Content is King (or Queen)

We have exciting news for 2020! We are finalizing plans to open a Mandarin Chinese immersion preschool and kindergarten program. (If you are interested, fill out this form here.) For this new program, I have been doing a lot of research on what makes a quality preschool curriculum. It turns out that the same elements that make a quality language program, are the same ones that make a quality regular curriculum. It is the content! I’ll get to the details, but in short, the problem with most language classes is the same one that afflicts the general curriculum: the kids are not learning anything.

What We Do All Day

An average (read: mediocre) language class is based on teaching students grammar rules, and a list of vocabulary words. Then, the students will have to demonstrate that they can use both of these things by making sentences or acting out some kind of dialogue. The major reason that classes like these don’t really teach languages effectively is because students do not get enough comprehensible input. Students need to hear (and later read) language that they can understand in order to learn a new language. It is important for students to be able to understand everything. This usually means shorter sentences, lots of repetition, slow speech, and lots of visual clues. I have written about that here and here.

Language as a by-product of the lesson

Students need that slow, repetitious speech with lots of visual clues, but there also needs to be content. With little kids, we can talk about the colors on their clothes, and the numbers of chairs in the classroom, but we also need content to keep them learning new words. We can teach kids about lots of different things, from classic stories to facts about animals, but we need to teach them something in the desired language. They will learn the language as a byproduct of learning the content. This is how good language immersion programs work. They teach kids math, science, social studies and from these lessons, children learn Spanish, Chinese or French.

Having good content for kids to learn from is vital for language classes. For my classes that typically meet for one hour per week, we talk about animals, Chinese geography, classic Chinese stories, Western stories, food, and lots of other topics. The need for good content does not end there.

The Content Crisis

Perhaps you have read a headline recently about how terrible American public school children do on accountability tests. In case you haven’t, here is one article about reading scores to dampen your spirits. One explanation for why American kids don’t score well on reading tests is that they lack the background knowledge in order to comprehend a wide variety of texts.

A Long Time in the Making

American educator E. D. Hirsch has been talking about this problem in American education since the 1980s. His book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know was criticized for being elitist at best and discriminatory at worst. The evidence that students need more than just empty skills in order to be able to read is mounting. And of course reading is the key to advanced study in any field.

Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap (2019) takes up the case again. She demonstrates that American kids are doing so poorly in school because they are stuck learning “how to find the main idea” instead of actual knowledge. E.D. Hirsch may have seemed like an elitist by suggesting that all Americans know about Cotton Mather, Andrew Mellon, and Herman Melville, but he wasn’t wrong. We need good content for the kids to actually learn something. If we do it in a second language, they will learn that too.

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