Language awareness

Learning is enhanced when attention is paid to both conceptual and linguistic aspects of the subject matter.

  • How do you ensure content-rich modern foreign language lessons?
  • How do you ensure attention to language in content subjects?
  • How do you address both language and content in bilingual education?
  • How do you ensure that learners can access subject matter, even if it is not taught in their home language?
  • How do you encourage meaningful communication in your (language) lessons?

… by being aware and raising awareness of/about both the conceptual and linguistic aspects of the subject matter in all teaching.

What does it mean and why is it important?

Language plays a role in all subjects and at all levels. In secondary school, children may encounter as many as six different languages in their lessons, in addition to any other home languages (Mearns & Hajer 2020). In higher education, students can choose to specialise in a specific language and culture or in linguistics. In addition, at all levels of education and in all subject areas, students and pupils learn through language. In many cases, this language is not spoken in their home: this may be English or another language, but it may also apply to Dutch.

In this sense, in all subjects, it is important for the teacher to be aware of the role of language and languages within their own subject area. ‘Language-aware’ teaching therefore plays a role within two contexts:

  1. Teaching aimed at learning a foreign or second language, or developing proficiency in one’s mother tongue;
  2. Teaching within a ‘content subject’, with specific attention for the subject’s linguistic aspects.

In terms of teaching focused on language skills, ‘input’ is an essential prerequisite, but in addition, it is important to include productive skills, even if this is more difficult to achieve in large classes (De Vrind et al., 2019), possibly with the help of digital learning tools (Wurth et al., 2019). In addition, language education goes beyond just teaching language skills: a learner can only become truly competent in intercultural communication if they are aware of (inter)cultural and linguistic aspects of the subject in question. Explicitly learning about different cultures and perspectives, and relating these to one’s own culture helps pupils and students in their development as global citizens. In terms of language awareness, we mean topics such as the structure of language (deeper and broader than superficial grammar encapsulated in rules), cognitive aspects of language, and social implications of the use of language and language varieties.

Language and language acquisition also play an essential role within non-language subject areas. In bilingual secondary or primary education (e.g. in the Dutch context, TTO – tweetalig onderwijs – and TPO – tweetalig primair onderwijs), teachers facilitate acquisition of language (in these cases, English) needed by pupils within specific subject areas such as maths, chemistry or PE. Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) approaches can play an important role in this. The knowledge we gain about how learning and teaching take place in these contexts can be useful not only within bilingual education itself, but can also contribute to exchange and mutual reinforcement in other contexts, such as language-oriented subject teaching (LOCT) in Dutch or in BA and MA programmes in higher education, which are often taught in English to groups with diverse linguistic backgrounds.

It is important that every teacher becomes a language-aware teacher, so also in content subjects. In addition, every subject – including languages – should have its own content and promote meaningful communication. In this way, we support the linguistic and also the general development of pupils and students from different backgrounds and experiences within a multilingual society.

Practical implications

Support and development of learners

Practical summaries for language teachers

Research projects

Scholarly publications

This article discusses fluency in spoken language as a construct. It first describes how fluency is conceptualised in existing language tests and then evaluates insights from multiple disciplines: applied linguistics with a focus on assessment, psycholinguistics, communication sciences, and sociolinguistics. The article questions the current conceptualisation of fluency in (research on) language tests, in which it is mainly seen as a concept to be defined based on listeners’ perceptions, and in which disfluency is seen as a deficiency.
The article concludes that future research should focus on finding ways to ensure that measures used in language tests reflect the ability to speak fluently and efficiently, rather than measures that only reflect listeners’ impressions of such ability.

This article examines the relationship between language and content in the international skills-focused school subject Global Perspectives. Data was collected through interviews and lesson observations of 11 teachers in English-speaking upper secondary classes in bilingual schools. Cognitive Discourse Functions (CDFs, Dalton-Puffer 2013) were used to analyse the lessons. CDFs are the ways of communicating appropriate to certain cognitive functions within a specific subject area. The study also looked at how teachers addressed the culture of the subject. A tool was developed to bring these two aspects together and analyse them. Through this tool, three goals of the subject curriculum were identified with, within them, five pedagogical approaches that integrated language and content. An important implication is the potential for this tool to be used both for further research and as a basis for subject-specific professional development of pre- and in-service teachers with regard to Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).

This article discusses a proposal for curriculum renewal in the modern foreign languages (MFL), in which not only language skills but also linguistic content would be central to the language classroom. This proposal stems from development within the Meesterschapsteams for MFL and Dutch, and also in the project, which advocate more meaningful language teaching through a CLIL approach, to promote both language proficiency and the status of linguistic and cultural studies.
A group of committed and motivated mvt teachers came together to work on content-rich interpretation of their language lessons. Their goals and the approach to these lessons were diverse. The project showed that the interpretation of ‘content’ and its role in MFL was not unambiguous, and also that language skills and motivational teaching were teachers’ core concerns.
Curriculum renewal on the scale proposed here demands alignment between academics, policymakers and teachers. Furthermore, teacher professional development should focus on both the content itself and how it can be used effectively to also support the development of language skills.

A new approach to teaching will only be successfully implemented if it is not only instructive for learners but also practical for teachers. This article proposes an adaptive approach to teaching speaking skills in modern foreign languages, the so-called SpeakTeach approach, based on the Bridging Model for curriculum renewal. This methodology allows teachers to innovate their teaching by recombining and adapting building blocks that make up their regular teaching already.
Based on questionnaires and visual representations of lesson series, the study describes how 13 teachers applied the SpeakTeach approach in their teaching practice, what their considerations were in doing so, and whether the core of the approach was preserved. In addition, the ‘teaching impact instrument’ was used to determine whether teachers indeed perceived the approach as practical.
The results showed that teachers applied the approach successfully, found it significantly better than regular teaching practice and were able to implement it equally successfully. The flexibility of SpeakTeach  means it could be an ingredient for curriculum innovation in any field.

This article is a review of literature on teaching for oral skills in the mother tongue. Thirteen articles were selected and the most frequently mentioned key elements mentioned to support classroom learning in mother-tongue education were: 1) a clear framework for oral language skills with criteria; 2) the study of students’ speaking skills through analysis; 3) self, peer and teacher feedback on speaking skills; 4) observations of and discussions on filmed speaking performances; and 5) regular practice with different speaking tasks. In addition, the curriculum should give students the opportunity to develop their oral language skills throughout the school year, as this helps them to 1. build on their speaking experiences and 2. build their self-confidence in public speaking.

Contact person for this principle
Tessa Mearns