Teaching: Getting started

If I am just learning my language, how can I teach it?

It is common in language revival contexts for teachers to start teaching their languages even when they are just learners themselves. Although this can be very challenging, Aboriginal languages teachers often report that they enjoy their work very much, and that it is very satisfying because it increases their own language learning.

On a day-to-day basis,
revival language teachers get through each lesson by selecting manageable amounts of language they can use to speak with their students. Before each lesson they select a set number of vocabulary items and grammatical structures. Teachers make sure their language learning is a step ahead of their students. By rehearsing their own use of the vocabulary and grammar selected for each lesson, they are able to teach their students a lot. Here's an example of a teaching activity that shows how a teacher can select manageable amounts of language when they themselves are learners of their languages:
A teacher might start with a set of ten picture cards to introduce ten animals, and ask the students 'What's this?' and teach them how to answer, 'It's a _____ .' It is important that the picture cards do not have the English translation written on them. This will help the students connect straight from the picture to the target language.

In the second step in the lesson, the teacher might go through the animal picture cards again but this time ask the question 'Is this a ____ ?' and the students answer 'Yes it's a _____' or 'No it's a _____'.

In the third step of the lesson, the teacher could randomly hand out all of the picture cards to various students and then ask them in language to give it back. Hold out your hand and ask the student, 'Have you got a ___ ?'

With this number of vocabulary items and grammatical structures, the students could work in groups and play the card game Go Fish. Each student has a set of animal cards in their hand. They try to collect as many pairs as they can by taking turns to ask each other e.g. 'Have you got a dog?' and answering 'Yes' or 'No, Go fish!' in the language.

In subsequent lessons, the students could learn to ask and answer other questions about the animal picture cards, e.g.:

What's this?
It's a ______
Is this a _____
Yes / No
Is it big, small, soft, strong, brown, long, short, dangerous etc?
Yes / No
What is it doing?
It's running, walking, sleeping, eating, flying, watching etc.
For each new lesson the teacher is continually well-prepared by selecting and preparing a set number of vocabulary and structures. S/he learns those as part of preparing for the lesson. There is a constant process of revising vocabulary and structures already introduced as well as introducing new vocabulary and structures. This is known as the spiral approach.

A very encouraging article written for teachers of Native American languages in California is Leanne Hinton (2003) How to teach when the teacher isn't fluent. It has some practical advice about how to get started. It includes steps in an example lesson, with the teacher and students talking with each other using verbs and actions such as stand up and sit down, together with structures such as: Is she sitting? Is he standing? Yes, she is. No, he isn't. The lesson focuses on oral language skills (listening and speaking). Although it is based on just eight words and phrases, the lesson involves a lot of verbal interaction and involves the students in a range of activities related to the vocabulary and structures planned as content for the lesson.

Teachers also establish routines which ensure that numerous phrases in the language are used on a daily basis. The teacher gets practice at saying them and the students get better at hearing, understanding and responding to them.

Becoming a language teacher and developing your own language skills is a long-term project. Over the years, you will become an increasingly better teacher of your language if you are prepared to put in some self-study hours each week, take up language learning and practice opportunities when they arise, and commit to developing your own language skills.

Should I teach the older language or the newer?

Recognising that all languages change, many Australian revival language teachers teach a mixture of older and newer aspects of the language. Older language is what is known from records of the language of earlier generations of speakers. Newer language is how the language is being revived, developed and used by people today. This website includes examples of both.

Teaching what is known of the older language is very important, because it carries the tradition and knowledge unique to Indigenous Australian peoples and cultures. For example, many stories have survived in Australian languages and these often form the basis for learning vocabulary and grammar, as well as culture and knowledge of country. Teachers often give lessons about local animals, bush foods and medicines, knowledge of climate and seasonal availability of food and water sources.

Teaching newer language for daily interaction is also important - language that can be used outside the classroom, in the playground and beyond the school gates; language that can be taken home and used in families, for example, Come here and give your grandmother a kiss! What would you like to drink? Where's your father? Sometimes language like this has been recorded in the earlier decades; sometimes it can be created by reconstructing and developing the language. Decisions about this kind of language development are made by communities.

For example, teachers of Kaurna (the traditional language of Adelaide and the Adelaide Plains) teach formulaic expressions which can be used frequently:

Are my students first or additional language learners?

One of the most important things to recognise is that there is a difference between learning your first language and learning an additional language. Until recently additional language learning was called second language learning. These days the term additional language is used, recognising that some students may in fact be learning a third or fourth language. Many students of Australian revival languages speak English and/or Aboriginal English as their first language. So this website focuses on ways to teach an additional language in a school context.

Who are my learners and what do they already know?

When you are preparing to teach your classes, it's important to have a good understanding of what your students already know and can do in the language. They may be complete beginners; they may have been learning the target language for several years; or they may have gained helpful skills through learning another language in their previous years at school.

Many programs have non-Indigenous students learning alongside I
ndigenous students, though this situation varies from school to school. Decisions about who should learn Australian languages is a matter for local communities. School leaders need to discuss this issue with the local community.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners bring different prior knowledge to learning the language:
For all learners, teachers need to know what the students have learned in language classes in previous years. Instead of repeating the same vocabulary and structures, songs and stories every year, teachers build on the skills and knowledge the students already have. Teachers continually increase the amount and complexity of the vocabulary and language structures from one lesson to the next, from one week to the next, from term to term and year to year. In this cumulative approach, students acquire and build their language proficiency, extending their skills in listening, reading, speaking and writing. This can only happen if the teacher is increasing their own language proficiency.

To find out what the students can already do in language, talk to their previous teacher and/or check the assessment records from the previous year that show the details of what the students are already capable of. Teachers can also check the teaching program from the previous year to find out the vocabulary and grammar that has already been taught to students. In this way teachers can plan a program which revises but also extends the students' current skills and knowledge.

What is the spiral approach to language teaching?

Teaching often involves revising language already taught but also designing new activities to build on that language. Language teachers often describe their teaching as a spiral approach. Learners often don't remember everything you have taught them, so there is a continual process of both reviewing previously introduced language and building on and extending known vocabulary and structures.

The spiral can be applied over a sequence of lessons but also over longer periods of time, from one school year to the next. This approach is used to revisit the same or similar themes and topics with students in different classes, each time using teaching strategies and classroom materials appropriate to that age. For example, the theme of family and kinship can be taught to Kindergarten students and to Stage 4 students but using age-appropriate strategies, resources, depth and complexity of vocabulary and grammatical structures.

How can I use themes and topics to organise my language teaching?

Language teachers plan their programs around themes and topics. Some themes and topics used in Australian revival language programs include:
About me, about you Fishing and hunting Animals and pets
After-school activities Holidays Rituals
Community organisation House and home School life
Caring for country Kinship Seasons and weather
Daily routines Bush tucker Five senses
Cooking and eating Bush medicine Special occasions
Environment Making friends Life cycles in the bush
Family Meeting people Living a healthy life
Local animals Things we see in the bush Things we do in the bush
Finding the way Our communities Traditional stories
Future plans Our local area Bird life
Getting help At the river Sport
Health and fitness By the sea Weekend activities
People and actions Animal tracks Fish, sea animals and coastal life
Themes and topics such as these help teachers to determine the purpose for using the language, and to select the vocabulary and structures needed to use the language for that purpose. If students learn vocabulary and structures which are all connected to one theme, they are more likely to remember that language content.

Choosing a theme, language functions, vocabulary and structures, is the first step towards planning lessons, making resources and designing assessment tasks.

How can I establish language routines with my learners?

A good way for students to continually hear language is for teachers to learn and constantly use language related to daily organisation of the classroom. These instructional language phrases are in addition to the language content planned for each lesson. They become part of the everyday routine of the class. Some of these expressions may already exist in the language and some may need to be created or developed.
For managing the class:
  • Come in, come here.
  • Sit down, sit here.
  • Stand up, stand in a line.
  • Look at me, look here, look there.
  • Go quietly, go slowly, go quickly.
  • Too much noise! Too noisy!
  • Shhh, quiet!
  • Keep going.
  • Stop now.
  • Wait, wait now, wait quietly.
For giving instructions to students during activities and lessons:
  • Pick it up, put it down.
  • Follow me.
  • Look carefully, think carefully.
  • Cut that up.
  • Stick it here.
  • Draw now.
  • Write it down.
  • Make a circle, form a circle, sit in a circle, stand in a circle.
  • Sit in groups of four, get into groups.
  • Come to the front.
  • Copy this, do it like this, do it like me, follow me.
  • Ask me (the question), ask him/her.
For talking with each other during in activities and lessons:
  • Can I have one?
  • Whose turn?
  • It's my turn, your turn, his/her turn.
  • Sit next to me, stand next to me.
  • Let's share.
  • Show me, show me how.
For giving praise:
  • Good, good work, very good.
  • Good girl, good boy.
  • Good try, try again.
  • You almost got it.
  • Have another go.
  • Sitting beautifully.
For talking about talking:
  • Listen carefully, listen now.
  • Listen to me, listen to him/her.
  • Say it after me.
  • Say it for me.
  • Say it again.
  • Repeat that for me.
  • I can't hear you.
  • I didn't hear you.
  • Say it slowly.
  • Say it quickly.
  • How do you say ________ in language?
For starting the lesson:
  • Hello (to one person, to two people, to a group of people).
  • How are you?
  • Welcome, sit down.
  • Let's start.
For ending the lesson
  • Books away, chairs in, finished now.
  • See you tomorrow.
  • See you later (to one person, to two people, to a group of people).

This page was first published on November 22, 2013 and was last updated on January 24, 2022. All material is copyright to the individual authors unless indicated otherwise.