Should You Be Teaching Content-Based Spanish Lessons?

You probably are without even realizing it, because it just makes sense. In her book, Beyond Bilingualism: Multilingualism and Multilingual Education, Myriam Met describes what content-based language instruction looks like. Content-based language instruction reflects the real-life language needs of students.1 This is consistent with a focus on communicative language as opposed to language skills in isolation. It provides students with the opportunity to use language as it functions in the real world. Content-based instruction allows the teacher to communicate authentic meanings, for authentic purposes, and to accomplish authentic tasks. A teacher takes a thematic and a problem-solving approach to curriculum design, creating real or simulated real-life tasks.2 Vocabulary and grammar are taught in clusters related to the given content, but meaning is always the focus of instruction, experiences, and tasks.

Ideally an elementary Spanish curriculum allows for a deep level of cognitive engagement that is appropriate to the language proficiency level of the students. In order to be effective, students must have the language proficiency needed to meet the demands of the content instruction. For example, determining the kinds of houses most appropriate to different climates is significantly more cognitively demanding than simply looking out the window to describe today’s weather, or describing one’s ideal house.3 However, looking out the window every day to describe weather and drawing one’s ideal house are development activities that help foster a level of language proficiency needed to reach the higher cognitive demands of determining the type of house appropriate for different climates.

When teaching limited-proficiency students, it is important to choose content that is connected to concrete experiences. This means that instruction includes lots of visual aids and hands-on activities that allow for comprehensible input.4 For example, a science experiment or demonstration often allows for meaning to be conveyed through the experience itself. Well-illustrated literature, either fiction or non-fiction, provides comprehensible input by conveying the meaning of the text through the pictures in the story.

For the youngest language learners (preK-1), content-based instruction means exchanging information about personal needs, wants, and preferences, and the ability to talk about the world around them. If we look at early elementary content taught in other subject areas, we can create Spanish language lessons that enforce developing skills in math, colors, days of the week, months of the year, families, homes of people and animals, and community.5 Furthermore, we can use the language classroom to support physical education, gross and fine-motor skills, music education, rhythm, awareness of self, culture and community, geography, civics and service, fine arts, performing arts, and physical and emotional health.

There is a broad spectrum of content-based language curricula. On one end of the spectrum is content-driven instruction. This is found primarily in immersion programs where 50-100% of a student’s school day is conducted in the second language. On the other end of the spectrum is language-driven, content-based instruction. This is most commonly found in FLES programs, where a teacher has designated periods throughout the week to teach the second language.6 In these classrooms, language instruction reinforces content, but students receive primary content instruction in English. These language programs are also referred to as content-related programs. The Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum can be considered a language-driven, content-related program.

Even though a FLES teacher may not be required to teach content from the core subjects, this doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t. Language teachers are able to teach content that classroom teachers may not feel they have time to teach. Content such as global and social awareness, cultural tolerance, gross and fine motor skills, music, and art are extremely valuable for developing children, These subjects lend themselves perfectly to language instruction, and meet the content-based definition of communicating authentic meaning, for authentic purposes, to accomplish authentic tasks.

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[1] Met, Myriam. “Curriculum Decision-Making in Content-based Language Teaching.” Ed. Cenoz, Jasone, and Fred Genesee. Beyond Bilingualism: Multilingualism and Multilingual Education. (Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 1998) 36.

2 Met, 36.

3 Met, 38.

4 Met, 42-43.

5 Met, 43.

6 Met, p. 40


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