Tips for Foreign Language Substitute Teachers

Swing EducationClassroom Management, Teaching Strategies18 Comments

Spanish substitute teacher

If you studied Spanish in high school or college, you could probably hold your own while subbing in a middle-school Spanish classroom.

But what if you’re asked to fill in for a class where the language is unfamiliar to you? Although this may seem like a somewhat intimidating task, there’s actually no need to panic – you can successfully sub in a foreign language class regardless of your language background.

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Being prepared for your day as a substitute can be incredibly helpful, regardless of the subject. It gives you time to get familiar with the lesson plans and class routine, as well as the teacher’s discipline or positive reinforcement system.

If you have advance notice that you’ll be filling in for a foreign language class and you have even limited experience with the language, it would be a good idea to brush up on it. You might be surprised what comes back to you while reviewing the lesson.

But what if you’re coming into the class with no previous experience or you didn’t have time to review the language before entering the classroom?

Most foreign language teachers won’t task you with teaching the language, but it is very important to understand the expectations that the absent teacher has set. The absent teacher will likely want students to stay on task (completing work, engaging in topical conversations using the language, writing prose in the language, etc.).

If you are left with questions after reviewing the lesson plan and class routine (or if the absent teacher wasn’t able to leave thorough sub plans), seek out support from fellow teachers, preferably those who teach the same language you’ll be charged with. But even if they teach a completely different subject, neighboring teachers will probably still have a good idea about how your class should be running in absence of their normal teacher. Other teachers and administrators might also have contact information for your teacher if they are available for questions during their time away.


One of the major challenges of subbing in a foreign language class is not being able to answer students’ questions. If you are unfamiliar with the language, it would be difficult for you to know how to respond to questions about the lesson.

The good news is that almost every foreign language teacher creates review lessons for substitutes. They would never expect you to magically learn a language overnight, and they know that reviewing things the students have already learned will be much more beneficial than introducing new material. (You might feel comfortable improvising if you do have experience with the particular language, but it’s generally wise to stick to the plan as much as possible.)

When class starts, a good way to be proactive about students’ questions is to encourage them to work together. If they are not already grouped by the teacher, you can allow them to work in groups to complete the assignments. More advanced students will be able to provide some support to their classmates. Even if you have no idea how to answer a question, chances are another student does.

Language Resources

If there’s a question that no one in the class can seem to figure out and you’re not familiar with the language, there are a number of resources that can be helpful. First, encourage students to look for the answer or explanation in their textbook. While this may seem like common sense, students might not initially think to look to the book because their teacher most likely delivers the material in more dynamic ways, such as videos or visual aids.

If students can’t find what they’re looking for in the textbook or the explanation is confusing or unclear, there are many useful internet resources that might help, though these should generally be a last resort unless specified otherwise by the absent teacher; most foreign language teachers generally discourage the use of internet translators.

(If you consult an online resource, do your best to communicate that to the site admin; schools generally frown upon educators who are on their phone during class without explanation.)

  • is a great site that gives accurate translations and uses the word or phrase in sentences to provide context.
  • is also a helpful site that provides verb conjugation and other grammar explanations.

After the Lesson

When it’s all said and done, it’s not the end of the world if students struggle with parts of the lesson. This is to be expected in a foreign language class, as everyone learns at a different pace.

Just be sure to leave a note for the absent teacher summarizing the day. The note should highlight anywhere students had issues so the teacher can be aware of what they might need to review, as well as students who were particularly engaged/productive. You might also list the different resources you and the students tried before moving on from one question or assignment.

Also consider noting any behavioral issues that arose. Do your best to communicate these observations factually and non-judgmentally — i.e. instead of noting that a student was rude, describe exactly what happened.

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18 Comments on “Tips for Foreign Language Substitute Teachers”

  1. Very good tips. I do not know Spanish, but have taken a foreign language. I would encourage students to learn a language it opens many doors for the future.

  2. In fact, it is quite rare now to find such high-quality content for teachers. I hope that you will continue to share your experience and knowledge in this niche. Looking forward to your new articles.

  3. This is a difficult situation. As a supervisor/evaluator, I had difficulty in foreign language classes when I didn’t know the language. I’d strive to encourage and support student interaction in use of the language as a substitute.

  4. I like your tip about looking to textbooks for explanations. I need to get my kid into a Chinese program. I think it will be important for him in the future for getting a job.

  5. Thank you,
    Many of the teaching practices with foreign languages can be adapted to other instructions.

  6. Engaging the students to help each other seems like a productive way to find the answers when I don’t have them.

  7. good tips, and other languages are just one of things I might sub for, but without much background.

  8. Asking another foreign language teacher for help is great advice. Also, most answers can most likely be found by directing the student to their textbook. Thanks

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