Contribution by Cree Whelshula, NLCC TTA Director

The concept of teaching to learn was brought to me on accident. I was attending Eastern Washington University and learned that the American Indian Studies Program no longer offered the Salish Language and Culture class due to lack of funding. Since I was minoring in Linguistics, I offered to teach the class for college credit instead of being paid. This worked out, and I was able to teach while getting 5 credits per quarter towards my linguistics degree. Although I had been learning my language for 13 years at that point, I had never taught anyone else. I thought to myself, “if someone asks me a question, I do not ever want to respond with, I don’t know.” I dug out all my language materials and began going over vocabulary and linguistic papers and books written by Anthony Mattina (the Okanagan Salish Linguist). I did not just want to know how to say words and phrases, I wanted to understand every morpheme, root, stem, and syntax (Okanagan Salish has at least 5 syntax structures). This experience had launched me through a glass ceiling of understanding that I feel I would have not reached had I not taught that class.

As it turns out, there is some science behind this concept. Neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Lieberman states, “if you learn in order to teach someone else, you learn better than if you learn in order to take a test.” In addition, “when you are socially motivated to learn, the social brain can do the learning and it can do it better than the analytic network that you typically activate when you try to memorize.”

The best way to implement a learning-by-teaching method is to use learners who already have some language experience under their belt. Many times, people teach how they themselves learned. They will utilize their own learning experiences, techniques, and skills to transfer what they know to new learners. An example of this would be high school students who have taken at least 1 language class. They could then sign up to go into the elementary classes to deliver 15-minute language lessons to young children. This not only deepens their own understanding of the language, but teaches them valuable life skills about preparation, time management, leadership, organization, and much more.

Here are some comments from university students who had participating in a teaching to learn project for German language in the United Kingdom.

  • “It was an opportunity for me to revise and test out what I had learned during the course (e.g. teaching methods), and I also gained some valuable experience teaching a foreign language to older students.”
  • “Mainly I learnt how to engage people in certain areas of language study and by flipping the role with me becoming the teacher, I had to learn what I was teaching in more detail and to be more accurate than I probably otherwise would have been.” 
  • “I was actually surprised at first by the fact that we were trusted to teach a class, especially first year students. It was a great idea, I enjoyed it a lot and everything went more or less as planned.” (Stollhans, 163)

Resources cited:

Liberman, Matthew, Ph.D. TED. Oct. 2013. Lecture.

Stollhans, Sascha. “Learning by Teaching: Developing Transferable Skills.” ERIC Institute of Education Sciences,