the activity
turned into a grammar lesson. They will memorize it and learn the
structures later. The five previous chapters are on language skills
and geared toward the school exit exam. Therefore, this chapter would
fit in more naturally after chapter 6 (plays and other performances).
The strengths of this book lie in it's reader-friendly humorous tone.
Each chapter and it's sections are short and to the point which make it
ideal as a quick, yet informative read for busy, perhaps overwhelmed
novice teachers. The anecdotes and suggestions are based on real-life
experience which adds credibility to their claims of success.
For non-British readers, some terms and concepts of the British
educational system will be unfamiliar. The book does include a brief
glossary of some of the terms. However, readers would be facilitated
by having a reference to see the glossary after the first mention of
such terms or acronyms. Other terms which may be common knowledge to
the English may not be to others and are not explained. For example,
SNCF (p. 91); CTIS (p. 104); and grade F-G, etc. (p. 158). Also, for
readers not in proximity to a country where the foreign language is
spoken, experiences such as a day-trip abroad and it's description may
not be fruitful, but could be adapted for a visit to a community or
business where the language is spoken. For British readers the
references supplied are invaluable (i.e. addresses of places you may
write or visit to obtain information mentioned in the book). This is
also a list of further reading which could prove useful.
If you are looking for a book on the theory of teaching and practical
applications based on theory, this is not the book for you. On the
other hand, if you want to know what to actually expect in the
classroom and how to go about it, then this is a good, short
interesting book keeping in mind that most of the suggestions in the
book are more valuable for younger learners.
Kristi Hislope received her Ph.D. in Spanish linguistics from Purdue
University in August 2001. Currently she is assistant professor of
Spanish at North Georgia College and State University. Her research
interests include second language acquisition, heritage language
learning/teaching, bilingualism, and teaching second language writing