Re-imagining the K-12 World Language Curriculum

Kristin Mancini

Kristin is the World Language Curricular Lead/Program Coordinator for Madison Public Schools in Madison, CT. She has taught High School Spanish for over ten years. Kristin is currently working on re-imagining K-12 curriculum in Madison in Spanish, French, Mandarin, and Latin.


For the past two years I have been re-imagining K-12 World Language curriculum. Reflecting on the last two years, here is my best advice for writing a powerful, coherent, world language curriculum in your school district.

Compelling and comprehensible input.

We love the content we teach, but sometimes we have to admit that what we find most interesting may not be the most compelling content for our students. If the input we expose students to is both comprehensible and compelling, there will be greater student motivation and interest.

How do we make input comprehensible? Select high interest topics. Get rid of your 30 word laundry lists of vocabulary. Select shorter lists of high frequency words and actually use them; over and over again, through repetition in storytelling, authentic readings, activities, games, etc.

Reading across the curriculum.

Step away from the textbook! There are so many better language learning ancillaries, like high interest novels for students. We now have students reading one or more novels per year starting in grade 4 and up through high school. Why read novels? The objective here is not to respond to 50 comprehension questions per chapter, but for kids to love and enjoy reading in the target language.

Think of how accomplished a 4th grader feels when he finishes reading a whole novel in Spanish, Brandon Brown dice la verdad by Carol Gaab. I have even been told by CI/TPRS experts that if the class isn’t enjoying the book, stop reading it and move on to something else. We want reading in the target language to be enjoyable.

I find that sometimes we avoid long readings/novels because we get hung up on the fact that our students may not understand what they are reading if they don’t know every last word. For this reason, we crafted the essential question: “How do I comprehend what I’m reading if I don’t understand every word?” How can you help students read a novel without getting hung up on not knowing every word? Now those are the skills our students need!

Vertical alignment with meaningful and deliberate repetitions.

It wasn’t until I brought my K-12 department together that we realized that many of the same topics were being repeated throughout the program. Food, for example. Food was a unit in our elementary K-4 program, came up again in 5th grade, and then again in 7th grade. Well, food is important, right? So what’s wrong with this picture? Repeating food throughout the curriculum isn’t wrong, but are our repetitions deliberate and meaningful? Now they are! We have restructured food to come up as high frequency vocabulary throughout elementary school (come, tiene hambre, etc).

In lower middle school students will look at regional foods in different Spanish speaking countries and compare them to their own. In upper middle school, students will look at foods through the lens of nutrition and being a healthy adolescent. In high school Spanish 5 students take a tour through the regions of Spain as “foodies.” Isn’t this a more deliberate and meaningful repetition of food?

One size does NOT fit all.

I’ve now worked with a few different school districts on re-imagining whole programs, individual courses, etc. Each district has a unique set of students, obstacles, and ideas. One idea might be a hit in one district, and a failure in another. The key is to look at the students. What are they like? What are they interested in? How do they learn best? Consider conducting student focus groups in your school district and assess what kids like and don’t like about language learning in your program. Kids give the most honest feedback if you are willing to listen.

Grammar in context.

Don’t teach grammar in isolation. Make the grammar so relevant to the theme of the unit that students want to be able to use the structure properly to get their message across. For example, for a Hero and Villains performance based assessment, students made a virtual exhibit reflecting on what certain Hispanic figures did that considered them heroic or villainous. Students visited each digital presentation and decided if they thought they were heroic or villainous and why. In order to do this well, students needed to navigate the past tenses correctly. Instead of asking: How do I conjugate verbs in the past tenses? consider essential questions like: What am I trying to say and how do I say it?

The real world.

What real world content and skills would you write into your curriculum if you could teach anything? We started with a blank slate for our Spanish 5 (level 2, not AP) course. The course now includes medical related scenarios, and career skills including interview and resume writing. Grammar is not explicitly taught, but comes up in context (e.g. not using possessive pronouns with body parts in a medical scenario), and can be reviewed through the use of mini-lessons.

I would like to share two units from Madison Public Schools with you, one grade 5 Spanish and one high school Spanish 3. In grade 5 note how culture, reading, and the topic of school all come together for a powerful student experience. In Spanish 3, note how the context of the Amazing Race allows students to become active participants in a compelling, high interest, and non-traditional travel type unit.

Grade 5 Spanish – Unit 1 – Not all classrooms are created equal 20170605

Grade 5 Spanish Unit (downloadable PDF)

Biblioburro reading PBA

Biblioburro reading PBA (downloadable PDF)

Spanish 3 – Unit 1 – Navegando el mundo Navigating the world 20170605

Spanish 3 Unit (downloadable PDF)

Spanish3Unit1PBA2.docx

Spanish 3 Unit PBA (downloadable PDF)

Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Work like this to transform a K-12 world language curriculum is heavy lifting, but I promise you it can be done!

Related posts:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *