By Nathalie Lauriault

Lire en français ici.

Some language teachers claim that students should spend a lot of time on repetition and memorization of vocabulary words before they ever do any type of thinking about content. However, it helps to think about teaching a new language as well as the content of our curriculum when we organize the phases of learning into three levels: surface, deep, and transfer. All of the levels can organize factual information and vocabulary words around overarching concepts such as communication, patterns, systems, and change. When we use this conceptual model to think about teaching, we help students to become more conscious of their thinking and learning in French or any additional language.

Educational researcher, John Hattie states that “Together, surface and deep understanding lead to the student developing conceptual understanding” (Hattie, 2012 p.61). The figure below shows the three phases of learning and emphasizes the two important parts of surface level learning, surface acquisition and surface consolidation. Let’s zoom in on surface level learning and see what it can look like in a language immersion classroom.

A close up of a map

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It is important that students make meaning of concepts by identifying the critical attributes while looking at key examples. Making meaning of individual concepts by investigating examples and non-examples will build and deepen vocabulary. And we can use a number of different strategies to achieve this.

I like to “play” with concepts in my grade 2 classroom, introducing a concept with a prop and asking students to find attributes or examples. For example, when introducing the concept of system, I brought in my bicycle and explained to students that I named it system. I explained how a bicycle is made up of interdependent parts that work together to create a system.  I then asked different groups in my class to come up with an example of different systems in the world. They also had to explain, with evidence, why their choice was a system. This a great way to increase their vocabulary but at the same time enhance their thinking. Introducing new vocabulary through a concept allows students to make connections to other disciplines and scaffold more examples and vocabulary to their thinking.

Some of the strategies listed in Chapter 3 of our book are very beneficial for the second language classroom. Strategy 6 Concept Attainment on page 72, explains how, through various activities, students come up with their own definition of the concept by looking at many examples. This could be done through a gallery walk of pictures or photographs. With teacher guidance, the class lists their findings and a common definition is elaborated together.   Designing a concept wall in your classroom is an excellent tool as the class journey can be scaffolded on the board. It is a great place for students to refer, recall, and add new vocabulary learned. 

Another powerful strategy for the immersion classroom is Marzano’s six step vocabulary model (Marzano, 2014) which we’ve included on page 73 of our book.This is an incredibly rich model for a language classroom as the strategy helps students solidify their understanding of the vocabulary. Step 6 in Marzano’s model states “apply learning games.” One game that Primary students really enjoy is Charades. This fun game increases the French conversation and the acquisition of French vocabulary. Strategy #8 on page 74 — SEEI presentations — helps students to consolidate their understanding of a concept (adapted from Paul & Elder, 2013).

After we spend time with concepts and their attributes or characteristics, students can start making connections between and among the concepts we have studied. Below is an example in a Grade 2 social studies unit on celebrations and traditions. After we spent time understanding each concept, students sorted the concepts and linked them together.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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The following are some of the students’ answers about why they sorted them the way they did and how they are connected (original in French). Yes, grade 2 students responded in French (they all speak a language other than French at home) to describe how these words were connected!

When teaching in a second language classroom, I highly recommended spending time elaborating concepts at the surface level of learning. Students should explore concepts to build their vocabulary. When we use effective strategies at the surface level of learning, gaining vocabulary and consolidation of the concept, the easier it will be to introduce deep learning. When concept attainment is well established, students can easily make connections between concepts. And this will be done all in the target language! The students will have such a strong knowledge and understanding of the concepts and its accompanying attributes and examples that you will be amazed how they will arrive at their own statement of conceptual relationship by connecting the concepts.

Join our all-day virtual workshop on July 6 for more amazing tools and strategies.


Hattie, J. (2012) Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London, UK: Routledge

Marzano, R.J. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013). The thinker’s guide to how to write a paragraph: The art of substantive writing. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Stern, J., Lauriault, N., Ferraro, K. (2017). Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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