Standards-Based Instruction in Action: Integrating Language, Culture and Content

By Brandon Zaslow

Work with teachers who are implementing a standards-based instructional approach shows that the integration of language, culture and content is the area of greatest challenge and the aspect of standards-based practice that has the most transformative effect on student learning.

Preparing students to use language for real-world purposes in culturally appropriate ways, requires that teachers specify the tasks students will need to carry out in order to function in target-language communities. The most efficient way to gain access to language, culture and content is through the use of authentic materials, those that are designed for individuals who speak the language and share the culture and its perspectives on content. Often semi-authentic video, audio or print media are used to ensure that all of the language, culture and content necessary for successful real-world language use are available for learning.

Teachers use a variety of strategies for making language, culture and content comprehensible. Usually teachers pick teaching materials based on students’ previous knowledge. They prepare students for interpretation by interesting them by the theme of the lesson. Introducing key vocabulary and concepts to students before they interact with materials is important as well. They ask students to make predictions, provide non-linguistic supports to meaning and work with texts multiple times using different interpretive tasks that focus student attention on language, culture or content. For example, the teacher will have the students watch an authentic video about eating breakfast with the family without sound. The students are then asked to make predictions about the language (What do they say to greet each other in the morning?), the culture (What do they eat and how do they eat it?) and the content (What is healthy diet?). Often teachers break up texts into smaller segments in order to help students skim for main ideas and then scan for supporting details. Texts with storylines or content that can be divided into logical parts are easier to understand and recall.

When learners understand the language, culture and content contained in the materials used during interpretive communication, they need a great deal of practice to use the language, content knowledge and cultural knowledge and skills to participate in real-world tasks. In order to gain proficiency in interpersonal communication, learners need to practice carrying out real-world tasks in multiple settings combining various elements of language, culture and content. For this purpose, teachers can set up some authentic settings for different interpersonal activities. For example, bringing fruit to the classroom and asking students to role-play buying fruit from vendors. In this way, students can exchange information in simulated and real-world settings and learn to use language to address content in culturally appropriate ways. Recycling communicative elements that will occur in culminating tasks ensures that students will be successful in spontaneous, unrehearsed interpersonal communication. As students gain proficiency using their language in a variety of culturally-authentic settings, teachers integrate language, culture and content in more demanding simulations or real-world interpersonal tasks.

When students have had an opportunity to practice with others and carry out a number of interpersonal tasks using language, culture and content, they will have developed the skills necessary to carry out real-world presentational tasks with sufficient clarity and accuracy to be successfully understood by a target-culture audience. Presentational tasks can be oral or written or combine both speech and writing. Teachers can ask students to introduce their family members to the class using a combination of photos, videos or taped conversations, and letters. It is important when constructing presentational tasks to focus learner attention on culturally appropriate behavior and target-culture audiences. In written presentational tasks, rubrics are useful to guide the many drafts that may be necessary to produce a clear and accurate text that communicates effectively with the target audience.

Although challenging, the integration of language, culture and content in interpretive, interpersonal and presentational communication will transform world language classrooms and prepare students to function effectively in target-language communities.

The STARTALK multimedia project shows these concepts in action in real elementary, middle grades, high school and university classrooms. Witness the integration of language, culture and content in a variety of K-16 settings.

Brandon Zaslow serves as Director of the Los Angeles Area Site of the California Foreign Language Project, funded by the legislature to serve teachers of commonly and less commonly taught languages, heritage and native speakers and English language learners. Mr. Zaslow was a key member of the writing team of California’s Classroom Oral Competency Interview, Classroom Writing Competency Assessment and Classroom Receptive Competency Matrix. Recently, he chaired the writing committee of the 2009 World Language Content Standards for California Public Schools. Brandon has been repeatedly honored by his colleagues receiving California's Outstanding Teacher Award in 1996, the National Textbook Company Award for Leadership in Education in 2000, being named California Language Teacher of the Year in 2000 and receiving a Distinguished Service Award for Contributions to World Language and Culture Education in 2009.