Conducting Effective Language Instructor Observations

By Jennifer Robertson Montes posted 07-01-2010 07:02


As a program administrator, it’s your responsibility to ensure a quality program with top-notch instructors.  But what if you do not speak the target language of instruction or have any background in second language acquisition?  How do you know what your students are getting?  A word of caution – Do NOT rely on the course evaluations alone!

Why You Can’t Rely on Course Evaluations

You are probably wondering why you cannot use the course evaluations to determine whether or not your language courses are effective.  First of all, they happen at the end of the course, so if you have a new instructor you may not find out how students feel until it’s too late.

For teachers that you have used over and over again, you may be thinking, “if my students are happy then they must be getting what they need.”  That could be true, but it might also be very wrong.  With 15 years’ experience observing language classes, I can tell you that unless things go wildly wrong in the classroom, if the instructor is likeable and fun the students will give him or her a good rating.  The vast majority of our students do not understand how second language acquisition works; thus, they cannot give you feedback on whether or not the instructor is giving them what they need.


Instructor Observations are Key

Conducting regular classroom observations is a critical part of program administration.  The following are some guidelines on conducting effective observations:

  • If you do not have the experience or knowledge to conduct the observations yourself, use your top instructors and pay them something extra.
  • Use a standardized observation form with a scoring rubric that clearly establishes what you are looking for and creates consistency.
  • If there are items on your scoring form that do not apply for that observation period, do not factor them into the final score.
  • Tell instructors when they are hired that there will be observations and that they will not be announced.  We recommend not announcing them so that you can see the instructor in their normal teaching environment.
  • Observe every instructor at least three times per year no matter how long they have been teaching with you.  Everyone needs a mentor and can learn new ways of doing things or new ideas for the classroom.
  • Observe new instructors during the first week of class and if there are coaching items, conduct a follow up observation one week later.  THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT AND SHOULD NOT BE SKIPPED!
  • Conduct observations that are at least 30 minutes long.  This will give you a good understanding of the person’s ability to create an effective language-learning environment.
  • Mix up your observation times.  One time you might want to get to the class ten minutes before to see if he or she arrives on time and begins prepared.  In another instance, come in the middle of class to see the activities in progress.  During another observation, attend the end of the class to see how he or she ties things up.
  • If your instructor teaches multiple levels, be SURE to observe them all.  We have found that some teachers are better at different levels and they do not perform the same in all of them.  The beginner level is the absolute most difficult and you really need to find instructors who understand how to teach to that level.  In our experience, if you can find bilingual individuals who are TESOL certified, they make the best beginner language instructors!  Visit for more information.  Although this certificate is geared towards teaching English as a Second Language (ESOL), the methodology can be applied to all languages.
  • When there are coaching items, the observer should sit down with the instructor and give him or her feedback on those items with specific recommendations on how to improve.  Don’t just say “you talk too much” and expect the person to know what to do.  Give examples from the observation with explanations on how they could have used less teacher talk in that instance. 

Conducting language instructor observations is critical to ensure quality in your language program.  Look for more articles in the future on this topic at: