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by Erica Fischer on Sep 6, 2012

Contextualizing New Language Structures for Students

On August 23rd, #LangChat participants talked about different ways to contextualize new language structures for their students. We discussed the meaning of the word “contextualize,” and what resources are available to help students learn new language structures and patterns. Participants debated whether or not “authentic” L2 texts are necessary for contextualization. The value of worksheets as a teaching and practice tool was also debated.

Defining “New Structures” and “Contextualize”

Participants sought to define what exactly they meant by “new structures” and “contextualize” so that everyone was on the same page for the discussion. Participants decided that “new structures” could mean different things to different people, including suffixes and idioms, or patterns with rules (not vocabulary, and therefore not idioms)

@SECottrell shared that to her, contextualizing a new structure involved patterning a structure for students with comprehension and production. She defined contextualization as connecting a structure to meaning in authentic input. When @tmsaue1 thinks of contextualizing structures, he thinks more of teaching structures as vocabulary, rather than as patterns.

Patterns and Acquisition vs. Formal Learning

Participants agreed that the most natural way to learn a language is by acquisition in a total immersion setting. Of course, a formal classroom setting is different, and teacher have to do their best to facilitate learning so that students can pick up on patterns and feel comfortable with them.

As @trescolumnae reminded us, acquisition and formal learning serve different purposes in the world language classroom; the challenge for teachers is to find a balance between the two that works. We are shooting for acquisition in a formal setting, @SECottrell pointed out. If you can’t create an immersion environment, then some degree of focus on form will and probably should happen, @trescolumnae added.

Younger students are often more comfortable with natural acquisition: @SECottrell is able to teach her 3-year-old students without using a word of English. High school students, on the other hand, often need patterns; @SECottrell finds that patterning structures with them accelerates learning.

Contextualizing Patterns with Authentic texts

Participants agreed that authentic target language materials are often the best way to contextualize new patterns. Some shared their ideas about how to incorporate and use authentic texts in the classroom as a way of putting new patterns in context.

  • @SraSpanglish suggested teaching the imperfect by having students describe what they did when they were younger that got them in trouble.
  • @MmeNero recommends the Tv5Monde website for activities that are contextualized by grammar lesson or culture. Resources include songs, videos, and news.
  • @MmeNero has also used authentic French TV guides specifically written for French youth. Her students enjoyed using structures they had learned in class to understand the guides.
  • @Musicuentos shared on her blog her strategy for contextualizing the subjunctive for doubt using stories, songs, and activities:
  • @MmeNero has also found the magazine Le journal de Mickey on LeKiosk app for French, and Eres magazing for Spanish, to be helpful.

Several participants reminded us that songs are an authentic source that can be used to contextualize new patterns. @DiegoOjeda66 reminded us that songs lyrics usually stay in the same verb tense, making them good for illustrating patterns.

  • @SraSpanglish provided this link to a site with Spanish songs that can be used to contextualize patters in the classroom:
  • @CoLeeSensei shared that one of her French language-teaching colleagues has deemed Wednesday “Musique Mercredi,” and has students sign up in pairs to present a new song each week.
  • @CoLeeSensei has a goal of exposing students to one song each week – not so much for teaching as for “ear immersion,” and in the hopes of inspiring students to investigate further on their own.

@MmeNero shared some of her students’ impressions of learning and using reading strategies and authentic documents on her blog, which can be foud here:

Teacher-Created Texts for Contextualization

While authentic texts play an important role in the world language classroom, many participants advocated the use of teacher-created texts for contextualization, too. @DiegoOjeda66 argued that a text created by a teacher can still be considered authentic, as it is written by a highly-proficient speaker of the target language. @SraSpanglish disagreed, wondering if a text can really be called “authentic” if it is not specifically written for native target language speakers in the first place.

Regardless of the “authenticity” of teacher-created texts, there is no doubt that they can play a very important role in the classroom. As @MmeCaspari pointed out, teacher-created texts can serve as a stepping stone on the way to authentic texts, as students gain knowledge, skills, and confidence. For some languages, teacher-created texts are an integral part of world language education, as even native speakers are not able to read authentic texts until they are at a very high level. @CoLeeSensei shared her perspective as a Japanese teacher: she explained that even native Japanese students are not able to fully read their own language until the end of high school! Similarly, there are very few stories written in Latin that are accessible to beginners; @trescolumnae shared a link to his website, where he and @annapmagistra have compiled stories and activities for beginning Latin learners:

Are Worksheets the Enemy?

Worksheets are an integral part of the traditional, “old-school” language teaching method, and thus have fallen somewhat out of favor among those seeking innovative ways to better engage students in language acquisition. At the same time, many participants rose to defend the humble worksheet, arguing that it can still have a place in the 21st century world language classroom:

  • @tmsaue1 argued that worksheets can provide “contextualized” patterns.
  • @edwardstanko believes that worksheets are good in moderation, as long as they are not the driving force of the lesson.
  • @SECottrell calls her interpretive documents “worksheets.” She pointed out that the word “worksheet” does not necessarily designate a boring fill-in-the-blank exercise.
  • @DiegoOjeda66 agreed that worksheets can have value if they are based on authentic contextualized materials; however, he cautioned against teachers using pre-made worksheets from multiple different workbooks, as students find them confusing.
  • @SraSpanglish sometimes uses worksheets to isolate a particular skill as a means of engaging lower order thinking skills (LOTS) on the way to higher order thinking skills (HOTS).

Thank you to all our participants for your thoughtful contributions! And a special thanks to @SECottrell and @placido for moderating the discussion.

Please remember to suggest new topics for future #LangChats here: Cast your votes in each week’s TwtPoll to help decide what will be discussed!

Join us next Thursday at 5pm EST/8pm PST for our next #LangChat discussion!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

One comment

  • That was fascinating to read. I am teaching a co-op preschool where acquisition would work best for the little ones but, since moms come too, maybe patterning structures has to be integrated as well. And anyway, if I can get the moms excited to learn the kids will follow, right?

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