Calling All Second Language Teachers! What’s In Your Toolkit?

Songs, games, rhythm and rhyme, imagery, and the odd (and not-so-odd) joke are all tools that help us to learn. Dr. Kieran Egan calls these “cognitive tools”; they make knowledge meaningful by tying it up with emotion and imagination. I can tell you from personal experience (7 years as a French Second Language teacher) that they also compose the pedagogical toolkit of most if not all, second language teachers.

#imaginED FSL

Second language teachers emerge from their teacher education programs with fully equipped pedagogical toolkits; the sun glints off, as yet, unscratched tools designed to smoothly teach the elements of a second language. The teacher has games for everything. She has songs and funky raps intended to make learning the new language fun, to creatively teach new vocabulary, to facilitate understanding of the subtleties of verb conjugation, and to aid in memorization.

Years later we see that these tools have stood the test of time. The experienced second language teacher uses games for every unit of study. He has images on the walls of French-speaking places and features of French culture. He plays music and shows clips of French films and television as a means to make the classroom a little more authentically French. The teacher throws out one of his best jokes, “How many eggs does Johnny eat in the morning.” No answer. A few eye rolls and a couple of sighs. “Just one – one egg is enough” (Un oeuf – get it French teachers?). The tools of the seasoned second language teacher are worn, scratched, even dented, but still good. They work.

My work with the theory and practice of Imaginative Education began after I had finished my stint as a second language teacher. (New to Imaginative Education?: Click here for a synopsis or explore our Tools of Imagination Series). In hindsight I can see why the tools I used—the tools many language teachers use—are effective.

I know now, however, that there are more tools that can support language learning, tools that leave students emotionally connected to what they are studying.

With the help of Andrea Leeburn (French Immersion/FSL teacher and MEd student in Imaginative Education) I will first describe some tools that all language teachers should add to their toolkits. My focus will be on vocabulary development in French, but the principles/practices can be applied to any second language. So read on brave second language teacher!

#imaginED FSL

3 Examples

Take your pick—or look at all three! These examples indicate how the story-form/personificationmetaphorchange of context, dramatic opposites, collections & hobbies, and sense of agency can support learning vocabulary in your language classroom. Go straight to the example or click on the “tool” (above) and learn more about its pedagogifcal power.


#2 FOOD (By Andrea Leeburn)


More Cognitive Tools in Action

If your students are literate in their first language they will also likely start to show an interest in collecting. On a daily basis students can be encouraged to identify their favorite sounding French (or German, or Japanese or Punjabi or Spanish) word. They can start different lists of their “favourite” sounding/looking words—they can be encouraged to organize/categorize and visually “play” with the new language. (Read more about the literate eye cognitive tool). They can collect words in different categories. They can create visual images that help them remember the meaning and spelling of words they find challenging.

#imaginED FSL

I encourage you to go to extremes for teaching vocabulary. Your students love odd, weird, amazing and unique things—don’t we all?. They love to engage in the extremes of reality. So encourage students to find “oddities” in language. Add to their lists. What is the longest French word? The shortest? What French word has the most vowels in it? (“créées” anyone?) (Don’t forget to extend this interest; encourage students to use the language skills they had developed to express events concerning extremes and limits of experience, perhaps composing their own mini-Guinness Book of Records.)

Evoke a sense of wonder; take time to make the familiar strange. In the imaginative second language classroom students will have an opportunity to see what is wonder-full about the words and aspects of language that they are learning about. (Aka: an adjective is not just an adjective). Take moment to think about the impressive role adjectives play in language—it’s worth the few minutes of your pedagogical time that will take. Adjectives: They colour our world. They add spice to life. They express individuality and diversity. Speaking of which, we’d be nowhere if it weren’t for nouns. In a sense, there would be no world at all. #imaginED #wonderYes, a noun is a “person, place, or thing”—most of your students will be able to mindlessly chant that back at you—but this definition likely means nothing to them emotionally. If we stop for a second to think about it, a “noun” is quite an amazing thing. What an abstraction! And the language for all the stuff around us is overwhelming…and arbitrary. A long metal object widened and concave on one end, narrow and graspable on the other is a “spoon”. But how did the word “spoon” come to represent such a thing? In English we say “spoon” and yet in French we say “cuillère.” How many words are there for the same item? (What is the word for “spoon” in the language you teach? LEAVE A COMMENT!)

So remember to put an unfamiliar spin on whatever you are teaching. It is that sense of wonder, even of mystery, that can help capture students’ imaginations in language learning more profoundly and can hlep them to learn to use another language effectively.

Let me finish this post with a story about an imaginative second language educator I know: M. Supercool. Through vivid imagery evoked through words, M. Supercool brings his students with him through the creaking door of the dilapidated old shed hidden in the woods of a nearby park. #imaginED FSLInside, through the sunlight that manages to penetrate the solitary window, thick with dust, mildew, and cobwebs, he sees shelves of rusted tins and glass jars of all shapes and sizes. In the corner, slowly rocking back and forth, twisting her hands, is a grizzly old woman wearing a long, torn, black cloak. Her face is shrouded with thick layers of greasy grey hair, her face deeply lined and covered with black and brown moles each sprouting three or four coarse black hairs. It is this repulsive person who has the magic spells required to move through time. For those who have the nerve to enter her lair – a shed, I might add, that is only visible on certain cycles of the moon and at exactly six minutes before dawn – she can provide the spell required. The spell required to move back in time is a little more complicated than most. It requires a steady hand and a sober head. She throws three items into the cauldron that bubbles in the centre of the room – a subject of some kind, either avoir or être, and a verb in past form. When cast in the proper way, this spell, allows one to express the past. …

I think you get the picture – M. Supercool’s students don’t forget the THREE components required to cast this time-travelling spell. (Teach Passé Compose? Make it strange. Evoke the wonder.)

So, brave language educator, ADD to your teaching toolkit! And, please, LEAVE A COMMENT. How do you engage your students’ imaginations? What’s in your wallet toolkit?

Get all the latest posts with Tips for Imaginative Teaching, imagination-focused resources and links, and discussion topics! SUBSCRIBE today.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

11 thoughts on “Calling All Second Language Teachers! What’s In Your Toolkit?

  1. I’ve been using extraordinary images (giant waiting for the elevator, lady flying in her chair by giant bubbles on strings, a cyclist whose path turns into a vertical cliff– all found online) to provoke descriptive writing and language in my ELL class. Students in pairs. Partner A sees image and has to describe to Partner B, who is turned around and drawing from the description. A variation is having Partner A write a description, then passing to Partner B to read and draw.

    1. Sounds amazing–and so engaging. Are you finding the students are inspired to write/talk? Have you used images to help teach a particularly difficult grammatical concept?

  2. I believe in cognates study for academic vocabulary with Spanish-speaking ESOL/bilingual ed./LEP students. English has three major roots. Informal English is descended from German; sometimes it’s called “playground English.” Technical English is descended from Latin. Formal English is descended from French. Latin is the parent of the Romance Languages–including Spanish and French. This transitional bilingual approach doesn’t have to end with elementary school. It’s easy to develop lists of essential vocabulary for major subjects for each grade. Secondary textbooks in Texas have English and Spanish glossaries. Let’s use them!

    1. HI JD. Thanks for sharing! We hope you take those “glossaries” and make that language emotionally and imaginatively engaging for kids. Go for it!

  3. I really love what you said about fostering a sense of wonder. Right now, I get the feel that my instruction has more of procedural feel to it and I so want my students to be captivated and fascinated by what they learn. This post really motivates me to take a second look at how I present content and find ways to make the “familiar unfamiliar”

    1. Hi Bret
      I am so glad to hear it! Please drop a line and tell me what you come up with–making the “familiar strange” is a good idea!
      Best wishes,

  4. Thanks for sharing, I also read your content carefully it was perfect. Keep shining and inspiring us all! Also check this daily egg price website, which provides daily egg rates in India.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *