Conceptual Learning in Additional Languages

Because there are a lot of basic necessities needed when learning a new language (eg. alphabet, parts of speech, basic interpersonal skills, etc.) Additional Langauge (AL) teachers may feel the pressure to laser focus on teaching language content.  While this is very important, there is a way to pursue it in an integrated manner.  We can do this through conceptual learning.

When concepts and approaches fitting for the development and language needs of our students are the starting points of language teaching, we naturally open different possibilities for our students, without losing the essentials of learning a new language.  This blog shares the process that I and my students went through learning about the concept of ‘sequencing’ for 7 weeks.  I also shared some teaching strategies that you might be helpful for your AL class.

Background.  I teach English as an Additional Language (EAL) in a context wherein English almost does not exist in the environment.  This is not your usual ‘pull-out, push-in’ type of EAL model.  In our context, therefore, it is crucial to explicitly teach language content, structures and skills.  Repeated exposure and practice are also extremely important as our students only get English exposure during EAL class time.

The Design of the Unit and Collaboration Matter.  In my Grade 4 EAL Beginner class, we learned about the concept of sequencing, with form and function as our key concepts (7 weeks).  Since they are learning about ‘Healthy Living’ in their Unit of Inquiry, the teachers and I thought that the students could learn how to share a healthy food recipe, alongside learning other EAL practical skills and language function.  The overview of the unit looks something like this:

Listening and Speaking Reading Strategies Writing Vocabulary Viewing and Presenting

giving clear sequenced instructions

giving clear sequenced directions (using map)

describing events in a familiar story

on-going: making requests (eg. May I go to the toilet?)

answering literal questions (from recipe and short stories and play scrips)

sequencing events

describing the events in the picture

on-going:  using the dictionary and reading fluently and with feelings (play-scripts)


sequencing words


subject-verb agreement (singular, plural, verb)

simple present tense

using a graphic organizer to sequence (flow map)


cooking verbs and usual ingredients (bread, vegetables, dough, etc.)

UOI integration:  healthy, words related to nutrition, balance

directions- go straight, turn left, etc.

vocabulary found in our reading passage

using Class Dojo to share ‘How To’ video and journal

viewing and using simple maps to share directions

using a flow map to share the sequence of instruction and direction



Knowing Where Your Students Are Matters.  At the beginning of the unit, I asked the students to use a flow map and share how to they brush their teeth in the correct sequence. They struggled not because they do not know the proper order of brushing their teeth, but because they did not have the tools, vocabulary and language to sequence events.  This is typical in many of our students, especially that we do not have an English environment.  The beauty of pre-assessment is you get to be more targeted with how to help your students.  Your students will be able to understand their own progress.

The Process Matters:  Visible learning.  As we went on with the unit, we learned many vocabulary words, repeatedly read the same storybooks (apart from their chosen storybooks every library time) and repeatedly practiced the same skills and language structures.  Making learning visible is extremely helpful for the students.  Observing color codes for different parts of speech help them make sense of sentence structure and pattern.  Making a process visible (like giving step by step direction of how to use a Russian-English dictionary, a step by step breakdown of subject-verb agreement, defining ‘Success Criteria’) help students become more independent and in charge of developing their skills and understanding.

IMG_0657Students learned how to use the dictionary, and demonstrated the IB attitude cooperation


Illustrating the flow map to share the sequence of ‘how to make a ham sandwich’

IMG_9949September 5 work shows that students are still learning how to structure their thoughts

IMG_0658Example: explicit teaching of vocabulary, parts of speech and language structure, and repeated practice in both familiar and unfamiliar contexts
IMG_9950September 19 work shows students apply the structure learned independently in a familiar context.


A student initiates to correct himself.


A student initiates to complete her task successfully by reminding herself of the language structure learned in class


Students sequence events in familiar stories (applying sequence words), and learning how to describe events in the story


An example of discussing ‘Success Criteria’ and making it visible to the students



A student making his own strategy to remind himself of the correct subject-verb agreement (place a box at the end of the verb)

Paying Close Attention Matters: Stations Day.   During Stations Day, I get to focus on assessing students’ progress, give a more personalized feedback and reteach with a small group of students, while the other students work on different activities.  I usually have three stations, and I always make one station fun and practical.  For example, the students love the ‘Games Station’ because they like playing games, but they also know that they have to speak English while playing.




The first picture (left), the students and I are practicing a speaking and listening exercise (giving directions using a map).  The other students are focused on their writing task and playing games.

Advantages of Conceptual Learning.  As the concept of sequencing tie the learning objectives in different language areas, the students were able to understand that sequencing is a skill that can be applied in different situations. They also understand that they can use the same language structures for different purposes; for example, in giving instructions, in giving directions, in telling a story, in describing events in stories and even in writing a simple sentence.  And because the concept is embedded across different language areas, the skills, content and target vocabulary were naturally repeated and practiced over and over, which are extremely necessary for our context.

Application in Different Ways Relevant to the Student. One of the students’ final unit assessments was a differentiated task.  The students can choose to do one or more tasks below (applying what they have learned in class):

  1. Share a healthy recipe- flow map, written and oral sharing
  2. Share directions from the Grade 4 class to any place in the classroom (pretend you’re helping a new student)- make a map, written and oral sharing
  3. Share instructions of a favorite thing you like to do (eg. How to play football)- flow map,  written and oral sharing

The tasks were a combination of familiar and unfamiliar tasks.  It’s rewarding to see that the very students who initially cannot give simple directions (how to brush their teeth) looked very excited and confident sharing instructions in correct sequence.


Trying to Teach for Understanding

Maybe it was due to my teaching experiences, or the amount of mistakes I make.  Continuous education and collaboration.  Reflecting every now and then.  Listening and observing. And taking risks.  I just feel like I’m finally ‘getting it.’

Throughout my teaching years, I had the tendency to design intricate formative assessments and have fun learning activities which were all engaging but deemed to be effortful, time consuming and confusing.  In the end, we have a room full of ‘colourful projects’ with a lot of teacher intervention.  Now I’m realizing that my practices before didn’t have enough space and effort for independence and learning.

Last September, I took an online course with Harvard Wide World.  The course was on Teaching for Understanding and they really helped me plan purposefully. I’ve been applying the Understanding by Design approach  but my experience with this course made me understand concretely what it really means.

Going through the course was a huge bulb light moment for me.  The course made me experience how engagements, formative assessments and summative assessments are linked.  I suddenly realized my mistakes in the past.  I knew that there were elements of inquiry in my teaching, but most of the time, I had the puzzle pieces but not the actual picture of the puzzle.  Or at times, I had the picture of the puzzle, but the puzzle pieces didn’t quite fit together.  I realized that when we teach for understanding, life is simpler yet experiences are more meaningful. Note that simplicity doesn’t mean things are easy.  Simplicity can be hard to design and requires creativity.  But one thing is for sure, simplicity brings clarity. Our teaching can be simple yet inquiry and understanding are there.  It’s like having a set of carefully designed beads, woven nicely to create an interesting bracelet that the whole class enjoyed making.  It’s not just about what the teachers can do to make the unit engaging.  It’s also about what the students do and understand for their learning to be successful.

 “Learning things backwards is usually simpler than learning them forwards.  If you have to learn a sequence of ABCD you would usually learn A first and then B and then C and then D.  This means that you are always moving from an area you know very well to an area you do not know…When you learn backwards, you learn D first and then C and then B and finally A.  In this way you are always moving forward into an area you already know.  At first learning things backwards may seem more complex but in practice turns out to be easier and simpler.”-  Edward De Bono

Applying what I’ve learned from the course, we prioritized D, which naturally led us to A, B & C.  We wanted the students to understand the concepts in the unit and apply their understanding in their own lives.  As it is a unit on beliefs and values, our goal was to help the students discover who they are by understanding what they believe and value (perspective), why their beliefs and values are important, what led them to believing such and the impact of their beliefs and values (causation).  We wanted them to become open-minded and respectful little people.  And of course along the way, develop thinking, communication, social and research skills.

For our pre-assessment, we asked questions bringing out the key concepts, the lines of inquiry, and of course their understanding of the central idea.


As we went through our inquiry (finding out), we had different engagements such as interviews, analyzing articles, group research, making our rubric, etc., to help us answer the teacher and student questions.  Along the way, we shared our understanding in various ways (sorting out). We were continuously reflecting on our skills, learner profile and attitudes.

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We used reflection planners (formative assessments) to help them reflect on their beliefs and values- as this is the goal.  We slowly filled the planner, one box at a time, provided and discussed feedback to ensure students were able to make the connections.  We were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.


For their summative assessment, the students used their revised planners (student’s inputs + teacher’s feedback)  and independently shared what they believe and value, the cultural experiences that help shape such, the impact of their beliefs and values and their understanding of the central idea in different ways.  Some made videos, photo collages, books and some made stories- all leading to our goal.

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Was it a perfect unit?  NO. I don’t I’ll ever have one. However, I appreciate that this time, we have collaboratively designed the unit toward understanding.   The engagements, assessments and reflections clearly showed evidence of progress and growth.  The best part of all is that the students were aware of their own learning and development.  There was a lot of independence, choice and thinking in class.  Turns out it wasn’t only me who is ‘getting it’. 🙂

Are you a “Jugaad” in the Classroom?

I’m currently reading a book called Jugaad Innovation, authored by Radjou, Prabhu and Ahuja.  “Jugaad” in Hindi means ingenious solutions to problems or turn adversity into opportunities.  The six guiding principles behind the Jugaad Innovation are a)  seek opportunity in adversity, b)  do more with less, c)  Think and act flexible, d)  Keep it simple, e) Include the margin, f)  Follow your heart.  I’ve seen different jugaad-in-action classrooms and schools all over the world- from the biggest things like having a non-traditional approach to education and starting an education revolution, to the little things like using old mineral water bottles as pencil holders.     Big or small, they equally inspire me to be a classroom innovator.

As I read through the different stories of individuals and companies who succeeded through innovation, this line made an impact on me:

“When you listen to your customers, you merely react to needs; when you empathize with customers, you anticipate their needs; but when you truly love your customers, you surprise them by introducing them to products they can’t even fathom.”–  Mauro Porcini, 3M Head of Global Strategic Design

This made me ask:

  • How often do we surprise our students?
  • What do we do to make our students go ‘wow’?
  • What something new do we do in the classroom?
  • How often do we do something new in the class?
  • How is innovation celebrated in our class?
  • Are there any new ideas we are willing to fight for?
  • What ideas do we have that seem outrageous but are helpful?
  • Have you done anything risky for the betterment of the students?
  • Do we follow our hearts in the classroom?
  • How else do we show our love for our students?


I think we educators should consider ourselves not only as people who facilitate the class, but as artists who are capable of designing and engineering to solve problems, to do something for the marginalized, and to do something…inspiring– not only for our students, but for everyone else who cares.

Maybe the true signs of love for students are not just measured by how much we listen and feel for them.  Love for students is also measured by how we apply creativity in the classroom- to think out of the box and go out of our comfort zone for solutions that will address the issues in the classroom despite limitations, risks and personal struggles.

Are you a ‘jugaad’ in the classroom?