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.