A Conceptual Breakdown of Foreign Language Teaching (2,028 hits)

(See also how this model can be applied to Chinese teaching / learning)

(See also an explanation of the footnote about handwriting vs. typing)


Foreign languages are tricky. And teaching foreign a foreign language can be overwhelming. Teachers ask themselves: “Where do I start? Where do I continue? What do I focus on? What are my choices?”

This Conceptual Breakdown of Foreign Language Teaching ignores all of those questions except “What are my choices?” My goal was to present a model for organizing the vast “menu” of things that foreign language teachers (and students) can focus on without giving any suggestions about what one should focus on. I’m simply trying to break down the hugeness of foreign language teaching into manageable chunks to facilitate discussions and decision making.

This document provides:

  1. A clear distinction between Concepts, Skills, and Materials.
  2. The vocabulary necessary for discussing various aspects of foreign language teaching.

Concepts vs. Skills

This document came about as a direct result of my studying music under my father. In his discussion of Comprehensive Musicianship he states that “concepts are things one knows and understands, skills are things one does.”

Many times, foreign language teachers get confused about the difference. You’ll hear them say things like “In my class, the skills we focus on are listening, speaking, vocabulary, and grammar.” While those may be excellent priorities for a class, I think distinguishing between skills and concepts will help a teacher design coursework more effectively.

For example, it’s often necessary for teachers to prioritize and focus on one skill at a time (for example listening). But then, when a student encounters difficulty with that skill, it will help them greatly to analyze which concepts are causing them problems. For example, Are you not understanding because you lack the vocabulary? Is it a grammar structure you’ve never encountered? Is the pronunciation of the speaker causing you problems?

Another problem I’ve noticed with language teachers is that they lump primary and secondary skills into the same category. “In my class,  fluency and listening are the two main skills.” Again, there is nothing wrong with organizing a class like this. However, the teacher will find it difficult to focus on fluency (which is probably speaking fluency) without dealing with the primary skill of speaking. In addition, the teacher must decide how important accuracy will be in the class. Will a student receive high marks for speaking extremely fluently with intelligible pronunciation and highly inaccurate grammar? Do the students’ writing fluency factor into their grades?

A third problem I’ve noticed is that language teachers often label things skills that are really beyond the scope of foreign language teaching. “In my class, we will focus on the students confidence.” Trying to help students be more confident is an excellent goal (indeed, one that I have myself in my foreign language classes). But if goes beyond the realm of foreign language teaching. Why not choose some foreign language concepts and skills that students can improve and see if their confidence improves as a result?


This document is not meant to aid with curriculum design as much as curriculum analysis. I believe that the only materials essential for a foreign language class are statementsopinionsquestions, and most exciting and interesting of all stories. These four materials give us the substance we need to use and improve foreign language concepts and skills. They are the grist for the language mill.

Textbooks and other types of media are simply cues or props that prompt us back to these four types of materials. If someone were writing a textbook from scratch, she would find it difficult to avoid including at least one of the four materials on every page. Materials may be analyzed on the basis of which concepts and skills they develop, and whether that is appropriate for a particular language program. For example, a program attempting to help students improve their speaking skills need not use a textbook that requires the students to read long passages before discussing them. However, a program interested in improving both speaking and reading skills could consider such a textbook. Similarly, an aural skills program need not include materials that develop spelling, penmanship, and punctuation. Yet those same materials may be appropriate for a writing program.

Ideally, the materials we use in the foreign language class are those that help us improve the concepts and skills we feel are important for our program, and at the same time hold the students’ interest.

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