Volume 5 (2014) Issue 2 - Article Grim
JLLT Volume 5 (2014) Issue 2.pdf

Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching

Volume 5 (2014) Issue 2 (PDF)

pp. 225-243

Foreign Language Teaching Assistants and their Classroom Practices

Frédérique Grim (Fort Collins, USA)


Teaching styles and practices are unique to each teacher due to personal experience, convictions, and training. However, what is the impact of teaching style when specific directions are given and outcomes expected? This study investigates college teaching assistants’ (TA) applications of instructions given by their coordinator (and researcher) and responds to: (1) Do TAs apply instructions as intended? In other words, is the projected curriculum taught as expected? (2) Do their practices concur with or differ from their beliefs? Based on 17 hours of recorded observations of 15 TAs at the second- and third-semester French college level, the results provide a clearer understanding of TAs’ applications of instructions, as well as implications for teacher training.

Key words: Teaching assistants, classroom practices, teaching styles, teacher training, curriculum, instructions, French as a foreign language

Abstract (Français)

Les styles et les pratiques pédagogiques sont uniques à chaque personne, causés par ses expériences personnelles, ses convictions et la formation qu'elle a reçue. On doit toutefois se demander quelles sont les influences de ce bagage pédagogique quand des directives concrètes sont données et que des résultats spécifiques sont attendus. Cette étude examine la mise en application de directives par des assistants-enseignants d’université données par leur responsable (et chercheur). Les questions suivantes, guidant la recherche actuelle, sont posées : (1) Les assistants-enseignants mettent-ils en pratique les directives qu’on leur donne ? En d’autres termes, le programme est-il enseigné selon les attentes du responsable ? (2) La mise en pratique des assistants-enseignants suit-elle ou diffère-t-elle de leur philosophie pédagogique ? Grâce à 17 heures d’observation enregistrées et la participation de 15 assistants-enseignants à des cours du 2e et du 3e semestre de français dans une université américaine, les résultats nous apportent une meilleure compréhension de la mise en pratique des directives données aux assistants-enseignants par leur responsable, ainsi que des implications pédagogiques pour la formation d’enseignants.

Mots-clé: Assistants-enseignants, pratiques pédagogiques, styles pédagogiques, directives pédagogiques, formation d’enseignants, français langue étrangère

1 Introduction

Instructors of any subject matter have unique teaching styles, philosophies and practices based on experience, personal convictions, personalities, and pedagogical training (Borg 2003, Breen 2002, Breen, Hird, Milton, Oliver & Thwaite 2001, Nunan, 1992, Richards 1994, Schulz 1996, 2001, Wray 1993, Zucker 2005). Consequently, the implementation of curricula and the material students are learning depend, not only on teachers’ personal aptitudes, but also on their perceptions, decisions, and teaching methods (Shulman, 1987). The attributes that characterize each teacher can result in a wealth of methodologies, ideas, and styles. When a teacher is relatively inexperienced, such as is typical of teaching assistants (TAs) in a college program, teaching practices are mostly introduced by directives from supervisors and by personal experiences as learners. In many colleges, TAs’ training in foreign languages consists in orientation sessions prior to the beginning of the semester, and in a methods course often taken during their first semester, during which they are encouraged to follow a specific pedagogical philosophy established by the language program.

Due to the impact TA training has on future teaching careers, the present study opens up the opportunity to observe the foreign-language TAs’ practices in light of their supervisor’s directions, through the use of data collected for a larger-scale study (Grim 2008). The aim of this latter study was to analyze the effectiveness of content-enriched instruction (Ballman 1997). Content-enriched instruction integrates grammatical and lexical forms within a cultural theme. In order to verify the validity of the treatment applications of the initial study (Grim 2008), 15 TAs of second- and third-semester college French courses were video-recorded. This source of data provided for a window to qualitatively and quantitatively observe how pedagogical instructions given by a supervisor (in this case, the researcher) were carried out. The objective of the current study is therefore to examine and analyze TAs’ behavior in comparison to specific teaching instructions.

Although research on the relationship between FL teachers’ beliefs and practices is not extensive and current, it has shown that there can be a dichotomy between what is believed and practiced (Borg 1998b) and that pedagogical knowledge seems to drive general teaching practices and educational theory (Johnson & Goettsch 2000, Richards 1994). Most studies regarding foreign language (FL) teaching have compared beliefs and teaching practices, specifically regarding grammar (Andrews 1999, Borg 1998a, 1998b, 1999, 2003, Johnston & Goettsch 2000). They have shown that instructors might teach differently than the beliefs they construct (Borg 1998b), by explicitly emphasizing grammar, contrary to common methodologies (Zucker 2005), and by using visual cues such as students’ body language, comprehension checks, and their personal beliefs of students’ learning style (Johnson and Goettsch 2000). According to Breen et al. (2001), teachers acquire a set of teaching principles from personal theories, based on pedagogical and theoretical knowledge and their own experiences as learners. These principles influence interactions between learners, teacher, and course content. Pessoa, Hendry, Donato, Tucker, & Lee (2007) suggest that the manner in which teachers apply instructions might have a definite impact (positive or negative) on learners’ acquisition.

This brings up the question of what impact teaching instructions would have on teachers’ practices if they came from a supervisor who has pedagogical objectives in mind. Would these instructions significantly modify personal teaching styles? Would the personal styles modify the intended outcomes? Would they benefit or hinder teaching, and consequently learning? Zucker (2005) suggests that the potential dichotomy could be due to a lack of clear directions on how to practice what teachers should be teaching. He further claims that teacher training needs to be more practical to allow pre-service or in-service teachers to apply concretely what they are taught.

Most teachers create principles that appear to dictate most of their practices; however, the curriculum to be taught is often transmitted with a set of pedagogically motivated instructions (i.e., textbooks used in class). Research has not yet compared how those critical instructions are applied in comparison to teaching styles, particularly in regard to foreign languages. Thus, the following research questions are posed:

    1. Do TAs apply instructions from a supervisor with a projected curriculum as intended?
    2. Do their practices appear to match their preferences?

This close examination gives an opportunity to further our knowledge of teachers’ application of teaching methods and preferences.

2 Methodology

2.1 Teaching Assistant Participants

Fifteen TAs of French participated in this study. Four were native speakers and eleven near-native speakers of French. They were pursuing graduate degrees in French Studies, French Linguistics, French Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, Advertising, Library Science, and English Literature. The TA training at this particular university consisted of a week-long orientation prior to their first semester and of a methods course taken during their first semester of teaching. The goal for the training was to establish teaching practices that were motivated by pedagogical and research-based methods.

2.2 The Researcher’s Role

The role of the researcher in comparison to the TAs was two-fold: the researcher was a fellow TA and a section supervisor. The role of supervisors was to assist the Basic Language Director with overseeing TAs and the numerous first- and second-year class sections. The researcher observed a non-experimental class to see what TAs’ teaching styles were like and interviewed each participant to better understand their standpoint in regard to teaching. During the experiment, the lessons were video-recorded, and extensive notes were taken.

2.3 Data Collection

The present study is extracted from the data of an initial experiment that evaluated the effect of integrating a focus on grammar and vocabulary within a cultural lesson in beginning and intermediate French classes (Grim 2008). To insure the validity of the instruction for the experimental treatments, all TAs were video-taped, providing 17 hours of video-taped data (two TAs taught two classes). Each level (second and third semester) was divided into three treatment groups: a control group (i.e., focus-on-meaning), an incidental focus-on-form group, and a planned focus-on-form group. The control group (CG) only presented cultural information without any focus on grammatical or lexical forms, without providing additional feedback unless students had questions. The incidental focus-on-form (IFonF) treatment gave cultural information, with the caveat that if teachers felt the need to expand on a problematic area of if an immediate problem on some lexical and grammatical forms arose, they should provide explanations. The planned focus-on-form (PFonF) treatment offered cultural information to students, as well as specific grammatical and lexical forms that teachers were aware of through enhanced features (transparencies with words in boldface and colored green for lexical items and red for grammatical forms). Both grammar and vocabulary were considered as forms in “focus-on-form” (Doughty & Williams, 1998) as forms are defined as any lexical or grammatical focus within a communicative setting. The lexical items were part of the cultural topics, and the grammatical items were the comparative and superlative (e.g., more beautiful than, the least colorful) for second-semester learners and relative pronouns preceded by a preposition (e.g., in which, for which) for third-semester learners.

For the initial experiment (Grim 2008), the TAs were matched to one of the treatments (i.e., planned focus-on-form, incidental focus-on-form, or control) based on observations and discussions conducted prior to the experiment. The TAs who mentioned an affinity for grammar and who taught a lesson with clear grammatical explanations were assigned to be part of the PFonF group. However, if a TA mentioned not liking grammar and did not clearly explain a grammatical aspect during the observation, they were randomly assigned to either the IFonF or the control groups. The discussions also provided insight on their personal pedagogical preferences.

2.4 Instruction Procedure

In this study, the noun instructions was operationalized as being the verbal and written information provided to the TAs by the researcher. During the conversations between the TAs and the researcher, the latter attempted to understand what teachers believed about the role of grammar and culture in the classroom, in order

(1) to place them in the most appropriate treatment group and

(2) to compare their teaching preferences with their practices.

In order not to disturb the natural predilections of the teachers, the oral instructions given for the experiment were limited and relatively general. Additional written instructions were handed out to help the TAs better prepare themselves. These written instructions varied based on the treatments. For the control group, the instructions consisted of only answering encouraging students’ questions (Appendix). However, during the one-on-one conversation, the TAs were not told anything regarding providing additional explanations, with the hope that they would just carry out the experiment without bringing any type of focus-on-form to attention. For the IFonF TAs, the document stated that some grammatical and lexical forms inserted in the material appeared several times and that if the TAs felt that those forms would cause problems for the students, they should explain them and answer any questions (Appendix). However, these grammatical and lexical forms were not enhanced or pointed out to the TAs. During the conversations, they were told to explicitly encourage student questions and to explain anything deemed to be a problem to students’ understanding. In the case of the PFonF TAs, detailed oral and written instructions (Appendix) stated that there were different grammatical and lexical aspects that were enhanced through colored words and words in boldface. TAs were supposed to point them out to the students, explain them as well as possible, and answer any questions. Besides the visual enhancement, all materials were identical. It was imperative that teachers follow the instructions to ensure the delivery of the intended treatments to test the research questions of Grim (2008).

All linguistic instances, or, as they will be called, language episodes specifically involving lexical and grammatical foci, were extracted from the video data, then transcribed and coded based on the type of focus-on-form they provided: incidental focus-on-form (if the teachers or students brought attention to the forms without planning ahead) or planned focus-on-form (when the teachers distinctively explained a form that was highlighted). The third group was the control group. The data analysis is presented in the following section.

3 Data Analysis

The expectation was that control group teachers would only present the cultural content, without explaining specific language forms. The IFonF treatment would direct teachers to respond to students’ errors or questions through feedback or to discuss areas they found to be problematic. The role of the PFonF treatment was to provide explanations on the enhanced grammatical and lexical structures. Teachers’ preferences, shared during conversations with the researcher, parallel the observational findings. A statistical comparison of the total of language episodes between each treatment group is also presented.

3.1 Control Group

None of the CG TAs1 were aware that specific grammatical and lexical forms were introduced in the materials. For the most part, instructions were followed. However, as the following example demonstrates, they produced some incidental focus-on-form. Alexandra verified students’ lexical knowledge by translating a word (such as in example 1).

Example 1:

Alexandra: Il y a des canaux à Bruges, avec donc de l’eau, ici, water, et donc vous voyez ici, les maisons, ici ce n’est pas la rue, c’est de l’eau. It is water, okay? Il y a des canaux à Bruges.

[There are canals in Bruges, with water, here, water, and then you can see here, the houses, here, it is not a street, it is water. It is water, okay? There are canals in Bruges.]

Decisions of this type are natural for teachers: even though no mention was made by the researcher, the TA brought attention to a lexical item they assumed difficult for students. Monique reacted similarly by asking students what a certain word meant. As for Céline’s students, they did not participate in the interactions she attempted to create and did not initiate any questions. Despite a lack in student participation, Céline asked a few clarification questions on the vocabulary and the cultural items, using English, or paraphrasing (such as in example 2).

Example 2:

Céline: Vous connaissez les gaufres? Nan? [‘nan’ is a familiar way to say ‘non’] The Belgian waffles. Ce sont des gaufres.

[Do you know waffles? No? The Belgian waffles. These are waffles.]

Céline’s students did not indicate any comprehension breakdowns; therefore she only focused on what she believed to be problematic for them, yet never checking for comprehension.

At the third-semester level, Aurélie taught her two classes very consistently. Like the second-semester TAs, Aurélie brought up a few lexical items that could have created comprehension misunderstandings (such as in example 3).

Example 3:

Aurélie: Vous comprenez le mot ‘mouton’?

[Do you understand the word ‘sheep’?]

Student: Sheep

Aurélie: Oui, béééé

[Yes, baaaa]

Marie might have been the teacher who adhered the most literally to the directions provided by the researcher: she never interrupted the flow with comprehension checks or paraphrases. During the entire lesson, she only translated three words to ease comprehension.

Table 1 gives a visual summary of the CG’s language episodes related to focusing on lexical and grammatical forms.

Table 1: Focus on Form episodes by TAs in CG Condition

Even though the TAs of this group were not told to assist students’ comprehension, they naturally focused on lexical form in an incidental manner: they spontaneously brought up some forms to check for comprehension and encourage questions. They independently transformed material that was solely focusing on meaning (culture) into one that incidentally focused on lexical forms.

3.2 Incidental Focus-on-Form Groups

IFonF was carried out by Annabelle, Jeanne, and Danielle in the second-semester classes and by Eddy and Julie in the third-semester classes. Through the written and verbal instructions, they were directed to respond to difficulties that could arise and to answer students’ questions. The video observations confirmed that at the beginning of the lessons, teachers notified their students to ask questions if needed. Very few incidental foci on lexical forms came from the students though; rather, they were elicited by the teachers in most cases. TAs carried out the instructions as planned, by asking and answering questions, and by drawing students' attention to possible upcoming comprehension breakdowns (example 4).

Example 4:

Eddy: Qu’est-ce que c’est qu’une pirogue? C’est une sorte de…

[What is a pirogue? It is a sort of….]

Student: Bateau.


Even though Annabelle did not know that the material implicitly targeted comparative and superlative forms, she ensured comprehension by comparing and paraphrasing those forms (such as in example 5).

Example 5:

Annabelle: Elle est aussi grande que…elle est la même que... la même chose, similaire.

[It is as big as… it is the same than… the same thing, similar.]

Annabelle implicitly brought to attention the comparative and superlative of adjectives that, unbeknownst to her, were of interest in Grim’s study (2008). However, one might argue that her method of bringing up the form was rather a focus-on-meaning, given that she did not explain the mechanism of the grammatical structures, and just paraphrased with new lexis. However, unlike the other TAs, she did not bring other vocabulary to attention.

Jeanne was probably the most experienced TA, having taught beginning, intermediate and advanced courses for 10 years. She had also lived one year in Belgium, which gave her ground for adding several personal and cultural anecdotes. In all, she provided very few instances of lexical focus-on-form, targeting solely cultural aspects. Jeanne’s behavior might represent a common practice among teachers: when teaching culture, instructors often ignore grammar and vocabulary. Having to deal with more complex structures and new vocabulary while introducing new content might force the teacher to make a choice on what should have priority. From the conversation, Jeanne expressed her enjoyment for talking about Belgium: “It was so great to have an opportunity to share about the country I love so much.” This could explain why the content became the sole focus.

These specific TAs had shared that they preferred teaching in a more meaning-based situation as long as the material followed that method. Most teachers seemed to be satisfied with the lesson layout and instructions. Although Eddy mentioned that he enjoyed teaching grammar at times, he thought that beginning learners learned in a more implicit manner and that their metalinguistic knowledge was too limited in order to use grammar. Subsequent to the experiment, Julie also expressed dissatisfaction toward the style implemented in the lesson: “It was difficult to teach in a way that was not natural to me.” This comment is relevant in different teaching milieus, as supervisors might have a certain preference for a teaching style (e.g., implicit or explicit grammar teaching, input-based methodologies such as teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) with specific goals in mind and might expect teachers to exhibit similar teaching styles. However, if the course objectives are partially based on teaching preference, they might not be met as initially intended and the curriculum could be unmet.

Table 2 is a summary of the language episodes of the TAs in the IFonF condition:

Table 2: Focus on Form episodes by TAs in IFonF Condition

Interestingly, the results regarding teacher behavior are very similar to the language episodes of the CG TAs (Table 1). It appears that when teachers are not given specific instructions to focus on particular linguistic features, as it was for the CG and IFonF TAs, the natural tendency is to make sure that meaning is understood. Consequently, the message is prioritized over the grammatical forms that might be auxiliary for a general comprehension.

3.3 Planned Focus-on-Form Group

The PFonF group received the most detailed and explicit instructions: the TAs were directed to provide explanations on the marked (enhanced) structures. Thierry taught the two sections of second-semester classes and Emilie, Blanche, Alice, and Nicole taught the third-semester levels. Additionally, several of them had mentioned in the one-on-one conversations that they often taught grammar in their classes, based on a communicative purpose.

With one class, Thierry went over a superlative structure by stressing it with his voice (emphasized by capitalized letters in the transcripts), then by adding metalinguistic explanations.

Example 6:

Thierry: Bruxelles la ville la PLUS importante (…) La PLUS importante, ça veut dire, c’est ce que l’on appelle superlatif.

[Brussels the most important city (…) The most important, it means, it is what we call superlative.]

For the vocabulary, either Thierry brought attention to a few items by asking students if they understood, or students asked questions (such as in example 7).

Example 7:

Student 1: Qu’est-ce que ‘moules’?

[What is ‘mussels’?]

Thierry: Moules? Vous ne pouvez pas voir? Puisque vous aimez, Elizabeth, expliquez, c’est quoi les moules?

[Mussels? You can’t see? Since you like them, Elizabeth, explain what are mussels?]

Student 1: I am not sure what moules is.

Student 2: Mussels.

Thierry: Ouais, qui aime les moules, maintenant ? Très populaire à Quebec aussi.

[Yeah, who like mussels, now? Very popular in Quebec too.]

This focus-on-form technique is relatively similar to that provided by most teachers in the control and IFonF groups. However, in the case of Thierry, he knew what forms were targeted because of the visual enhancement. He had been instructed to notice and mention them. Prior to the experiment, Thierry had mentioned that he often taught grammar in his class. However, in the present instance, he seemed to have greatly limited his focus on grammatical form.

At the third-semester level, Emilie was a TA with strong interests in grammar. In her case, the targeted grammatical forms were pointed out more frequently at the beginning of the lesson and then occasionally. She explicitly brought the forms to attention and / or she just repeated them (such as in example 8).

Example 8:

Emilie: Il y a environ 10 millions d’habitants parmi lesquels on trouve une grande diversité ethnique. Ici, vous voyez par exemple ‘parmi lesquels.’ Pourquoi c’est ‘lesquels ?’ C’est parce qu’on parle de habitants, n’est-ce pas? Les Sénégalais, c’est masculin pluriel alors on fait l’accord, ‘parmi lesquels, among whom.’

[There are about 10 million inhabitants among whom we can find a great ethnic diversity. Here, you see for example ‘among whom.’ Why is it ‘whom? It is because we talk of inhabitants, isn’t it? The Senegalese people, it is masculine plural, so we make the agreement, ‘among whom, among whom.’]

Except for one instance when a student asked a question, Emilie initiated all foci on vocabulary, by directly translating the words she considered complex.

In a conversation with the researcher, Nicole had also expressed an interest in linguistics and grammar. During the class observation, she showed ease in extracting grammatical features to bring them to students’ attention. In the experiment, Nicole also gave some metalinguistic explanations to highlight the grammatical forms (such as in example 9).

Example 9:

Nicole: Cette structure, on va voir plusieurs fois, nous avons ‘lequel, laquelle, lesquels’ comme pronom interrogatif pour demander ‘which one.’ Ici on l’utilise comme pronom relatif comme ‘que, qui, dont’ avec une préposition. Donc ‘dans laquelle’ qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?

[This structure, we will see several times, we have ‘which (masculine singular), which (feminine singular), which (masculine plural)’ as an interrogative pronoun to ask ‘which one’. Here, we use it as a relative pronoun as, that, who, of which, with a preposition. So ‘in which’ what does it mean?]

Student: In which.

However, she pointed out only three of the enhanced lexical words.

Alice’s teaching style for focusing on form was unique in comparison to the other TAs. Instead of going over each enhanced grammatical and lexical form, she cautioned students to notice the red and green words which respectively represented grammatical and lexical items. She directed their attention to these features right at the beginning, but very seldom during the rest of the lesson. During the one-on-one conversation, she had indicated she considered focus-on-form a helpful technique to present grammatical and lexical forms in a meaningful manner. Yet, her teaching style differed drastically.

Blanche had a very positive attitude toward the experiment, mentioning that the lesson was very appealing to her and her students. She was studying linguistics and second language acquisition and was quite familiar with the focus-on-form technique. Interestingly, she focused on a few of the targeted lexical forms, while disregarding all targeted grammatical forms. She covered the content, as if nothing but the vocabulary could obstruct the flow of the lesson. Moreover, Blanche focused on some unmarked forms, just as an IFonF TA would do. Blanche had been chosen to be part of the PFonF treatment because of her natural inclination to explicitly focus on grammar, as well as her beliefs that students needed to acquire an explicit knowledge of the language in order to master it best. However, shortly after the one-on-one conversation, she mentioned an interest in creating a content-based course, which could have influenced her teaching of the cultural lesson; for her, the content might have seemed communicable without a need for grammatical metalanguage. Another hypothesis is that Blanche might have felt overwhelmed with the different components to cover, therefore selecting what may have been the most fundamental to her: culture.

Table 3 summarizes the language episodes produced with the PFonF classes:

Table 3: Focus on Form episodes by TAs in the PFonF Condition

This table illustrates what was previously discussed regarding the TAs’ use of focus-on-form, and shows that all of them produced some lexical focus-on-form (including targeted forms for the experiment), and, except for one, used focus-on-form on grammatical targeted forms.

3.4 Statistical Analysis Comparing the Three Groups

In order to verify if there are significant differences between the three groups in their use of focus-on-form and to support or not the qualitative data, Analyses of Variance (ANOVA) tests and Multiple Comparisons Dependent Post Hoc tests were conducted comparing the frequency of grammatical focus-on-form and lexical focus-on-form between the three treatment TA groups:

Table 4: ANOVA data for all groups on grammatical focus-on-form

Table 5: Multiple Comparisons Dependent Variable on grammatical focus-on-form (Scheffe)

Table 6: ANOVA data for all groups on lexical focus-on-form

Table 7: Multiple Comparisons Dependent Variable on lexical focus-on-form (Scheffe)

These results support the qualitative observations made above: regardless of the treatment groups, all TAs made use of lexical focus-on-form, without any significant difference among groups (p=.617). Moreover, as for the grammatical focus-on-form, a significant difference was found. The Multiple Comparisons Dependent Variable test showed that the PFonF TAs focused significantly more on grammar than the other two groups (p=.023*). No significance was found between the control and IFonF groups, supporting the observation that both groups of TAs behaved relatively similarly.

4 Discussion and Conclusions

This data set shows that not all TAs followed the instructions provided to them by their supervisor. Comparing the CG and the IFonF group with the qualitative and quantitative evidence, the type of directions given to them to apply the lesson did not seem to make a difference in teaching behaviors. The TAs in the IFoF group taught very similarly to the CG, mostly focusing on the meaning of the cultural content, and excluding any incidental focus-on-form, triggered by students’ questions or by their own realization of problematic features. Being conscious that too many details in the instructions could interfere with natural teaching styles, an attempt by the researcher-supervisor to be succinct might have actually weakened the differences between the IFonF and CG practices. Yet, as mentioned by Johnson & Goettsch (2000), teachers use pedagogical knowledge to direct their teaching through students’ body language, comprehension check, and feedback. It is natural for teachers to commonly use this type of knowledge, and therefore, similar behaviors might emerge among teachers, particularly when no detailed instructions are provided. Interestingly, both the IFonF and the control groups did not naturally focus on any grammatical features. Among the PFonF TAs, three of the five did not closely follow the initial instructions, and actually did change some of the lesson organization. It could be hypothesized that a lack of detailed instructions can impair the accomplishment of pre-determined goals as two of the groups ended up having very similar behavior. In Borg (1998b) and Zucker (2005), participating teachers were inclined to present more grammar than what they had been exposed to through research and textbooks, showing that personal convictions can at times take over research-based knowledge. This is important to note as it can, in turn, become a challenge for teacher supervisors, textbook writers, and administrators, since the specific curriculum goals through the materials will not always be fulfilled as intended. Zucker (2005) comments that a lack of a clarity in textbooks might misguide teachers towards the intended objectives. The communicative and grammatical goals of a language program or a textbook should be made transparent in the adopted teaching philosophy or preface to guide teachers as precisely as feasible. In some programs, a textbook is imposed on a group of teachers or TAs. It is therefore crucial that the expectations be clear for all, if common curriculum objectives are hoped to be reached. When textbook writers lay out the instructions for activities, they need to be as comprehensible as possible in order for the teachers to understand the rationale and the goals for their choice of activities. The IFonF group and the CG group were good examples of a possible miscommunication. If the intent of the experiment was to teach specific structures, without enough instructions, teachers could be inclined to teach just what they think they should teach. In this particular example, no grammatical opportunities were taken, although the text was filled with grammatical structures unknown to the learners. This can imply that grammar becomes secondary to instructors when the message is the focal point and comprehension breakdowns are noticed through students’ body language (Johnson & Goettsch 2000, Nunan 1992). With highlighted materials and more explicit instructions, instructors might tend more to explain grammatical features, as supported by the data. Grim (2013) has recently studied a group of high school teachers and discovered that the importance of input enhancement is not only bringing students’, but also teachers’ attention to the forms. Teachers were able to notice the emphasized forms and explain them to their students. If a supervisor or textbook author wants specific features to be emphasized during a lesson, input enhancement techniques (highlighting, bolding, voice inflection) could guide instructors to point out those forms and support the role of the curriculum design. However, as Breen et al. (2001) mention, it is never possible to predict exactly how content will be delivered by teachers; personal styles and experiences influence teaching despite any given instructions.

This study has also an impact on TAs’ professional development as it indicates that TAs do not always have an accurate representation of their own teaching style. For several of them, their pre-experimental comments often differed from their actual practices: some mentioned the crucial need for grammar in learning but did not actually explain any grammatical structures during the experiment. Others talked about a focus on meaning, but barely focused on lexical ambiguities. Teachers do not always clearly understand their own teaching when compared to their teaching beliefs (Borg 1998b, Shulman 1987). If teachers were more aware of a divergence between their practices and the objectives set by supervisors, they might be able to modify and reorient their personal teaching style. It becomes essential that instructors at all levels of instruction and experience be observed by peers, supervisors, and themselves to receive constant feedback, be aware of their own practices, and improve them.

There were limitations in this study: teachers did not teach their own lessons so the results could have been different if they had been in charge of designing the lessons.

However, a hopeful outcome for this study is that it will

(1) guide instructors to be more conscious of their own teaching styles in relation to intended objectives,

(2) help language program supervisors understand possible reasons for unmet curriculum objectives, and

(3) suggest to textbook authors to be more transparent in their directions.


Written instruction for TAs:

Le sujet concerne la Belgique / le Sénégal.

1. Sur les transparents que je te donne, tu verras des informations sur ce pays, une carte et des photos. J’ai numéroté le tout afin que tu puisses montrer les documents supplémentaires aux transparents au bon moment.

    • Il est important que tu te familiarises avec tout le matériel avant la présentation pour que tu ne te sentes pas trop perdu(e).

2. Présente les informations au fur et à mesure en utilisant les photos. Par exemple :

    • Il y a des questions de « warm-up » au début de quelques sections. Utilise-les afin d’attirer l’attention des étudiants.
    • Quand la géographie est présentée, montre la carte et explique la situation de la Belgique / du Sénégal par rapport aux autres pays.
    • Quand on parle de Bruxelles / du Sénégal, tu peux montrer les photos de Bruxelles / de Dakar et d'autres villes en général.
    • Quand on parle de la nourriture, tu peux montrer les photos liées à la nourriture.

Added to the incidental focus-on-form group:

    • Encourage les étudiants à poser des questions s’ils en ont.

Added to the planned focus-on-form group:

Comme tu peux le remarquer, il y a des choses qui sont soulignées de différentes couleurs. Essaye d’insister dessus en prenant en considération que certains aspects concernent des informations culturelles, le vocabulaire ou la grammaire. Essaye de les présenter tous aussi bien que possible, mais ne passe pas trop de temps.

3. Suis les directions en anglais que tu trouveras ci-dessous pour savoir exactement en quoi consistent la leçon et les activités.


The topic of the presentation is about Belgium / Senegal

1. On the transparencies I am giving you, you will see information on this country, a map, and photographs. I numbered everything to make sure you are able to show the additional documents at the right time.

    • It is important that you familiarize yourself with all the material before the presentation so that you don’t feel lost.

2. Present the information in a consecutive manner, using the photos. For example:

    • There are warm-up questions at the beginning of several sections. Use them in order to attract students’ attention.
    • When you present the geography section, show the map and explain its location in comparison to other countries.
    • When you talk about Belgium / Senegal, you can show the photographs of the cities and the other towns.
    • When you talk about the food, you can show the pictures of food.

Added to the incidental focus-on-form group:

    • Encourage your students to ask questions if they have any.

Added to the planned focus-on-form group:

    • As you can see, there are some features that are underlined with different colors on the transparencies. Try to insist on those, remembering that some of them represent cultural information (black), vocabulary features (blue), and grammatical features (red). Try to present and explain all of them as well as you can, but don’t spend too much time, either, since you have a limited amount of time to cover the whole lesson and activities.
    • Encourage your students to ask questions if they have any.

3. Follow the instructions that you will find throughout the lesson plan in order to know exactly what the lesson is about, as well as the activities.


Andrews, Stephen (1999). All these like little name things: A comparative study of language teachers’ explicit knowledge of grammar and grammatical terminology. In: Language Awareness 8 (1999), 143-159.

Ballman, Terry L. (1997). Enhancing beginning language courses through content-enriched instruction. In: Foreign Language Annals 30 (1997) 2, 173-186.

Borg, Simon (1998a). Talking about grammar in the foreign language classroom. In: Language Awareness 7 (1998), 159-175.

Borg, Simon (1998b). Teachers’ pedagogical systems and grammar teaching: A qualitative study. In: TESOL Quarterly, 32 (1998) 1, 9-38.

Borg, Simon (1999). Teachers’ theories in grammar teaching. In: ELT Journal 53 (1999), 157-167.

Borg, Simon (2003). Teacher cognition in grammar teaching: A literature review. In: Language Awareness 12 (2003) 2, 96-108.

Breen, Michael P. (2002). From a language policy to classroom practice: The intervention of identity and relationships. In: Language and Education, 16 (2002) 4, 260-283.

Breen, Michael P., Bernhard Hird, Marion Milton, Rhonda Oliver & Anne Thwaite (2001). Making sense of language teaching: Teachers’ principles and classroom practices. In: Applied Linguistics 22 (2001) 4, 470-501.

Doughty, Catherine & Jessica Williams (1998). Pedagogical choices in focus on form. In: Doughty, Catherine & Jessica Williams (Eds.) (1998). Focus on Form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 197-261.

Grim, Frédérique (2008). The Integration of Focus-on-form Instruction within Culture-Enriched Lessons. In: Foreign Language Annals 41 (2008) 2, 321-346.

Grim, Frédérique (2013). Using culture beyond its borders: The use of content-enriched instruction and the effects of input enhancement on learning in high school French classes. In: Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching.

Johnston, Bill & Karin Goettsch (2000). In search of the knowledge base language teaching: Explanations by experienced teachers. In: The Canadian Modern Language Review 56 (2000) 3, 437-468.

Nunan, David (1992). The teacher as decision maker. In: Flowerdew John, Mark Brook & Sophia Hsia (Eds). Perspectives on Second Language Teacher Education. Hong Kong: City of Polytechnic of Hong Kong, 135-265.

Pessoa, Silvia, Heather Hendry, Richard Donato, G. Richard Tucker & Hyewon Lee (2007). Content-based instruction in the foreign language classroom: A discourse perspective. In: Foreign Language Annals 40 (2007) 1, 102-121.

Richards, Jack (1994). The sources of language teachers’ instructional decisions. In: City Polytechnic of Hong Kong.

Schulz, Renate A. (1996). Focus on form in the foreign language classroom: students’ and teachers’ views on error correction and the role of grammar. In: Foreign Language Annals 29 (1996) 3, 343-364.

Schulz, Renate A. (2001). Cultural differences in student and teacher perceptions concerning the role of grammar instruction and corrective feedback: USA-Colombia. In: The Modern Language Journal 85 (2001) 2, 244-258.

Shulman, Lee S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. In: Harvard Educational Review 57 (1987) 1, 1-21.

Wray, David (1993). Student-teachers’ knowledge and beliefs about language. In: Bennett Neville & Clive Carré (Eds.) (1993). Learning to teach. London: Routledge.

Zucker, Connie K. (2005). Teaching grammar in the foreign language classroom: A study of teacher beliefs, teacher practices and current research. In: Dissertation Abstracts International, A: The Humanities and Social Sciences 66 (2005) 11, 3920.


Frédérique Grim

Associate Professor of French and Second Language Acquisition

Colorado State University

Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures

Fort Collins, CO 80523-1774, USA

E-mail: Frederique.Grim@colostate.edu

1 All names are pseudonyms: Monique, Céline and Alexandra for second-semester classes and Aurélie and Marie for third-semester classes