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High School Foreign Language vs. College Foreign Language

"My son/daughter is having difficulty grasping the grammar in his/her foreign language class." This is the most common opening that I see when a potential student sends me an e-mail. Some of these same students, (especially those who are seniors in high school) express dismay when they find out that they will have to study a foreign language in college in order to graduate. Having taught foreign language at both the high school and the college level, I wish to point out that although they are the same subject, they are not taught in the same manner.

- High school foreign language instruction places more emphasis on learning the grammar and the structure than on actually using the language in a real-life context. Many college instructors (myself included) subscribe to a "communicative teaching methodology" in which the primary goal of the course is for the student to attain proficiency in the language. Grammar instruction is a vehicle through which to achieve this proficiency, but it is in no way the primary focus of the course.

- A single year of high school level foreign language is the approximate equivalent of half a term of a college course. For example, a student who completed three years of French in high school is considered to have completed the equivalent of a single year of instruction at the college level. This is a guideline only, and every school has its own policy for dealing with equivalencies.

- Homework in a college class is given not as "busy work," but rather, the reinforce or to practice a concept taught during the class session. Many college level workbooks have the answers at the back of the book so that the student can check to see if they have mastered the concept or not. In this manner, homework is a supplement to what is being done in class.

- Expect to converse more and sit still less in a college level class. Professors expect students to have previewed the material the night before, so the instruction in class is really intended as a time to clarify what was presented in the book. On average, in a 50 minute class, I spend about 10 minutes lecturing (explaining) a concept; the remaining 40 minutes is spent with the students working in pairs or in groups to practice and apply the grammar points in the lesson.

- On that note, college classes often involve student to student interaction rather than teacher to student interaction. The professor is more like a "moderator" who circulates around the class to solve problems (or to keep groups on task!)

So, struggling high school students, take heart. The difference in instructional styles often makes a college level language class more challenging, but, at the same time, more fun. Time seems to go much faster when long-winded grammar explanations are not involved.


Catherine M.

Ph.D. Tutor in Languages, Literature and Testing

300+ hours
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