Our teaching method and approach

Teaching Italian as a foreign language

Teaching Italian: language teaching method

Our Italian course programme is based on a communicative approach intended to activate the processes of learning and language acquisition in the four linguistic skills (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing). We follow the acquisition learning hypotheses of Communicative language teaching (CLT). Linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Stephen Krashen explore the need to act on two levels in order to develop language competences: acquisition (which develops our subconscious level) and learning (which develops our conscious level). The teaching of our Italian courses also takes into consideration Gardner’s Theory of multiple intelligences and suggestopedia which means that our teachers carry out activities in class which accommodate different learning styles.

Do we study how the language works or do we use the language?

Today in contrast to traditional methods that are set to die in certain academic syllabi, linguists agree that we can distinguish between a learning phase (a conscious phase) and an acquisition phase (a subconscious phase) in the study of a foreign language. Just think about how you learnt your own language, you acquired it subconsciously. A native speaker knows how to use the present, past, future and conditional tenses, articles and prepositions etc. before their first day of school. How did we get to such an advanced level of the language? We did it through a subconscious phase (acquisition) without any form of conscious thinking (learning). It’s very unlikely that our parents sat us down to study grammar rules before sending us off to school!

Our language school has always wanted to balance this out and to equal the experience of learning with that of acquisition in order to optimize the process of expansion of a students interlanguage.

Learning a language is like learning to swim,
you need to dive into the language!

Similarly, you need to dive into a “sea of Italian” to learn to use the language.

A language is not a result of a series of grammar rules but the mirror of a culture and a way of seeing and interpreting the world around you. Therefore, learning a language is not a mechanical process, it is a commitment that involves each person’s personal, intellectual and psychological sphere. The pure and simple fact is that being exposed to a specific piece of grammar in a passive way does not indicate linguistic acquisition. 

Which is better, real or artificial language?

We consider the use of authentic material to be fundamental in class, allowing students to have exposure to authentic language (the real language that you hear every day) instead of artificial language that has been created in a simplified manner for a foreign student. Simplified language is not the real daily language you encounter in the country where the language is spoken, neither on television nor in the newspapers. Our teachers prefer to use authentic material in class because their daily use helps them to adapt more quickly and easily to linguistic situations that students will inevitably experience outside school in real life.

Students, like children, develop ‘rich’ language if they are exposed to many situations that are linguistically rich, but if they only experience situations that we could call linguistically ‘poor’ (for example the use of simplified materials), they will only develop basic language.

Our course is like a cake!

Just like the best cakes, our courses are made with many important ingredients!

Our standard course is divided into 2 parts: language analysis sessions and communication activities.

During language analysis, all activities aim to help students understand how the language works and what the linguistic mechanisms of the language are. This is an umbrella term under which we find the concept of grammar and we focus on the ‘grammar of the language’ with a textual approach. This is always studied in context and in relation to other linguistic concepts within the text and not as a never-ending list of grammar rules which are useless on their own and out of context. Paradoxically, we could say that grammar ‘rules’ do not exist as such, only ‘regular patterns’ which are a different thing. What is definitely true is that for every grammar rule, numerous ‘exceptions’ also exist!

All of the activities of our language analysis sessions activate the learning process (on a conscious level) and their objective is to better understand how the language works by exploring the mechanisms that govern it. Language analysis activities include controlled Speaking and Writing activities and analytical Listening and Reading activities (morphosyntactic, semantic-lexical, functional).

In our communication activity sessions, all activities aim to improve communicative competences using the productive (Speaking and Writing) and receptive (Listening and Reading) skills with a holistic, global approach to the language. This is in contrast to the analysis of the specifics and the structure of the language that takes place in our language analysis session.

All of the activities used during our communication sessions activate the acquisition process (on a subconscious level) and include the holistic comprehension of listening and reading texts (for example through repeated listening or reading activities) and activities that involve oral production and free writing. These activities aim to increase the communicative competences of the student. 

These are some of the activities that we offer in class:

in “language analysis” which examines the mechanisms of the language and works on the “particulars” and “details”:

  • analytical listening
  • controlled speaking
  • analytical reading
  • controlled writing
  • language puzzles
  • conversation construction
  • conversation reconstruction
  • analytical relay
  • word trees during 

in the communication activities session that look at the language from both a global and a holistic aspect

  • authentic listening
  • free speaking
  • authentic reading
  • free writing
  • roleplays
  • for and against
  • games

Who’s at the centre of the lesson, student or teacher?

We believe that every moment the teacher is speaking is a moment stolen from the student. This motto means that a lesson in which a teacher talks a lot and ‘presents their own show’ is not a valid lesson. Our teachers already speak excellent Italian, it is the students who need to practise!

One thing you will never see at our school is a teacher who comes into class and starts by going to the board and explaining grammar rules. This is because we like to help you to discover the rules and meanings by yourselves. We firmly believe that the process of learning is much more efficient if the student is involved in the learning process. By examining the material given by the teacher, a student can already try to analyse the linguistic elements therein and can make hypotheses. Discussing and debating different ideas with classmates helps to try come to a conclusion (or problem solving). This is a form of active learning that runs much deeper and will not be forgotten for the rest of a student’s life. On the other hand, if a rule is passively explained to a student, the meaning of the word or any other ideas, will easily be forgotten (though a quicker route to immediate understanding, it will not leave its mark in the longterm).

The forms and morphosyntactic and/or lexical structures are presented in a deductive way (by deductive we mean that the students are encouraged to ‘deduce’ the solution by observing grammatical or linguistic elements in context through the analysis of a spoken or written text). During a lesson, the teacher will encourage students to, first of all, reflect and then form a hypothesis in order to arrive at the solution to a problem (or at the discovery of a new grammatical, syntactic or lexical element) regarding the forms and structures to be studied that day. Feedback with the students follows in order for the teacher to check the hypotheses of the students (with pair or group work) and therefore the teacher is only involved at the end of a process of analysis and reflection. This teaching philosophy puts the student at the centre of the learning process and ensures that lessons are not taught in a traditional way where the teacher is at the centre of the lesson.  

During the course, the morphosyntactic and/or lexical forms are presented and analysed in the order of their complexity and the frequency in which they are used in the Italian language.

With or without a text book?

At IH Catania we choose not to adopt a text book as there is no one better to assess and respond to the needs of our students than our teachers (or rather facilitators), so we leave it up to them. Our teachers prefer to select the material they bring into class from the entire library of resources available at school. In addition, all of our teachers  are trained in how to teach using authentic materials and therefore can create their own teaching units for their lessons. As a result, the material they choose to bring into class will always be fresh, up to date and appropriate to the needs of each and every class and student. At the end of the course students will have a collection of texts and materials which they have worked on during the course to take home with them.

Human or digital?

At our school we use various multimedia including authentic videos, at various language levels, to engage, inspire and develop our learners’ language, communication and soft skills. By explore different topics through watching short video extracts, reading newspaper and magazine articles and listening to podcasts, students can enjoy an interactive approach to language learning. 

Nonetheless, we are first and foremost human! Technology is just one of the many resources that can be used in class and will always be a resource, not a teaching method.

Correction: to be corrected or not?

One of the main student worries is correction and linguistic perfection. Traditional approaches have generally always focused more on formal correction and much less on improvement of the communicative capacity of students. We often meet students who are good at doing grammar exercises but are not able to ask for a glass of water at a café or to answer simple questions. What’s the use of this kind of study? What’s the point of perfectly conjugating the past simple tenses if you can’t say what you did yesterday?

Excessive correction often creates anxiety for students and the more anxious we become, the more our receptive learning channels shut down and freeze our minds. If we refer to the natural acquisition of language and look at children as an example, we can observe that a child who is continually interrupted when trying to communicate will become annoyed and unresponsive, forgetting what they were trying to say, just like a student who from a linguistically-speaking point of view is still a ‘child’.

On our courses there is a time for correction (or better said collective error reflection) during our language analysis sessions and there is a ‘freer’ time during our communication activity sessions. These sessions are like going to the gym where you can practise without the fear of getting it wrong. Just like with children, time and more practise will help to refine formal error correction (for more on correction, read Humphris).

With regards to student-progress during the course, students who have not yet reached the acquisition of the structures covered in language analysis will be offered the opportunity to repeat the level or wait before proceeding to the next level, enabling them to work on and improve some of those structures. Continuing on to the next level takes place based on the abilities of each individual student. This is the fundamental principle on which we base our courses, activities and classes.

Quality standard in teaching Italian as a foreign language

Our Italian school for foreigners is accredited and recognised by numerous “third parties” who have inspected and certified the reliability and the professionalism of our school and teachers.

All of our teachers, as well as having a University degree, have also completed a certificate in Teaching Italian as a Foreign Language.

DILS II from the University per Stranieri di Perugia is a specific teaching certificate which guarantees essential teaching knowledge and skills necessary to carry out the profession of teaching Italian to foreigners. Many of our teachers have also completed the DITALS qualification from the University per Stranieri of Siena and some have the Master ITALS qualification from the University Ca’ Foscari of Venice. 

You can be sure of one thing, we know what we are doing! 

Our courses are structured to conform to the European standards for language learning and in particular follow the CEFR – Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and  ALTE.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages divides learners’ levels into three broad categories (Basic User, Independent User and Proficient User). These categories can then be sub-divided into two levels, making a total of 6 levels. They are used to describe in detail what an individual is capable of doing in the said language at each level and in the following abilities: written comprehension, oral comprehension, written production and spoken production.  

Student levels at our school are divided as follows: 

  • Absolute Beginners
  • A1 Pre-elementary
  • A1 Elementary
  • A2 Pre-intermediate
  • A2 Pre-intermediate +
  • B1 Intermediate
  • B1 Intermediate +
  • B2 Superior
  • B2 Superior +
  • C1 Advanced
  • C2 Advanced

Teacher rotation: just like in real life, the voices around us change.

Our classes aim to be a laboratory of life, a way of reproducing real-life, everyday linguistic situations. With this in mind, every week there is a rotation of teachers during the course. We want to offer our students the opportunity to hear different accents with different tones, rhythms and intonation and to experience various personalities and styles during their linguistic journey. Just like in real life, you have to get used to hearing different voices and accents because it is all too easy to get used to your teacher’s voice but then struggle to understand anyone else.

Course duration and entrance test.

Students can enroll on a course for the number of weeks of their choice depending on the time they have available. On the first day of the course new students take a brief entrance test (written and spoken) to establish the appropriate class level.

Continuous monitoring of progress in class

Student learning, student progress and language acquisition is constantly monitored by teachers during a weekly teacher’s meeting which all teachers attend. They discuss the classes they have been teaching, the activities carried out and share new ideas in order to guarantee that every student is following the best learning and acquisition process in a class that is suitable for their linguistic abilities.

The small class sizes at our school guarantee active student-involvement, plenty of time for in-class communication and also gives each student the opportunity to be the star of the lesson.

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