Making Content King

Alma Krilic suggests reorganizing language programs according to their content area instead of students’ proficiency level

At the start of university language programs, students usually need to take a placement exam. The purpose of the exam is to determine the student’s language proficiency level and the results are, as the name of the test suggests, used to place the student in the appropriate class. Obscure terms such as ‘high beginner,’ ‘mid intermediate,’ or ‘low advanced’ are used to label the student’s language level. For each level, there are language standards to be met so that the student can pass to the next level and progress in his or her language studies. The levels progress from lower levels, where the student learns simpler language structures and vocabulary, to higher levels, where the student learns more complex language skills. In many cases, only when the student has achieved the adequate level, he or she is allowed to take regular university classes. This is how world language courses in university are commonly organized. But maybe they should be reorganized, as they lack the content necessary to make language learning meaningful. The student acquires level-appropriate language skills but it remains unclear to what these skills actually apply. Language courses need to be organized around the content of instruction rather than around the student’s language level.

The purpose of language standards is two-fold: to frame the student’s language proficiency level and to determine what the student needs to achieve in order to pass to the next level. Language standards are used to set the degree of progress towards the ideal, which is to have students fluently speak, read and write in a foreign language so that they can apply their skills in any given situation. A brief overview of the history of language standardization shows that standards turned out to be tools which were used not to empower but rather to restrict what people were able to speak, read and write. In 1492, the Andalusian scholar Nebrija published the first grammar of any modern European language titled Gramatica Castellana (Ilich and Sanders, 1989). The project was an attempt to fix and record the vernacular into grammar rules. At the time Nebrija’s grammar book was published, there were major political changes happening in Spain:

“At this time, the Spanish monarchs were engaged in transforming the idea of government. They replaced the old aristocratic advisory bodies by organizations of well-lettered officials. Just prior, and only for a few years, the Crown had seized the Inquisition from the Church, thereby acquiring the power needed to dislodge the sword-carrying nobility who were to be replaced by men of the pen. The conception of government as the machinery that guarantees the execution of the monarch’s utterance was now reshaped into one that prepares texts for his signature. The state governed by the management of texts — that is, the modern bureaucratic state — was taking shape.” (Illich and Sanders, 1989, p. 65)

In Spain, a governmental power shift emerged and the written records slowly began to gain more authority over oral recall. Nebrija’s proposal to codify the spoken language and shift authority to the written word meant a shift in the power relations between those who spoke and those who wrote. The standardization of language was an attempt to shift political power in the government. The objective of standardizing language was very different from what we now see as the purpose of language standards. Today, we often think that language standards are among the necessary tools used to teach people, to read and, as a result, to empower them to read a variety of books. Nebrija’s project, however, was to actually restrict the kinds of books people were reading. Nebrija wrote a six-page letter to Queen Isabella arguing that spoken Spanish language needed to be standardized in order to create a unified kingdom where the Queen would have absolute power because only books written in ‘standardized’ language would be printed and read. Without standardized language, people were reading books that were the printed product of the uncontrolled vernacular, which was outside of any bureaucratic control. According to Nebrija, Spaniards were wasting time on leisure reading with books that were telling lies, so he argued for more censorship over what people were reading. To accomplish this, he imposed grammar rules and thus obtaining a monopoly over printed books. Queen Isabella, however, did not agree and initially rejected his proposal, arguing that the (written) vernacular could not be taught. Isabella believed that an individual learns a language alone, without the aid of grammar rules and does so beyond the ruler’s authority. For Nebrija, the standardization of language served political purposes. Language standards in modern language education were not initially designed as tools to empower and teach people to read, write and communicate properly. Language standards were used as tools to actually restrict what people were able to do with language and were set up for political purposes.

The underlying assumption behind language levels is that knowledge development progresses from simple to complex. For Comenius, a Czech philosopher, schoolmaster, and church pastor who lived in the 17th century, the purpose of education was to cultivate our talents, learn languages, form morals, and worship god. Comenius’s philosophy of education has religious overtones: he claimed that we are all equal because we are all God’s creations. As equals, we share the same stages of intellectual development, stages that are dictated by the universality of our nature. In The Great Didactic, Comenius wrote that education ought to follow the order of nature.
“We must teach boys to walk before we give them lessons in dancing; to ride on a hobby-horse before we set them on a charger; to prattle before they speak, and to speak before they deliver orations. It was Cicero who said that he could teach no one to deliver orations who had not first learned how to talk.” (Comenius, The Great Didactic, p. 205)

For Comenius, instruction had to suit the individual’s age and level of intellectual development, so lessons needed to proceed from simple to more complex knowledge. The principles of before and after (walk before and dance after) apply to language learning and teaching. The language skills that come before are called simple and the skills that come after are called complex. Comenius proposed a universal method of education where all people would need to go through the same stages of instruction because all people go through the same stages of intellectual development. The idea of universal education has in a sense, been adopted in modern language education. Comenius’s proposal of incremental progression of instruction, the one where the teacher matches the level of instruction to the student’s age and intellectual abilities, was likely the precursor to mastery learning that we find in language education today. In The Great Didactic, Comenius writes that language study is divided into four ages and proposes a curriculum that would be suited for each age:

“The first age is babbling or infancy in which we learn to speak indistinctly. The second age is ripening or boyhood in which we learn to speak correctly. The third age is maturer or youth in which we learn to speak elegantly. The fourth age is vigorous or manhood in which we learn to speak forcibly.” (Comenius, The Great Didactic, p. 207)
Comenius says that, for example, at the first age, students need to learn simple vocabulary and sentence structures while at the fourth age, students learn rhetorical tools that will assist the individual to express thoughts persuasively. Still today, language curricula follow this principle: Language students are exposed to vocabulary and grammatical structures that suit their stage of language development. Staging levels from simple to complex might actually stifle a student’s development. How will students develop their language if they are only exposed to the language skills that fit their current level? And, more importantly, how does one match instruction to the student’s level?

Let us, for the sake of argument, agree for a moment that instruction and the student’s “level” are two pieces of a puzzle that fit. Students will stay at the determined level because they will deal only with the language they are able to handle. Language teachers, who follow the standards in the curriculum, determine when the student is ready for the next level and only in the next level is the student exposed to more complex language structures. But what constitutes ready in language education? A language student needs to know, for example, the present simple verb tense first before he or she is able to understand the present perfect. But is it possible to introduce students to the present perfect before so that they are able to make sense of the present simple after? If verb tenses are so dependent upon one another, then the order of their instruction should not be a priority. The language teacher determines when the student is prepared to handle more difficult language structures and not the student. The student is placed into the category of “low” or “high” level and instruction is designed to fit their category. I believe students need to be exposed to a variety of language structures from the beginning and explore what they can do in a foreign language.

One of the reasons why language students are grouped according to their proficiency level is that programs lack content. Language classes are usually given very general names, such as “listening and speaking” and “reading and writing,” which are very broad terms that do not indicate specifically what these language skills actually apply to; hence, the main reference point used for organizing students into classes is their ‘language level.’ Topics discussed in the classroom are secondary in the sense that it does not matter what the students are reading, writing, or speaking about as long as they are practicing their language skills. The assumption is that students will learn the principles of the target language and learn to apply these principles in real-life situations. But language teachers often wonder why students are able to correctly fill in the blanks in grammar exercises and are then unable to apply them in spoken and written communication.

To learn how to communicate authentically, students need to focus their attention on the content which is, unfortunately, missing in language education. Language programs will only provide meaningful practice for students when classes revolve around content of interest to students and no intermediary tools, such as fill in the blanks exercises, are used. Classes should be organized not according to students’ ‘levels’ but rather around the content of students’ interest. For example, students who want to study engineering or nursing in university could take language classes that are designed to teach students the vocabulary and discourse in the given field. Students would benefit from constant exposure to the target language or, as the English philosopher John Locke said, the right way of teaching a foreign language is “…by talking it into [the student] in constant conversation, and not by grammatical rules.” (Locke, Some Thoughts concerning Education, p. 120). Students would be focused on the content in the target language rather than on grammar rules and learn the language as they learn the content. Most universities will offer individual writing assistance so students who feel that they need support have the option to ask for help with grammar and writing. Without content, language instruction becomes less relevant and less meaningful to the students. Admittedly, students learn the language of grammar, such as past participle or the infinitive, but these are mostly meaningless terms for the students (unless they are linguistics majors) and students will likely never be asked to recite them in authentic communication. Some might argue that students learn in school the language necessary to survive in a new country but students can learn that necessary language over time by living in a community. Most language students are capable of learning the necessary language on their own without ever taking a language course and being exposed to the artificial means provided in school.

Rousseau, 18th century philosopher, discussed the artificial means that are used to educate individuals. In his book Emile, Rousseau explored the relationship between society and the individual. He asserted that the individual is born good but then corrupted by society so, he decided to educate his pupil Emile himself. Rousseau was in no rush to teach Emile to read by a certain age. It was important to first arouse the desire in Emile to read, a desire that was not achieved by using artificial means such as blocks, dice, or cards. The motivating factors for Emile to learn to read were, according to Rousseau, moments when he received notes from friends and family inviting him to social functions. Since Emile could not read, he had to find someone who could read the notes to him. And when he could not get anyone to read the invitations to him, he found himself in the situation of not knowing when the social functions would take place. Hence, Emile missed out on social gatherings he cared about. Authentic moments such as these provided the motivation for him to try and make out what the notes say. Much the same can be said for language instruction — students need relevant content to arouse the desire to master a foreign language. Where there is desire, there will be learning. Learners need to take classes that will focus on the content they are truly interested in — an engineer will want to learn the language related to engineering and a nurse will want to learn the language related to nursing. Rousseau continues: “What we are in no hurry to get is usually obtained with speed and certainty. I am pretty sure that Emile will learn to read and write before he is ten, just because I care very little whether he can do so before he is fifteen.” (Rousseau, Emile, p. 81)

Schools determine the age by which an individual needs to know how to read and write. And if the individual does not learn to read and write by the set age, then the presumption is that something is wrong with the individual. Rousseau, on the other hand, would argue that something is wrong with the school. He claimed that the person’s natural tendencies and abilities should dictate the pace of intellectual development rather than a set of standards imposed by an institution.

However, Rousseau also believed that we are born weak and in need of strength and intelligence. If we were born with fully developed bodies, we would not know what to do with them or how to use them properly. Hence, we do need education and parental guidance to supplement what we naturally lack. Education does not simply assist in one’s development into a mature person but rather compensates for the natural weakness, completing the person. Education is the supplement we need — it compensates for our natural deficiency and becomes part of us.
Applying this analysis to the education of international students, we could say that preparatory language programs are the supplement for these students who are unprepared to follow regular university classes because they are not proficient enough in the delivery language. The language school determines through placement exams that the student is not proficient and hence needs instruction to compensate for the lack of language proficiency.

The lack in language proficiency does not exist on its own but rather exists in relation to the proficiency exams that determine a student’s language level. The placement exams create the student’s language level rather than the other way around — that a student’s language level will be reflected through the exam. Once the student is identified as not adequately proficient, language courses become the necessary step for the student to take in order to compensate for the lack of language proficiency. Language courses are there for students who need the supplement but, at the same time, these courses create the very students who lack language proficiency.

A case in point: Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB), a government project funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, produced a document outlining statements that describe what an adult learner should know at each of the three different stages of language development: beginner, intermediate and advanced. This is a set of language standards that students need to meet in order to be placed into a level. The introduction of the document states:

“They [adult ESL learners] will become aware of the CLB mostly through their ESL instructors, student advisors and program coordinators, who, by working with them, can best share and interpret the main ideas of the [CLB] document, and can help them achieve a CLB standard” (Canadian Language Benchmarks, 2005, p.13).

Language levels do not exist on their own — they become visible only when the educational institution makes them visible. Students attend classes that fit their ‘level’ not because language students have a level. Language levels are created by language schools whose very existence depends on student’s lack of language proficiency. Many international students have already internalized the hierarchical structures in education and society at large so they come to a language school fully expecting to be given a level. Language students are the driving force behind language proficiency exams which assign levels as much as the educational institution. Language levels have become so deeply ingrained in both the institution and the students that these levels are taken for granted and go on for the most part unquestioned.

Organizing programs around students’ areas of interest would likely pose numerous logistical problems. But, instead of complete reorganization, students could take classes that are already in place. These are regular university classes that should be open to all students, regardless of language level. Language programs, however, are useful for students who want to learn a language as an end in itself. There are also many students who would want to take regular university classes while taking language classes at the same time. Such language courses should focus on developing students’ cultural literacy, which would provide meaningful content for students. For example, English as a Second Language students who want to improve their English and advance their cultural literacy in Canada could take classes that have Canadian culture as their main focus, such as Canadian Prime Ministers, Famous Canadians: Past and Present, or Aboriginal Art and Culture. Students could then choose the classes they want to take based on their interests.

The Imaginative Education Research Group (Egan, The Future of Education, 2008, p. 89) might provide a useful framework for the organization of such programs. The purpose of language education should be to provide meaningful content and opportunities for students to creatively engage in learning. Lessons would begin with establishing the relevance of the topic to the student. The content needs to be grounded in students’ reality and evoke emotional responses. Almost everything that students are surrounded by (except, of course, mountains, oceans and blue skies!) is the product of people thinking, working and imagining, and the job of both the teacher and the student is to find out how all these interesting things came to be. For example, students in Canada may find out that the man who played a major role in forming the Confederation was Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, whose face they see on their ten-dollar bill. He also formed the North-West Mounted Police, which later became known as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Such factual information might appear dry but if grounded in students’ reality and presented in the form of a story, it will most likely evoke the students’ interest. We often hear that humans are “hard-wired” to tell and respond to stories. The story of John A. Macdonald could begin as a story of a young man whose father was an unsuccessful businessman and who had to work at a very young age to financially support his family. The purpose of the story is to evoke emotions and, as the story develops, our feelings about the events and the protagonists change. John A. Macdonald was a successful criminal lawyer, but left school at 15. But it was normal to finish education at 15 at that time. He was an influential lawyer and politician but would be absent from office for long periods and drank like a fish. He drank a lot because his wife was very ill and they lived apart.

The function of a story, in this case, is to remember influential people as people who lived a life just like we are living ours. Students will more likely recall who John A. Macdonald was and what he did for Canada because they got to know him through storytelling. Stories are most engaging when we detect binary opposites, such as successful lawyer but no education, or influential politician but an alcoholic. Students are also more likely to remember idiomatic language this way. They will remember “to drink like a fish” as part of a story rather than as part of a fill-in-the-blank vocabulary exercise. Furthermore, Macdonald might be presented as a hero, as someone who was able to overcome hardships in life and become successful. Students will always respond with more understanding when they are able to identify with the protagonist/hero of a story. All of these elements provide meaningful opportunities for language students to creatively engage in learning. And when the content is engaging, students will use their language skills more authentically. In a class we could call “Canadian Prime Ministers,” students may work as a team or individually to produce a portfolio on one Prime Minister. They could write essays or short stories, find and make their own videos, collect illustrations and newspaper headlines. They can present to the teacher and the rest of the class their newest findings on their Prime Minister every week, giving updates on their research project.

As a separate part of the portfolio, students could keep a log of the new vocabulary and language structures they have learned as a result of their research. Students would explore the limits of language; explore metaphors, rhymes, synonyms, homonyms, antonyms, etc. Students need to learn how to be flexible in a target language, how to produce and respond appropriately to word plays and ambiguities of language. Classes that focus on poetry and prose would be of particular use here.

There is no doubt that language teachers discuss culture in their current classes, but topics shift at lightning speed. Rarely is any significant amount of time spent on meaningful content, because most of the time is spent on developing language skills. This is not to say that language skills are not valuable but these skills need to be applied to something, to content with which the student will creatively engage. And instead of focusing most of their attention on passing exams that will get them to the next level, students would be better off choosing classes they are interested in, exploring culture in more depth and learning what they are able to do with the newly acquired language.

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks (Canada). Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000: English as a Second Language for adults. Canada: Minister for Public Works and Government Services, 2005.
Comenius, Johann Amos. “The Instruction given in Schools should be
Universal.” In The Great Didactic, translated and edited by M.W. Keatinge, 70-75. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.
Comenius, Johann Amos. “The Method of Languages.” In The Great Didactic, translated and edited by M.W. Keatinge, 203-210. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.
Egan, Kieran. The Future of Education: Reimagining our Schools from the Ground up. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008.
Illich, Ivan, and Barry Sanders. ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Locke, John. Some Thoughts concerning Education. Edited by Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Emile. Translated by Barbara Foxley. London: Dent, 1963.