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Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices

Arabic: How We Spend Our Free Time Class Context


My classroom is very intentionally filled with tables and not desks because I feel that tables promote conversation, and in the language class I want the students to be speaking to each other [in Arabic]. I do a lot of group work and a lot of partner work in all of my classes, and having tables is much more conducive to that kind of work. I think it really encourages students to be a community at their table and speak to each other, use the language to have conversations, and also help each other and support each other in their learning.

— Katie Quackenbush




Meeting People

  • Greeting each other in a culturally appropriate manner
  • Giving basic information about ourselves (name, age, where we’re from, nationality, etc.)
  • Basic Arab world geography (paired with discussing nationality)
  • Numbers 0–20
  • Introduction to Arabic writing system; first third of the alphabet; short vowels

Making Plans with Friends

  • Days of the week, times of day
  • Asking and answering questions about our schedule
  • Making plans with others
  • Second third of the alphabet; other writing symbols

Visiting and Hospitality

  • Inviting others and accepting/rejecting invitations
  • Hospitality and insisting on invitations
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Final third of the alphabet
  • Project: write and illustrate a comic strip

About Me

  • Hobbies and sports
  • Family members
  • Talking about others’ likes and dislikes
  • Remaining symbols for reading and writing; practice whole alphabet
  • Project: create a children’s book about me

School Profile

Katie Quackenbush teaches Arabic levels 1–4 to students from grades 8 to 11 at Boston Latin Academy (BLA) in Boston, Massachusetts. The 1,700 students enrolled in the school come from all over the city of Boston and make up a culturally, racially, ethnically, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse student body. BLA is an exam school; while it is part of the Boston Public Schools district, students are admitted based on past grade point average and the results of an academic entrance exam. About 43 percent of students are English Language Learners. First languages include Spanish, Haitian Creole, Vietnamese, Somali, Mandarin, Urdu, Cambodian, Bengali, and Pashtu. BLA offers students an education that combines classical and contemporary curricula. All students study Latin starting in seventh grade and add a modern foreign language, including Chinese, French, Japanese, Spanish, and Arabic, beginning in eighth grade. BLA had been offering Arabic for five years prior to this lesson.

Lesson Design

Ms. Quackenbush uses backward design when planning lessons. She starts with a thematic unit related to the cultures of the Arab world and develops objectives for the unit based on state frameworks as well as the World-Readiness Standards and the Five C goal areas. From there, she creates subunits and then individual lessons. Ms. Quackenbush designs each lesson to maximize student language production and help build student confidence during the first year of study. She plans a lot of student-led hands-on activities, and infuses cultural and linguistic authenticity into her curriculum. She also seeks to balance language skills across the three modes of communication (Interpersonal, Interpretive, and Presentational) connected with cultural knowledge so that students are able to function with the language in varied contexts.

Ms. Quackenbush feels that setting learning in real-life contexts naturally enables her to bring in all of the Five Cs. In addition to communication, she emphasizes cultural understanding in her teaching. She views language as a means to learn about other peoples—in this case, about different Arab cultures. She believes relating the language to something that can help them understand the world better improves students’ motivation to learn. To discourage students from resorting to English, she intentionally avoids translating directly between Arabic and English.

Ms. Quackenbush uses conversational activities as opportunities to informally assess student learning. She listens for the target vocabulary and structures that are the focus of a unit or subunit. When she notices repeated mistakes being made, she tries to be reflective and conscious about how much she corrects students. One strategy she uses when giving corrective feedback is to repeat what the student said in a questioning way to encourage students to notice their own errors and build self-correction skills.

Ms. Quackenbush uses classroom setup and materials to support her teaching. She fills her classroom with tables (not desks) because she feels that tables promote conversation. This year, she is piloting an Arabic I high school textbook that includes authentic readings, audio recordings by native speakers, and videos in which native speakers act out culturally relevant scenes representing authentic scenarios. She supplements textbook materials with YouTube clips, children’s books, and authentic materials that she has collected during her travels in the Arab world.

The Lesson

All students in Ms. Quackenbush’s Arabic I class were in their first year of study. None were native speakers. Several of the students were Muslim and had been exposed to the letters and sounds of the language through their religious upbringings, but they did not enter the class with any communicative proficiency. In this lesson, which comes partway through a unit on hobbies, students activated vocabulary they had been learning and asked and answered questions using “you” and “I.” With respect to grammatical structure, Ms. Quackenbush focused on helping students recognize patterns among different kinds of words and then had students use them in a meaning-driven, communicative fashion.

The lesson activities were designed to follow an authentic reading that students had done in the previous class session about how Saudi Arabian students spend their free time. Students worked in groups to answer some questions in their textbook about the reading. They followed that up with a full-class conversation about how they can use the Saudi Arabian students’ responses to formulate questions to see if the Boston Latin Academy students liked to do those activities as well.

Ms. Quackenbush designed the lesson to be student-led to maximize student production yet allow students of different abilities to work at their own pace. The lesson was carefully scaffolded: the warm-up game required students to practice the question formation that would be necessary for the main activity. Instructions were communicated to students twice in the target language—first on the whiteboard in visual format using both words and images, and then orally by the teacher. These were restated in English on the students’ handout. This variety of formats for instructions differentiates learning for all students.

After students completed the main activity, Ms. Quackenbush explained the extension: in the next day’s class, they would compare what they liked to do in their free time with what Saudi Arabian students like to do in theirs. This provided students a mental roadmap of what was coming next.

Key Teaching Strategies

  • Appealing to Multiple Intelligences: The teacher incorporates different nonverbal approaches, such as bodily/kinesthetic and musical/rhythmic ones, into lessons.
  • Contextualizing Grammar: The teacher embeds grammatical practice in meaningful contexts; meaning precedes a focus on form.
  • Providing Corrective Feedback: In a process of negotiation, the teacher mediates student learning by verbally or nonverbally helping the student focus on a point of confusion around a language form.
  • Visualizing Vocabulary: The teacher uses visuals to establish concrete images of vocabulary and to help students remember the terms.

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Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices


Teaching Foreign Languages K–12: Teaching Arabic © 2016 Annenberg Learner and Qatar Foundation International. All rights reserved.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-731-2