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Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: Workshop

Engaging With Communities

This session looks at how teachers can create opportunities for students to use the target language with native speakers (including in-person, telephone, and email interactions) to enhance language learning and cultural understanding.

Our goal is to prepare students to not only take what they have learned in the classroom and use it outside the classroom, but to take the love of that language and the interest in the culture that has happened in the classroom and take it into a community where they can continue learning it.

– Patsy M. Lightbown, Professor Emeritus, Concordia University, Montreal

Learning Goals

How do you provide students with opportunities to interact with communities in which the target language is spoken? In this session, you’ll review relevant research, observe video discussions and classroom examples, and engage in activities to develop successful interactions between students and native speakers. At the end of this session, you will better understand how to:

  • identify opportunities for students to use language and learn about the target culture beyond the classroom;
  • prepare students and native speakers prior to their interactions to ensure successful exchanges and debrief the experience afterwards; and
  • use technology to facilitate interactions with native speakers.

Unit Glossary

heritage speaker
A heritage speaker, also called a heritage language learner, is a student who is exposed to a language other than English at home. Heritage speakers can be categorized based on the prominence and development of the heritage language in their daily life. Some students may have full oral fluency and literacy in the heritage language; others may have full oral fluency, but their written literacy was not developed because they were schooled in English. Another group of students — typically third- or fourth-generation — can speak to a limited degree but cannot express themselves on a wide range of topics. Students from any of these categories may also have gaps in knowledge about their cultural heritage. Teachers who have heritage speakers of the target language in their class should assess each student’s proficiency level in order to understand what their strengths are and what gaps in language skill may exist that need to be addressed. For more information about heritage speakers, go to the Characteristics of Home Background Students (PDF, 79 K) chart.

Keypals are students who communicate with one another electronically (via email or instant messages) for the purposes of practicing their communication skills in the target language and learning more about the target culture. The process is parallel to the letter-writing process for pen pals, but more immediately interactive

native speaker
A native speaker considers the target language to be his or her first language. Teachers seek opportunities for students to communicate in person or through technology with native speakers. Students in foreign language classes who are first- or second-generation immigrants and who use the language extensively outside the classroom are also considered native speakers. These students typically maintain the cultural norms of their heritage in certain situations.

thematic approach
A thematic approach refers to curriculum organization that is based on content themes. Vocabulary, grammatical structures, and cultural information are included as they relate to the themes in each unit. For examples of theme-based units, see the Nebraska Foreign Language Education Web site in General Resources on the Teaching Foreign Languages K-12 video library Web site.


Check out these additional resources to explore the topic further.

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century. National Standards in Foreign Language Education Collaborative Project. Yonkers, NY: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 1999. (To purchase the Standards document, go to or call 1-800-627-0629.)

Draper, Jamie B., and June H. Hicks. “Where We’ve Been; What We’ve Learned.” In Teaching Heritage Language Learners: Voices from the Classroom, edited by John B. Webb and Barbara L. Miller, 15-35. Yonkers, NY: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 2000.

European Schoolnet: Virtual School.

Global Gateway

Global School Networks Alliance

Hass, Mari, and Margaret Reardon. “Communities of Learners: From New York to Chile.” In Collaborations: Meeting New Goals, New Realities, edited by June K. Phillips, 213-241. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company, 1997. (This text is available in the Before You Watch section.)

Hellebrant, Josef, and Lucia T. Varona. “Construyendo puentes (Building bridges): Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Spanish.” In Service-Learning in the Disciplines, edited by Edward Zlotkowski. Washington, DC: American Association on Higher Education, 2002.

iEARN (International Education and Resource Network)

Kasper, G., and S. Blum-Kulka, eds. Interlanguage Pragmatics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Kuttenberg, Eva, Marion Gehlker, and Ingrid Zeller. “Transcontinental Links via E-Mail.” Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (NECTFL) Newsletter 42 (1997): 42-50.

Lyster, R. “The Effect of Functional-Analytic Teaching on Aspects of French Immersion Learners’ Sociolinguistic Competence.” Applied Linguistics 15 (1994): 263-287.

People to People International: School and Classroom Program

Tarone, E., and M. Swain. “A Sociolinguistic Perspective on Second Language Use in Immersion Classrooms.” The Modern Language Journal 79 (1995): 166-178.

Library Videos Chart

The following lessons from Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices are listed in the order in which they appear in the “Engaging With Communities” video:

Lesson Title Instructor Language Grade Level
U.S. and Italian Homes Marylee DiGennaro Italian 9
A Cajun Folktale and Zydeco Paris Granville French 8
Comparing Communities Ghislaine Tulou French 9-12
Hearing Authentic Voices Davita Alston Spanish 8
Routes to Culture Pablo Muirhead Spanish 9-10
Daily Routines Margaret Dyer Japanese 5
Communicating About Sports Jie Gao Chinese 6
Performing With Confidence Yvette Heno French 10-12
Assessment Strategies Nancy Gadbois French 10-12
Russian Cities, Russian Stories Jane Shuffelton Russian 9-12



If you are taking this workshop for credit or professional development, submit the following assignments for session 8: Engaging With Communities.

  1. Examine the Research
    Read the article, then submit your written responses to the Reading Questions.
  2. Examine the Topic
    Complete the interactive activity, then submit your plan for the three stages of a community interaction from the interactive activity.
  3. Put It Into Practice
    Complete one or both of the activities, then submit your plan for email interactions and/or design for community observations and interactions tasks.
  4. Action Research Project
    Submit your completed action research project on any one of the eight session topics.
  5. Reflect on Your Learning
    Review your notes, then write a summary of what you have learned and how you plan to apply it in your classroom.