The Assistant Teacher Program

Department of Modern Languages & Literatures

At Fairfield University

Director: Dr. Joel Goldfield

ATs and the AT/OPS Directors


Dr. Joel Goldfield established the Assistant Teacher/Oral Practice Session (AT/OPS) program for French in the Spring of 1998 with the collegial support of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures (DMLL), the Administration at Fairfield University and a Humanities Institute grant. The goal of the OPS program is to help students improve their command of the oral language.  The courses that include OPS are part of the University's Core (general education) curriculum and now include Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Spanish.  Speakers of these and our other modern languages (Hebrew and Italian) are encouraged to contact the Office of Academic Support and Retention (ASR) about tutorial positions.  Above you see some of our former ATs for most of these languages: Aina, Anke, Gabriel, Jorge, Junko, Karin, Kelly, Lara, Murielle, Rubén and Takako.

Based on the Dartmouth Intensive Language Model (DILM) and the Rassias Method (RM), the program provides an oral-intensive opportunity to learn in small classes taught by highly trained peer teachers or "Assistant Teachers" (ATs) who are usually undergraduates. More information on the success of the Method can be read in Breakthrough:  Essays and Vignettes in Honor of John A. Rassias (ed. Mel B. Yoken, New York, Peter Lang, 2007) and in Methods That Work (ed. John W. Oller, Jr., Boston, Heinle & Heinle, 1983 and 1993).

At Fairfield University, an Assistant Teacher Workshop (ATW) is conducted by a team of DMLL faculty at the beginning of each semester outside of most class hours. Each workshop provides fourteen to fifteen clock hours of training and development, including language-specific as well as general methodological instruction. It is open to all students with proficiency above the Intermediate-High level sometimes gained after completing the Intermediate course sequence, though more commonly after several upper-level courses and/or study abroad. All AT candidates audition (or re-audition) each semester at the end of the workshop.

Once trained and selected by a team of DMLL faculty, ATs prepare, under the appropriate Language Supervisor's direction, materials to teach in weekly Oral Practice Sessions (OPS) attended by four to eight student learners. These energetic sessions facilitate over 100 responses per student in each OPS and complement the activities of normally larger Master Classes taught by professors. As in many typical college or university classes, professors assume their expected role of teaching the structure and use of the target language in a cultural context. They interweave the pre-communicative and communicative oral exercises and cultural materials rehearsed in the OPS, enabling students to "pull it all together" between oral and written forms of the language and thus bridge the performance gap in oral and written proficiency that frequently occurs without opportunities like the OPS.


Students' collective opinions have been in the great majority highly positive. Most students who have completed a questionnaire over the past few years have noted that the OPS have helped them improve their vocabulary, pronunciation and listening comprehension. For example, approximately 77% of the 134 students responding in Fall 2005 indicated that their course grades for speaking had improved thanks to the OPS.  But the benefits of OPS practice can transfer to other areas as well: 30% of two different groups comprised of nearly 200 OPS students each responding in Spring 2001 and Spring 2002, for example, also indicated on anonymous written surveys that the OPS helped them improve their grades in grammar as well, even though ATs do not explain grammar in the OPS.  Rather, they demonstrate it through oral examples, props, sketches and gestures. Instructors have observed that both student retention of aural (listening) materials and student ability to produce longer and more intelligible phrases in appropriate contexts have improved. Very similar results have been tabulated each semester up to the present.  These results conform well to our principal OPS goal: to help students improve their command of the oral language. The OPS serve as a rehearsal of high-priority areas like vocabulary, culture, and grammar materials along with pronunciation, intonation and culturally appropriate gestures. Students can then apply all these to activities in their professor's class. Anecdotal evidence from ATs, professors and from other target language speakers at the University strongly suggests that students participating in the OPS increase their intelligibility as perceived by other speakers of the language, including native speakers. The Director engages regularly in research on student and AT evaluations of the program complemented by computer-adaptive placement examinations and other data. Additional results gleaned from research on the AT/OPS program were reported by the Director at a session of the Alpha Mu Gamma foreign language honor society’s national convention held at Fairfield University in Spring 2001.


The OPS exercises are usually created by Fairfield University professors, and students are scheduled or volunteer to attend one session per week. These materials are streamlined and acted out to connect words to actions, similar to the Direct Method. The nature of the materials and the theatrical approach afford students the maximum amount of time to rehearse their speaking ability for both achievement and proficiency goals. To help learners focus on items relevant to expressing themselves to other speakers of the language, an increasing number of personalized questions and role-playing situations are practiced in the OPS as the course progresses. Guided conversation on specific themes or topics previously presented in the Master Class with the professor also gradually increases over time. The ATs do their utmost to help their fellow students understand at least the core concepts of the materials they are practicing, according to certain linguistic principles deemed helpful to their progress. A certain amount of preparation is, of course, expected on the students' part.  A sample letter informing students of expectations and guidelines for the OPS is available at this OPS student letter link.

Wherever possible and appropriate, ATs use gestures and props to help learners associate words with actions and objects. However, as is the case even in the learners' native language, the students are not expected to understand everything at all times. Some amount of guesswork and good will on their part is often necessary for learning a foreign language. In keeping with the can-do philosophy of the OPS, the ATs try their best to be clear, effective, consistent, energetic, friendly and humorous. Important to the conducting of an OPS is that learners are discouraged from interrupting it to ask a grammar question. ATs are not permitted to explain grammar points in the OPS, only to demonstrate them by example as the purpose of the OPS is oral practice. Learners are encouraged, however, to look quizzical or to ask in the target language during an appropriate pause for the AT to repeat the item, in which case the AT can supply a clarifying gesture or an additional example. ATs also frequently select other learners in the class to provide such clarification.

In keeping with the hierarchical differences among professor, AT and language learner, ATs do not grade, although they do take attendance. We also encourage ATs to speak with their students in the target language even outside of class. DMLL faculty observe all OPS several times per semester. Opportunities also exist for ATs to earn credit in lieu of salary for some of the OPS they conduct. Additional work and meetings with a faculty member are required.

Since the OP sessions generally consist of rehearsed items, we ask learners to think of their AT as an assistant "language coach" helping them prepare for their class "performance." Each semester, at least a few of the ATs are also students in other Core language courses requiring OPS. The camaraderie and insight into the techniques and philosophy of the program only reinforce students' impressions that the OPS "really work"!


Dedicated faculty members participate in the training workshop and/or supervise the several Assistant Teachers who teach our students in the Oral Practice Sessions.  These faculty members include:  Profs. Adrada Rafael and Arango-Martin (Spanish), Avery (Japanese), Erotopoulos (French), Farrell (Brazilian Portuguese), Goldfield (French), Hamed (Arabic), Syssoeva (Russian), Wilkinson (German), and Xiao (Chinese).


Click on the link in this sentence for information on a typical AT/OPS Workshop.

To see highlights of some of our AT meetings, click here:  AT Meeting 2002F   AT Meeting 2003S   AT Meeting 2003F  AT Farewell 2011S


To read about grants, assistantships and other honors received by AT/OPS alumni click on any links provided here:  Fulbrights in Germany; French grants, including James Costa ’06 (Italy), David Gorman ’03 (Teaching Assistantship, Germany), Kelly Comiskey ’03 and Laura Beauregard ’03 (French Government Teaching Assistantships).  Other Fairfield news articles on the AT/OPS Program include the following:  Xiomara Morales ’00 and M.A. ’03;  Carol Chiodo ’06 (recent Ph.D. in Italian at Yale), and the AT/OPS Program article in the University’s magazine, Fairfield Now.

For more information on the AT/OPS Program, please contact Dr. Joel Goldfield at: