My language teaching philosophy has been deeply influenced by my identity as an avid language learner, linguistics and education specialist, and a technology aficionado.
As a teenager living in a small Russian town and attending a standard public school that could not support foreign language learning, I discovered English songs, fell in love with the language, and had to do all I could to learn it on my own. I am now a speaker of four languages - Russian, English, Spanish and Japanese - and the never-ending language learning journey helps me stay on the same page with my students because I once struggled as they did (and I keep struggling as I learn more and more).
Reflecting on my language learning experience, the following five principles became the driving force of my language teaching approach:
Language is a tool we use to communicate and socialize. It reflects and shapes societies and cultures. Learning languages outside of relevant social and cultural context is equivalent to depriving yourself of tapping into the rich pool of meanings that can change the way you think.
The first essential skill in language learning is understanding the general logic of the language system - not memorizing particular rules. You can call it linguistic intuition - having an implicit understanding of how grammar and vocabulary work to communicate meanings.
The second essential skill in language learning is to allow yourself to make mistakes and feel vulnerable - and welcome every encounter with the target language as a learning opportunity.
The third essential skill in language learning is understanding how social contexts sanction the use of certain vocabulary, grammar, intonations, etc. In other words, learning from context is crucial.
The rest is all about dedicated practice.
While studying for my Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics and Cross-Cultural Communication, I explored language systems in depth. Due to their abstract nature, theoretical principles of linguistics lay a firm foundation for working with students, especially those who don’t share the same native language as me. I can anticipate and explain the difficulties my students face after learning how certain grammatical, lexical and phonetic categories are manifested in their native language. I actively encourage them to reflect on the differences between their native and target language as they help uncover the nuances of other cultures and mentality. My linguistic background also allows me to systematically organize certain linguistic phenomena in a way that makes them accessible and easy to understand regardless of what language they are situated in.
As an educational psychologist, I recognize the importance of cognitive, affective, motivational and social factors that play into effective language teaching and learning.
I follow the philosophy of John Dewey who emphasized autonomous, student-driven environments and collaborative problem-solving. I ask my students what matters to them at the moment and how we can use the target language to address their problems. Some of my students need the language to improve their job skills; others to travel; some of them need to learn how to communicate with the family they are about to become part of, and others just love the culture. Everybody’s goal is different, and I make sure I provide individual support to meet that goal.
The importance of the social in language learning is highlighted by the constructivist theory rooted in the works of the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Students’ background (linguistic and cultural) influence their response to engagement with the target language, and they need opportunities to actively engage with language tools and with other interlocutors to construct their own understanding of the language system.
Theories of cognition such as Information Processing Theory guide me in structuring specific language learning activities, considering such factors as students’ short-term memory, long-term memory, and cognitive overload.
Finally, I use the theory of self-efficacy (developed by an American psychologist Albert Bandura) to structure class activities so that with each activity students’ confidence in completing language-mediated tasks increases, leading to a more positive self-concept.
Finally, as someone who has seen life both without much technology and witnessed its spread in every part of modern life, I fully embrace the use of technology for language learning. When used right, it provides unprecedented opportunities to engage and motivate learners and to dramatically increase their target language exposure even if they live outside of the community of target language speakers.
My principles of language teaching
Focus on individual goals and motivation. In individual classes, each student’s program is based on what problems they want to solve through the mediating tool of the target language. In groups, activities are structured so that each student can work on the aspect most relevant to their needs.
Focus on the target language input from Day 1. I have my students start working with authentic target language materials - cartoons, movies, TV shows, Ted Talks, Youtube videos, games, podcasts, children's stories, comics - right away. Increasing proficiency in understanding these materials serves as an indicator of their learning progress. I use the target language in instruction as much as I can but I don't shun the use of a different mediating language. I believe that in situations when a different mediating language allows for a more efficient and effective learning experience, its use is warranted.
Focus on systematic understanding and practice. I have students generate hypotheses about the phenomena they observe and test them, and we discuss how rules and patterns are used to communicate specific communicative intents.
Focus on the psychological aspects of language learning. Language learning is a unique discipline; on top of general learning struggles, students often have to deal with communication anxiety, concerns about their self-image, and "overwriting" the system of thinking they’ve been using for their entire life. Anxiety, self-consciousness, fear of making mistakes and culturally defined behaviors (e. g., the Chinese concept of “losing face") are common obstacles that need to be addressed. I regularly have open and honest conversations with my students to uncover these problems and find ways to solve them.
Focus on study skills and out-of-class learning resources. Not all students come to class knowing effective ways of learning languages and studying in general. For example, they might know that flashcards are a useful tool, but end up using them incorrectly or in a very limited way (e. g., without practicing spaced repetition or including visual and audio materials). Some students are not aware of the available resources (including technology) that can speed up their progress. I continuously introduce them to such resources and actively encourage their use in and outside of class.
Focus on technology for increased input and self-monitoring. Technology supports the development of skills that used to be hard to develop outside of the classroom, including speaking (language exchange and video conferencing software), pronunciation (voice recognition software), listening (podcasts, music), and comprehension (news websites, blogs, Youtube videos). I help my students learn how to find relevant technology resources and use them productively.
Focus on the shift in thinking. Deep knowledge of a foreign language inevitably changes our thinking. Languages are tied to history and mentality, and all three mutually influence each other. Recognizing these connections and “living” the other culture is a unique opportunity to live ”a second life” - and is one of the most beautiful and inspiring aspects of language learning.
Free and open source resources for language teaching
Over the years I've compiled a list of free and open-source resources that support language teaching and learning in effective ways and promote equal access to high-qiuality materials. Below you can find the sources I use the most in my teaching.
Russian frequency dictionary: To identify most important and most frequent core vocabulary.
Russian for everyone - Free beginner lessons: A great resource for self-study and as a supplement for first classes.
Russiangram - Automatic stress marking in Russian words: Great for students to check stress placement and for teacher to automatically insert stress markings in learning materials.
SpeakRussian: An interactive introductory course with amazing animations - serves better as a supplemental material for teachers rather than individual study.
Interactive grammar practice: interactive grammar tests divided by topic. A great source of grammar exercises for teachers.
Learn Russian With Interest: Reading practice for all levels.
Mezhdu Nami: An interactive online textbook for beginners with a great variety of media files.
Pikabu: Russian alternative to Reddit - great for learning slang and advanced-level reading.
ВКонтакте: The most famous Russian social media platform. Great for learning about different aspects of Russian modern culture and news (for example, by subscribing to different groups and pages of interest).
American IPA chart: An interactive and simple way to explain sounds of American English.
OpenStax: Free open-source textbooks (great for mastering specific subjects in English).
Reddit: A large (predominantly English-speaking) forum great for learning slang, practicing writing, and learning about specific topics by following subreddits of interest.
TED Talks: High-quality videos about critical problems and interesting concepts with interactive subtitles in many lanuages.
TED Talks Transcription and Translation: Students can volunteer to transcribe and translate videos to improve their comprehension, listening and pronunciation.
Grammarly: A spellcheck app that provides good explanations about grammar and vocabulary.
6-minute English: Short, slow-paced podcasts with vocabulary explanations; great for intermediate-level students.
Extra: English: British English TV show for beginners. Very slow-paced and easy to understand with lots of useful basic vocabulary.
Bright Solutions for Dyslexia: A fantastic resource about how to support students with dyslexia - which can be a bif difficulty in English learning.
Tiny Texts: Very short texts for beginners with multimedia materials.
Conversation Questions: A list of hundreds of questions divided by topic to spark discussion in the classroom.
Elllo: The best listening comprehension resource out there. Hundreds of audio and video files with transcripts and exercises and recordings of real conersations between speakers of all possible Engloish accents.
General technology resources
HelloTalk: A great app to find language exchange partners and to receive feedback and corrections from others.
Reddit: A large forum with lots of language-learning groups.
(On iPads and iPhones): Use look up function for reading practice. It allows learners to read without having to consult an outside dictionary and has multiple built-in dictionaries. This feature revolutionized the way I engage with written exts.
(On Androids): Use Popup dictionary or use the Search function when reading in Chrome.
Duolingo: A highly interactive app for complete beginners. A great tool to learn the basics and to develop a strong motivation.
MindMapFree: An online tool for creating mindmaps (e. g., to show the relations of words to each other).
Google Docs and smartphone voice typing: Use them to practice pronunciation and accent reduction, as well as for speaking practice.
Sample student materials and handouts
*Sample English materials are available upon request
Russian cases (handout for active use; a condensed version of a topic that takes up entire chapters)
Russian alphabet and sounds (detailed guide with audio for beginners with lots of practice)
Apps and platforms I use for language teaching
I use many apps in Google ecosystem to structure my language teaching.
Google Classroom is the main hub that helps me organize all class materials and provide feedback to students. This is an intuitive platform that is easy to use - yet it provides benefits similar to other Learning Management Systems such as Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, and so on.
Other Google applications are well-integrated in google eco-system and streamline the process of creating and sharing information, assessing students, and conducting classes. For communication with students I also use WhatsApp due to its simple voice message system and sharing capabilities.
Google Hangouts or Skype for online video classes
Blogger for wrting activities
Google Slides for class materials and activities
teaching Philosophy and core teaching principles
My teaching philosophy is deeply rooted in the ideas of John Dewey who famously defined education as “life itself”. I focus on collaborative problem-solving and free exchange of ideas. I believe students learn best through hands-on experience situated in social contexts and relevant to their community by applying the scientific method of thinking and I design my course to emphasize activities that reflect this.
The three core principles in my teaching are:
The scientific method of thinking and problem-solving
Community building and collaboration
The three years of teaching a course on learning and college success skills at the Ohio State University has allowed me to develop a well-defined tool kit applicable to both in-person and online educational contexts.
Emphasis on the scientific method of thinking and problem-solving
Scientists solve problems by forming a hypothesis, performing an experiment, and reflecting on the results. I structure my course assignments to encourage these types of activities. For example, when studying motivation, I have had students use a combination of past observations and theories of motivation to identify the causes of their motivational problems (form a hypothesis), apply derived motivational strategies for at least one week, record the results and interpret them. I asked the students to draw their own conclusions about the validity of their hypothesis based on their findings (i.e., whether the identified cause was indeed at the root of the problem). As a final activity I had them discuss their individual findings as a group with a goal of collective problem-solving.
Emphasis on community building and collaboration
From day one I tell my student their peers are the number one resource for learning and support. I look to build a close-knit community of learners using two main instruments: games and collaborative group work. Every class we started with a game that helped students experience collaborative work. One of my students’ favorite games is a Russian children’s game called “Creek”, in which students form two columns holding hands; the first pair moves through the “creek of hands” following a certain pattern; the other pairs join in until the entire creek is moving continuously. It is a simple yet compelling way to bring students together. This is important because my classes involve many small-group debates and discussions and collaborative hands-on activities, bringing in different, unique perspectives. For example, conversations about goal-setting could evolve into group debate about how cultural stereotypes (e.g., one should always strive to achieve big challenging goals) influence our habits and behaviors. I always promote students’ reflections on how their beliefs and attitudes about college and learning can change through the perspectives of others. Many of my students note how they have made many meaningful social connections in my class, discovering new and rewarding ways to learn.
In online settings, I help students build community through creating photo rosters, small-group video calls, discussion-based assignments, collaborative projects, and peer reviews.
Emphasis on exploration
Many problems in modern society require creativity to solve them (with facts and content easily available on the web). I structure my classes to encourage students to engage in creative problem-solving through self-initiated explorations. For example, students can learn how to prioritize tasks by working in teams to perform as many tasks as they could to receive the most points. Busy with forming a moving conga line (earning them impressive 20 points) and making a nickname for each team member (adding mere 5 points), they naturally pick up essential principles of prioritizing through their activities – later uncovered through group discussion. The final projects are usually open-ended, promoting reflection on students’ progress throughout the semester. For example, they could pick a book that helps them achieve one of their goals, implement the strategies they learned and record their results (another form of scientific thinking), sharing their final reflection with others. Any possible format was allowed for this project for my online students except for a paper and a PowerPoint. Students challenged themselves by making videos, cartoons, engaging in digital storytelling, creating blog posts, comics, podcasts, and even singing – all of which require solid problem-solving and critical reflection skills (some of the results are posted on the university website here). I always provide a lot of technical support to my students in view of my extensive experience with technological tools.
Learning outcomes and expectations
I assess students’ progress using a holistic, formative approach. I do not rely on quizzes and tests but rather on tracking the change in their thinking through their engagement in class discussions and activities, open-ended writing assignment and creative projects, and their own evaluations of their progress. I provide ample feedback on all assignments (both in-person and online) and recommend resources and future directions of action based on each individual situation. I expect my students to come to class with an open mind, ready to challenge their own and others’ thinking, and strive to make practical positive change, and I clearly communicate this expectation from the start. I also tell them that they can expect me to be equally open-minded and ready to collaborate, offer support with academic and personal struggles, and work with them as a community to lead the course in the direction most relevant to their needs.
As a follower of Deweyan philosophy of education, my teaching methods aim to create a productive environment fostering collaborative-problem solving in a close-knit community of learners. I plan to continuously refine my approach because each community of learners is unique and my role as a teacher is to notice where the most productive areas of student development are and gently guide them in that direction – while closely paying attention to their own learning goals and aspirations. I believe this flexible approach can be applied to any type of content and modified to address the needs of any student population.
Sample Teaching Materials
Free Course textbook
I collaborated with my online students to write a free textbook for the college learning strategies course I was teaching because I wanted to free my students from the financial stress of buying a textbook. Several students worked together on each chapter, and I was helping with structure, proofreading and revisions. The book is available upon request.