The relationship between language and purpose of communication

It’s been years since I stopped thinking about my language units as ‘my unit about festivals’, ‘my unit about food’, etc. I’ve never been fond of having a lesson for each day of the calendar: a lesson for Valentine’s day on February 14, or a lesson about 5 de mayo on May 5. I have never understood the point. It’s not like having that class and showing students some vocabulary and sentences about the day will contribute to making them better citizens.

I have always preferred to think about how the explorations in my class adds to students’ experience as citizens. I have always made an effort to design experiences in which students will produce something that has a place in the real world. Even when students find themselves at the beginning levels of language learning, I have strived to help them see they use the language they know to create.

Asking students about what they were able to produce after a unit of inquiry and hearing a list of products that emulate communication elements of authentic texts always encourages me to keep looking for possibilities. For this reason, one of my mantras has always been: if the way I teach and explore language in a unit does not allow students to produce something that is connected to their age-appropriate reality, then it may not be worth pursuing.

I have been guiding a group of grade 6 learners for over a semester now.  We have created a very strong partnership and I enjoy seeing how the way they investigate language and find patterns in the model sentences I ask them to imitate helps them to use language without “guessing”. What makes me most proud of them is how producing text for them has also become a multimodal endeavor.

In our classes, we do not produce isolated text that will spend its last days forgotten on a notebook page or digital word processor page. They have understood and embraced the culture of drafts; they continue to learn how to respond to feedback to better communicate their ideas; and above all, they are becoming great communicators in a language that is new to them.

The image below showcases a few samples of students’ work that were produced upon studying a variety of structures with the verb “gustar” (like). We explored word form inductively and they found the connections between pronouns and word form (the word ‘conjugation’ is not a word we use in our class).

 We followed these steps:

  1. We explored a variety of examples showcasing the form for 1st person singular. This helped students follow the model and imitate the sentences.
  2. We explored a variety of examples showcasing the form for 3rd person singular. This helped students to notice differences and to imitate a different sentence pattern.
  3. We explored the structure of questions with this verb, and students were able to retrieve what they learned.
  4. We used the vocabulary of the IB LP attributes and made connections with different activities. This supported students to understand how to justify appreciations.
  5. We looked at a variety of posters: some used 1st person and some used 3rd person. Students were able to understand both.
  6. I have students 3 choices: inform, entertain, persuade, to tell me what the poster wanted to do, and to justify.    

This simple exercise helped students understand the relevance of word choice (adjectives) when producing a poster like this, and adding details linked to such adjectives enhances the message.

In order for students to achieve conceptual understandings in the language class they need to experience the construction of such understanding; they need to observe, find patterns, and apply that understanding to create messages. They need to interact with concepts as if they were ingredients in a recipe so that they know how understanding the relationship(s) among them allows them to create content for the world of the language they are learning. 

Posted in Approaches to teaching, ATL, Concept-Based Language Instruction, Concept-Based Teaching and Learning, IB MYP, Multimodal texts, Spanish By Concept, Strategies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How can we inquire into language learning through texts?

Recently I have been engaged in reflection about the language-based inquiries that take place as we address the strand “respond” in the inquiry cycle suggested in the Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Unit Web. 

When we address the concepts in “respond”, students investigate the way language is used in a variety of texts or relevant examples that model how language is used. For this reason, some of the questions students may be answering at this point could require them to identify patterns in the decisions authors make when using language to express ideas, or in the language choices authors make to produce messages for specific audience.

In short, at this stage, becoming aware of how these texts model language is key.

I would like to share an excerpt of a unit web in which we can see the overarching generalization that grounds the unit, as well as the generalization for the strand (respond) that help to identify the conceptual relationships we want students to explore and attain at this stage.

Also, I am sharing an example of one of the resources/mentor texts that would model language for students.

These would be some valuable language learning experiences to carry out with this resource without treating it as a tool to assess understanding summatively:

  • Extract sentences that exemplify how the language of the unit is being used
  • Compare the structure of the sentences and discuss how the meaning and message are different
  • Reflect on the choices the author made when selecting modes of language to convey ideas
  • Reflect on the way different modes of languages and word choice contribute to the tone and mood of the text
  • Address the concept of ‘use’ and reflect on how structures are employed to construct ideas.  

Can you see the same opportunities I see in this text?

Posted in Approaches to teaching, Concept-Based Language Instruction, Concept-Based Teaching and Learning, IB MYP, Inquiry, Multimodal texts, Strategies, Teaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning Routines to Develop the Language of Conventions

As a result of the mentorship that I was lucky to receive from Dr. Gunther Kress, I started reflecting on intentional ways to explore text conventions in the language class. I wanted to find routines that would allow me to meaningfully teach the language of conventions and, at the same time, be very explicit and intentional in the way that I integrated them in the learning process without treating them as a list of vocabulary items.

I have written reflections on Developing the Language of Conventions a, how different modes of language add to the meaning of a text, and a series of suggested steps to analyze the conventions of a text. These reflections have helped me realize that solely asking students to identify the audience and the purpose of a text does not really constitute evidence of conceptual understanding. What does, however, are the steps prior to coming to that conclusion: retrieving meaning, stating meaning, establishing relationships, and interpreting connections.

For this reason, I continue to explore ways in which I can help students rehearse these vocabulary items and, at the same time, gradually engage them in developing their understanding of concepts such as text features, format, conventions, purpose, audience, and mood.

This time I would like to share a routine based on two questions: 
– What can you see in this text? (¿Qué hay en este texto?- In Spanish) and
– What does this text express? (¿Qué expresa este texto?- In Spanish).

Using these two questions every time I present a text related to the inquiry we are participating in, has helped me to ensure that students become familiar with this terminology and transfer from what they learn in Language and Literature. This routine has also helped me to help them see that knowing the meaning of key words and using word selections with purpose make us better communicators.  

Below you will find a series of slides that show how we can use the two questions above in small yet engaging activities. The resources are in English and Spanish but you can easily translate into your language as they are in PPT.

Posted in Approaches to teaching, ATL, Concept-Based Language Instruction, Concept-Based Teaching and Learning, IB MYP, Multimodal texts, Resources, Spanish By Concept | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Identifying concepts for the language-learning journey

I have been asked ‘where I get all the concepts that I state in my generalizations from’, and ‘how I know at which stage of the learning continuum to address them explicitly’. The answer for this inquiry is “The Unit Web”.

The unit web is a powerful planning instrument designed by Dr. Lynn H Erickson and further developed for process-based disciplines by Dr. Lois Lanning. The unit web we consider for concept-based language instruction includes 4 strands (understand, respond, critique, produce) which, while they are not an inquiry cycle, suggests learning habits and behaviors in which teachers and students collaborate in order to learn the language, learn through the language, and learn about the language.

As you can see in the example above, a series of concepts to focus are outlined in each strand. These are the concepts we would use to produce relevant generalizations for each strand. Once these conceptual relationships are stated, we will be able to identify which is the overarching generalization, which are the generalizations that signal the understandings that will serve as foundations for the unit (understand); which are the generalizations that reveal information about the class mindset (respond); which are the understandings that we need to quality assure before asking students to produce their final outcomes (critique); and the concepts we need to consider to assess students’ performance (produce).

The follow up comment is, “that is a lot of concepts.” And I follow up by saying, “but that is explicit and intentional learning, and not a fantasy in which we pretend to be teaching conceptually and all we do is create a statement of conceptual relationship that one cannot even investigate.” 

I have included a resource for this unit planner to show how concrete generalizations from a specific strand help to design inquiries, learning engagements. The generalization is the understanding we would like students to achieve through the inquiry we’ve designed. 

Posted in Approaches to teaching, Concept-Based Language Instruction, Concept-Based Teaching and Learning, IB DP, IB MYP, Inquiry, Resources | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Developing the Language of Conventions

Part of teaching reading includes helping students become critical thinkers about the different elements that contribute to the meaning and message of the texts they consume. Many educators believe that the vocabulary items related to texts features aka conventions do not have a place in the earlier stages of language acquisition. However, since students see these features in all the texts they interact with, isn’t it a good idea to support them to learn what they are called so that they can gradually learn their names and are able to retrieve them?

If we are to keep the ceilings high and the floors low for students to access learning, and not to offend their intellectual abilities, we need to devise ways to authentically integrate and practice the vocabulary of conventions in our lessons. Ensuring they are part of our comprehensible input routines can be a good way.

Aside from treating these terms as vocabulary items that students need to memorize, we can also expand their life and significance in a unit of inquiry. In a beginning language level class students may study the vocabulary, and then practice adding a male or female article in languages that have that concept; or adding “a” or “an” in English. A follow up activity can be qualifying them with an adjective (the symbol is red); working with comparisons (the icon is more sophisticated than the logo), and so on. Depending on the language level we teach, extensions such as the ones mentioned above can add intentionality to the development of the language of conventions. You can download a list of common conventions at the end of this post.

Also, in order to support students to learn how to talk about them, we can ensure that we provide them with exemplary sentences in context that model how these vocabulary items can be used to explain how such conventions contribute to the meaning and message of a text. The following text in Spanish illustrates an example in which the teacher capitalizes on the exploration on publicity and audience engagement to topic show students how they may use the language of conventions when analyzing the features of a text.

Inquiry is possible in early stages of the language acquisition process, as is working with conceptual explorations. The shift we need to embrace to make this happen in an intentional and explicit manner includes creating the scenarios in which we “look for something”, in which we “identify patterns” and then develop the ability to interpret relationships.

What do you think?

Posted in Approaches to teaching, Concept-Based Language Instruction, Concept-Based Teaching and Learning, IB DP, IB MYP, Multimodal texts, Spanish By Concept | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The culture behind ATL Appreciation Systems

I have inquired into the field of learning skills for a long time. As a matter of fact, I believe this is one of the inquiries that help me to stay reflective and engaged in my growth as an educator. 

Needless to say, throughout the journey I have tried different flavors of approaches to exploring and implementing ATL skills systems:

  • I have been part of the creation of excel sheets in to indicate when a skill is introduced, developed or mastered in different subjects, and then realized that not only is that document not used by anyone, but also not a powerful tool to enrich teaching practices.
  • I have participated in brainstorming sessions to create lists of skills, followed up by debates about which skills need to be explored first.
  • I have been part of efforts in which skills from a long list were selected to be implemented within my subject group(s), as if they were toppings of a pizza.

The list goes on and, in retrospective, what these experiences have helped me to figure out is that ATL skills need to be an inherent part of the teaching and learning culture of a school. Moreover, experiencing those engagements has helped me realize that becoming aware and developing certain skills play a major role at specific stages of students’ learning journey, while practicing and developing others are a critical part of the learning process. 

This reflection has also helped me find peace in my praxis and my efforts and conclude that there is not such a thing as “mastery of a skill”. While I think I can model some skills effectively as an adult, I do not think I can claim that I have mastered creative thinking, transfer, or even time management. I have understood that each stage of learning increases the demands for specific skills and require me to learn others. Likewise, my engagement in different tasks helps me to realize that I am always developing skills.

For this reason, instead of devoting time to attempt to figure out which skills go first, to devise a system to track them, or to discuss which subject area should who X and which one should do Y, I am a firm believer of the need to incorporate ATL skills as part of our daily dialogue in all aspects of teaching and learning:

  • In transitions
  • In curriculum writing
  • In the design of learning
  • When giving feedback 
  • In (parent-teacher or student-led) conferences 
  • When describing school life engagements 
  • When we engage with the community 

For this reason, instead of creating documents to map skills, I favor the creation of informative documents that help all stakeholders to understand the why, how and what of skills in the areas outlined above. For this reason, I believe our efforts should focus on creating a culture of ATL skills in which the language of skills, relevant examples, and meaningful strategies to develop them are at the core of the architecture of our dialogue, because otherwise, chances are we may be ticking boxes only.

The newest addition to the tools I have collaborated in to engage in dialogue with students throughout their learning journey is a list of skills which may support students in their PYP-MYP transition (see below). Clearly, once students adapt into the MYP the skills in this list will change and, as they experience learning in all subject groups, the variety of skills they will inquire into, develop and discuss will be different as well.

I can’t wait to see how students respond to this new layer engagement in their MYP journey. I can’t wait to see how their learning informs me about the things I did not see and then allow me to improve the tools we have. 

All I have to do is grow with them and navigate the waves of ATL skills with them.

If you’d like to view other inquiries of mine into ATL skills, you may want to check:


Explicit ATL skills in the Personal Project (2020)
An ATL-Based Reflection about the Personal Project Journey (2019)
ATL Skills and Inquiry (Language Acquisition) (2018)
ATL Skills in an IDU between Arts and Language Acquisition (2018)
ATL Skills in a Service-led Unit in Language Acquisition (2018)
The ATL Museum: PYP-MYP Transition (2017)
ATL-based Advisory (2017)
ATL skills and service as action (2016)
ATL Skills and the Personal Project Process Journal (2015)
The ATL Hunter- An ATL-based self-reflection in grade 10 (2015)

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Developing the language of concepts

In recent conversations about concept-based teaching and learning in additional language acquisition, I have shared reflections in which I emphasize the importance of teaching in context those vocabulary items that will eventually be elevated to concepts. This means that before students inquire into the concept of structure, they have to learn the word “structure” in context.

These conversations eventually evolve into queries that ask how we can help students use the language of this concepts and, gradually and eventually, get them to demonstrate their conceptual understandings. As response to that, these are a few steps that we need to ensure in order to succeed, in my opinion:

  • Ground the unit in an over-arching generalization that allows us to contextualize the inquiry, and identify resources that help us to support students to construct that understanding.
  • Choose output-based summative tasks that authentically welcome the overarching generalization.
  • Consider the language targets we have for the unit and identify the vocabulary and structure combinations that students will need to produce the summative tasks.
  • Front-load language in different patterns so that students are able to inquire into form, meaning, and use.
  • Produce a series of guiding questions that will intentionally be used explicitly through the learning process, in order for students to gradually articulate responses with the language of concepts.

I developed some lesson plans based on the first chapter of one of my Spanish books for MYP (Spanish for MYP 1-3 phases 1-2) to demonstrate the steps above. You can download them below.

You can view an example of the pre-planning details for the design of a unit of inquiry. Click here.

You can view other lesson plans (in English) not linked to my books here. Click here

Posted in Approaches to teaching, Concept-Based Language Instruction, Concept-Based Teaching and Learning, IB MYP, Inquiry, Spanish By Concept | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Meaningful inquiry is possible in the early stages of language acquisition

When discussing inquiry, and concept-based instruction, one of the most common reactions several language teachers share is that ‘students at a beginning level cannot participate in inquiries and cannot use the language of concepts’. I have always disagreed with that.

As a matter of fact, if we think about how new the language acquisition experience is for students, and if we consider the similarities and differences they will begin to become aware of with their home languages, I firmly believe that they are able to investigate. What do we need to do? We need to start designing learning with intention and purpose, not just delivering topics following a sequence that we may not have reflected on.

Simple shifts such as rearranging the topics and language items so they are part of a bigger something, using language-specific concepts to create linguistic categories to investigate, and moving away from the idea that a vocabulary item or structure is taught after X can make a big difference.

I have now taught a Spanish Language Acquisition Phase 1 unit in grade 6 that proves that students are able to observe patterns, and find conceptual relationships when concepts INTENTIONALLY inhabit the learning experiences. I am training my students to express the conceptual relationships they find. Since this is the first time they do this, we did it in English so that they became aware of the purpose of this exercise, and now that they know, we will start doing it in Spanish.I am now certain that: We can develop meaningful inquiries in beginning faces.Students are able to explore concepts when they are “obvious” and intentional in the units.

Students in phase 1 can inquire into global context explorations if re-categorize learning items and design an intentional.

I am training students to use the materials we use in class as sources so that they construct their conceptual understandings.
This is the first unit, and it was done in English in order for them to learn the protocol. In the next units they will be able to do it in Spanish.
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Curating, Consuming Imitating Authentic Texts

The two profiles below (courtesy of thewritething.be) made me think of Karen Forbes’ Principles for Cross-Linguistic Transfer of Writing and how we can use authentic texts to model the real-life texts we would like students to produce.

I am currently learning Dutch, and I was able to use my knowledge of English to access factual information in the texts. I believe that students’ input and output skills do not develop in a parallel manner, and that consuming a variety of texts in class eventually develops one’s abilities to imitate and elevate our writer’s craft.

Imagine the amount of comprehensible input students would have in a beginning level class if they produced texts like these, and then read all of them. Opposite to writing lists of sentences, this would be more powerful and authentic, and would help students see that they are able to communicate meaningful ideas in authentic ways with little yet curated language.

How often do you give students the opportunity to transfers from the language(s) they speak?

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When my classes fail

Designing learning for familiar scenarios feels like what I used to feel when getting ready to go clubbing: feeling good, making the most of the time, the space, the people, the memories… A pattern of a pace of life that may numb the best in us if we lose our sense of awareness.

Designing learning for unfamiliar environments which comprise different learning scenarios (face to face + remote); students who are beginning to learn a language; students who have some language experience; students with different learning challenges makes me feel unreadiness, inadequacy, poor “class management”, poor student engagement, poor results, low quality teaching and learning (to my eyes) … in one, word failure.

I was failing.

Recognizing that made wanting to shut the inner voice in me that said: “it’s OK. You’re always telling students that it’s OK to fail”. Not even my Chinese mantra of looking at problems as opportunities helped.

I was failing.

I paused and look at what I was doing in order to figure out what I may have overseen.

I paused to look at how I was designing learning to figure out what I was not seeing.

I paused to look at how I was relating to students to find out what I was not saying.

I paused to look at how I was managing the two spaces I was teaching for in order to see what I was doing wrong.

I paused and I failed.

Students could see that I knew that I had failed.

3 weeks of instruction in this manner have had the power to help me see that everything that worked before, doesn’t work now. These handful of classes I have delivered makes me realize that whatever idea of successful teaching I had was in for a makeover.

I paused to think how long I could be pausing for without finding an answer.

The only thing I found out in all my pausing is that I was not willing to give up. While not everything that worked before works now, that should not suggest that everything I have learned could not evolve into a set of skills that may have been dormant and are now needed.

Why was I failing?

I was failing because I was using resources and technology to map pathways of learning that controlled me.

I was failing because I was using resources and technology to make me feel bigger, better and more empowered, but not necessarily more resourceful and responsive.

I was failing because I was allowing technology to dictate how I should teach.

I was failing because I did not see technology as a system that obeys the orders of my pedagogy.

I was in the middle of one of my evening walks and I though “I wish I could multiply myself and be many at once like Psylocke in the X men”. I was about to pause, and I tripped, but I was able to regain balance.

The questions had arisen:  How can I multiply myself? How can I be present in many places at the same time? How can I guide students and honor their learning pace while retaining my engagement with those I have in front of me and those who are away? How can I orchestrate a learning journey that doesn’t require students to experience information through one channel only? How can I find a way to do all and still be able to answer questions and attend to behavior issues that may arise?

The way I design conceptual learning was not negotiable.

The way I design inquiries for students to investigate and observe patterns and identify relationships was not negotiable either.

I literally felt that I needed many me’s to make this happen.

I paused and I thought of the places where I deposit parts of me that teach.

My voice said ‘present’; my ability to make things visual said ‘I’m here’; my passion for using photos confirmed its attendance; the resources I had collected on several platforms reminded me that I used to love them…

I had to go multimodal and be omnipresent.

Recalling that if we break the barriers of learning for students who need support helps everyone arrived as a sip of water when I am thirsty… But this is a class of beginning language learners some of whom have never studied Spanish before, the devil’s advocate made sure I noticed she was not asleep.

So, I curated the language we are going to be immersed in during this unit. I thought of as many scenarios as possible in which this language was used to communicate different ideas. I thought of the syntactical relationships of the language items I had chosen and wondered how we could do ‘permutations’ with them, because I needed students to learn them, and to also learn how to rearrange those elements.  

I imagined the resources I would give students to investigate if I wanted them to see patterns and discover conceptual relationships…. And then I only had to figure out to find a way to be next to each of those tools/resources.

I turned to cognates and created opportunities to transfer from their knowledge of English to diminish anxiety. I recorded simple instructions in English, so the focus is on the doing and discovery. I recorded my voice to provide students with comprehensible input through which they would explore patterns to communicate what they had understood (basically discovering grammatical generalizations/rules). I designed visual resources that grouped language in different categories so help students manipulate them as if they were lego. And I made sure that every tool that I provided student had an example and a model.

Thus, the lesson that I recorded on video to launch the language exploration was supported by a set of multimodal visuals that supported students’ understanding without the need to translate vocabulary. I inserted QR codes that gave students access to my voice and through which I would continue to guide, give examples, and help them find clarifications; I designed learning as a strategy game, pointing out that they had to use every part of me that taught and was hidden in each resource, and to directly ask me for help in case they needed specific guidance… The real-life me would answer those questions.

Seems like I did find a way to be multimodal and omnipresent, but most important, helpful.

I am thankful to the current circumstances for making me fail, for making me feel inadequate, for reminding me that being vulnerable helps me to welcome ideas, and for reminding me that pedagogy and caring for meaningful learning and students’ is the boss of technology.

Now the question is, will this be sustainable… Time will tell, but at least I have enhanced my awareness of how students can interact with me and resources, which is something I was underestimating.

Below are some of a few examples of the multimodal resources that I put designed to “feel omnipresent”.

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