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Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: Workshop

Subjects Matter

Foreign language teachers promote language learning within the context of other curriculum areas, such as geography, science, and language arts. A look at the research helps teachers address the balance between grammatical form and content in the language classroom.

By creating content-based activities, you create a context in which there’s a reason to learn the language, there’s a reason to learn the grammar, there’s a reason to learn the vocabulary. And you’re not putting the students in the position of waiting until they know the language well enough to be able to talk about something interesting.

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

Learning Goals

What is the importance of content-based instruction in a foreign language classroom, and how do you do it effectively? In this session, you’ll review relevant research, observe video discussions and classroom examples, and do a culminating activity in which you design a content-rich lesson. At the end of this session, you will better understand how to:

  • integrate content into language learning;
  • use a constructivist approach to teaching and learning a foreign language; and
  • choose appropriate content for various ages and proficiency levels.


Unit Glossary

communicative modes
The three communicative modes — interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational — are the basis of the Communication goal area of the National Standards. (To read more about each of these standards, go to National Standards.) These modes emphasize the context and purpose of communication, unlike the traditional four-skills approach of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, which treats skills as isolated units.

Constructivism is a learning theory based on the premise that learners develop their understanding by linking new knowledge to prior knowledge. Teaching in a constructivist manner means that new information and experiences are presented in a way that places them into context and integrates them with knowledge the students already possess.

content-based instruction
Content-based instruction describes a curriculum or lesson that emphasizes subject matter (content) over elements of language such as grammar and vocabulary. In this method of instruction, students use the new language to learn engaging content.

cross-disciplinary content
Cross-disciplinary content is subject matter that relates to multiple disciplines. For example, World War II could be studied in social studies, language arts, geography, and foreign language classes. Thus, while students are learning the history of the war in social studies class, they could also be reading stories or newspaper accounts of the war in Russian in their language class.

four-skills approach
The four-skills approach focuses on listening, speaking, reading, and writing as distinct skills. The current communicative modes model reconfigures the approach such that the four skills are intertwined in real-life communication. (See communicative modes for more information.)

interdisciplinary content
Interdisciplinary content is subject matter from several disciplines that is combined in one lesson or unit. For example, a unit on the French elections in language class might combine topics from social studies (such as U.S. an

performance level
Performance level refers to the language outcomes for students in standards-based language programs according to the K-12 Performance Guidelines (derived from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Proficiency Guidelines). The performance levels include Novice, Intermediate, and Pre-Advanced. Novices operate primarily with learned and practiced material. Intermediate learners use language to communicate on familiar topics. While operating primarily at the sentence level, they begin to expand and string sentences together as they build narrative skills. Pre-Advanced students are beginning to sustain narration and description in past, present, and future time and in a range of content areas.

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.)

Brinton, D., and P. Master, eds. New Ways in Content-Based Instruction. Alexandria, VA: TESOL, 1997.

Doughty, C., and J. Williams, eds. Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Echevarria, J., M. Vogt, and D. J. Short. Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP Model. Des Moines: Allyn & Bacon, 2000.

Lightbown, P. M. “SLA Research in the Classroom/SLA Research for the Classroom.” Language Learning Journal 27 (2003): 4-14.

Lightbown, P. M., and N. Spada. How Languages Are Learned. Rev. ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Met, Myriam. “Making Connections.” In Foreign Language Standards: Linking Research, Theories, and Practice, edited by J. K. Phillips and R. M. Terry, 137-164. Chicago: National Textbook Company (in conjunction with ACTFL), 1999. (This text is available in the Before You Watch section.)

Met, Myriam. “Teaching Content Through a Second Language.” In Educating Second Language Children: The Whole Child, the Whole Curriculum, the Whole Community, edited by F. Genesee. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Nicholas, H., P. M. Lightbown, and N. Spada. “Recasts as Feedback to Language Learners.” Language Learning 51 (2001): 719-758.

Snow, M. A. “Content-Based and Immersion Models for Second and Foreign Language Teaching.” In Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, edited by M. Celce-Murcia, 303-318. 3d ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 2001.

Snow, M. A., and D. Brinton. The Content-Based Classroom. New York: Longman, 1997.

Swain, M. “French Immersion and Its Offshoots: Getting Two for One.” In Foreign Language Acquisition: Research and the Classroom, edited by B. Freed. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1991.

VanPatten, B. From Input to Output: A Teacher’s Guide to Second Language Acquisition. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003

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 “Subjects Matter” video:

Lesson Title Instructor Language Grade Level
Mapping Planet Earth Stephanie Appel French 2
Interpreting La Belle et la Bête Michel Pasquier French 11
Food Facts and Stories John Pedini Spanish 8
Routes to Culture Pablo Muirhead Spanish 9-10
Comparing Communities Ghislaine Tulou French 9-12
Chicken Pox Jai Scott French K
Promoting Attractions of Japan Yo Azama Japanese 10-12
Interpreting Picasso’s Guernica Meghan Zingle Spanish 10
Politics of Art Lori Langer de Ramirez Spanish 12
Performing With Confidence Yvette Heno French 10-12
Communicating About Sports Jie Gao Chinese 6
Assessment Strategies Wendie Santiago Spanish 11-12


If you are taking this workshop for credit or professional development, submit the following assignments for session 4: Subjects Matter.

  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 write a content-based activity description.
  3. Put It Into Practice
    Complete one of the activities, then submit your content-based lesson or extended content-based unit.
  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.