Concepts for Teaching

Spanish that Works works because it gives students the information and active practice they want and need in order to begin speaking the language in everyday situations. "Key Concepts for Teaching" highlights some of the strategies used in Spanish that Works, and "A Framework for Meaning" explains the theoretical framework that informed the scope and sequence of the course.

Key Concepts for Teaching
A Framework for Meaning

Key Concepts for Teaching

The following teaching ideas are from the Spanish that Works teacher orientation video and guide.  They should give you an idea of what to expect from a Spanish that Works class.

Speak Spanish AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE in non-threatening situations.
Non-threatening situations are when the students can figure out what you mean by context and when they don't need to completely understand what you are talking about in order to do a task.  For example, you can talk about a CD of music in Spanish that you like and want to recommend to the students.  If you write the name on the board or bring in a copy of the CD, they will know what you are talking about.  It won't matter if they don't understand every word, because it's not required information.  You can even talk to yourself in Spanish if you want to, just so they get to hear the language.

Tell the students on the first day that you are going to use Spanish as much as possible in “non-critical” situations, and that they should play along.  The material that they will be responsible for will be explained in English, so they don't need to worry about missing something.  If they don't understand everything you say in Spanish, that's okay.  They should just relax and try to guess what you're saying.  This is practice for real life.

Reinforce the words they have learned AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE by using the words in meaningful interactions with the students.
Once the students have learned a word or expression, it is helpful if you consciously use the same terminology when you speak in class.  For example, in Lesson Seven, they learn the word necesito.  If you need to collect your flashcards after they do the mini-dialogues, you can hold up a set of the cards so the class can see them and say, Necesito sus tarjetas.  If you train yourself to use some of the simplified grammar expressions, such as Favor de abrir instead of Abran, the students will be able to understand you better and will feel more empowered.  You may have to be creative!

Use English to QUICKLY explain grammar that students will need to do a task, in order to alleviate student anxiety and to give more time for speaking practice.
However, don't use English when it doesn't really matter if they understand you, or when Spanish will get the job done.

Actively teach pronunciation.
Show them the sounds in English that are the closest approximation to Spanish.  Coach the students (in a non-threatening way) so they can have the best pronunciation possible.

Actively teach the students how to learn new words.
Show students the steps to learning vocabulary and how they can use memory tricks to learn new words.  Allow for vocabulary practice during class time.  Emphasize that they must overlearn the material in order to develop fluency.

Keep it simple.
Teach grammar through example, rather than by rule.  Encourage students to make simple responses when speaking, perhaps just one or two words to start.  Quality, not quantity.

Have them practice, practice, practice.
The mini-dialogues let students practice speaking on their own.  Follow guidelines for interaction outlined in the student text, and be there to monitor the students and give support.  Have them practice at home.

Trust the process.
Don't worry if they don't get it all right away.  True learning has its own schedule.  And don't expect it to be perfect, just expect it to improve with time.  It may seem easy to you, but is probably challenging for them.  Speaking ability doesn't always develop on a “learning curve.”  Some students may struggle, and then one day have a breakthrough.  Have faith.

Believe that the students can do it.
Give them support, but don't buy into their “helplessness.”  If they say “I can't do it,” they may just be saying “I'm afraid I won't be able to do it.”  Don't buy into their fear.  They WILL be able to do it, given enough time and practice.

Be sensitive, but firm.
Use your intuition about when to push students, and when to give them the time and space to process new information.  Remember: you want the experience to be enjoyable, but they still have to work.

Use good teaching strategies.
Make your lesson like the 5-paragraph essay that they teach in high school English class.  Have an introduction (grabs your attention and tells what you're going to talk about), a main body (has clearly defined & well-developed points), and a conclusion (sums up what you said and leaves them with something to think about).  Watch the time and stay focused on the lesson, so you can accomplish the goals for that day.  Make connections with your students’ prior learning, and with your students’ lives.

Be prepared.
Read through the lesson before you teach it.  Anticipate questions or areas where you think the students might have trouble, and be mentally prepared for them.  Have a checklist for the materials you will need for that day.

Know that you are not alone.
Sometimes teaching can be a challenge.  The Learning Light is here to support you!  If a difficult situation arises, ask for help.

Have fun with it.
Create a positive environment, one that you and the students can enjoy.  Be respectful and patient, and remember to keep a sense of humor.  Bring activities into the class that work for you.  Get the students to trust you and they'll be more willing to take risks.  Know that what you are doing is empowering others.

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A Framework for Meaning

One of the reasons why Spanish that Works is successful is that it is structured according to the needs and motivations of beginning language learners, rather than by a grammatical agenda.  Although there has been an increased effort in recent years to make academic foreign language programs appear more "communicative," it is the author's contention that most programs do not teach beginning learners what they want to know.  The following article explains the "Four I's Rubric," which has guided the design of Spanish that Works.

Toward a Meaningful Second Language Curriculum:
A Framework for Study

Elizabeth Thompson Almann 2001

Almost twenty years ago, Savignon (1983) wrote that Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) was only possible in a "meaningful context," which involved the feelings and concerns of the students.  The term communicative competence, first coined by Hymes in 1974, has come to mean the ability of learners to interact with other speakers to make meaning (Savignon, 1991).  In the classroom, CLT involves techniques “designed to engage learners in the pragmatic, authentic, functional use of language for meaningful purposes.” (Brown, 1994, p. 245)

Descriptions of CLT often make reference to meaningful communication.  But what does “meaningful” really mean?  Using a rubric I developed to evaluate and adapt art lessons to teach foreign language (Thompson, 1994), I have made an informal analysis of my second language teaching practice in U.S. public schools over the past ten years.  In my various roles as teacher, including middle school bilingual, high school E.S.L., and college Spanish instructor, I have observed a tacit assumption that communicative objectives are being met as long as the instructor and students use the target language to express ideas that have meaning.  However, the theoretical insights of the Four I's Rubric have led me to believe that the programs I have been required to teach are incompatible with CLT, because textbook and school district objectives are skewed by an narrow interpretation of language that does not match the learner's intuitive understanding of what is “meaningful.”  The purpose of this paper is to present the rubric as a simple and practical framework to study what is actually being taught in second language programs, in order to determine whether or not the needs of the beginning language learner are being met by the current approach.

The Four I’s Rubric

According to Halliday (1975), learning the mother tongue consists of mastering seven basic models of language, within which there is "an open-ended and theoretically infinite range of options in meaning" (p. 16).  Children acquire these models of language as a result of direct experience with what the language does for them in their lives (Halliday, 1973, p. 10).  The Four I’s Rubric simplifies Halliday’s seven models into four broad communicative functions that can be easily understood and used by a second language teacher or curriculum writer.  (Thompson, 1994)

Communicative Functions (The Four I’s)

Imperative. The imperative function expresses the most basic or “imperative” needs of the second language learner to control his or her environment.  The imperative function combines two of Halliday's models:  the instrumental, which serves the child's material needs and includes expressions of desire ("I want”), and the regulatory (“Do as I tell you") model of language. (Halliday, 1975, p. 19)  The imperative, then, is the function of causing and controlling.

Interpersonal. The interpersonal function is drawn from Halliday's interactional ("me and you") model, which enables individuals to initiate and maintain social contact, and to create a sense of identity for the self and the group (1975, p. 19).  Included in the interpersonal function are the expression of social status through titles and other forms of address, "ritualistic communication" such as greetings, and characteristic markers of jargon or accent which identify an individual as a member of a social group (Hazelton, 1985, p. 78).  The interpersonal may be remembered as the function of establishing contact and identity.

Informational. The informational function describes the sharing of information to increase knowledge, or talking “about” something.  It encompasses three of Halliday's models:  the personal ("here I come"), the heuristic ("tell me why”), and the representational ("I've got something to tell you”).  The child first develops the ability to express feelings and attitudes (personal), then explores the environment outside the self (heuristic), and finally is able to convey messages that have a specific reference to something in the real world (representational). (Halliday, 1975, p. 20, p. 37)  For the second language learner, the various kinds of information sharing, whether about one's personal feelings, or about something observed in the real world, may be combined. (Thompson, 1994)  Therefore, the informational function is one of exchanging knowledge, which includes both ideas and feelings.

Imaginative. The imaginative function reflects the ability to use and appreciate language as a creative medium.  It draws on Halliday’s imaginative (“let's pretend”) model, in which “the child creates an environment of his own,” first in sounds, stories, and make-believe, and finally through poetry and creative writing (1975, p. 20).  The imaginative function of this rubric allows the second language learner to play in and with the target language, and includes the use of puns, rhyme, alliteration, and other poetic and literary devices.  It is the means by which the learner can reflect on language as an object, as well as the vehicle through which the learner can conceive of and express new ideas.  The key purpose of the imaginative function is to create and consider possibilities.


Adding the dimension of language modality (listening, speaking, reading, writing) to the Four I’s creates sixteen different descriptions of communication that are easily applicable to a classroom environment.  For the purposes of the rubric, listening is defined as the receptive mode and speaking as the productive mode of face-to-face interaction, while reading and writing are the receptive and productive modes of communication via symbols on a two-dimensional surface.  (See Table 1)

Table 1
The Four I’s Rubric






Causing & controlling
Establishing contact & identity
INFORMATIONAL Exchanging knowledge —ideas & feelings        
IMAGINATIVE  Creating & considering possibilities        

The Rubric in Practice

In my experience, the majority of what is presented, actively practiced, and tested in second language programs falls within the informational and imaginative functions.  Students ask and answer questions about their families, the foods they like, the weather, what they did yesterday, nature, holidays, the price of clothing, and what they would do if they had a million dollars.  They talk and write about what they see in the classroom, read in the textbook, or watch in a video.  Even in communicatively oriented programs, imperative or interpersonal language often supports or gives a realistic flavor to an informational context, but is usually not the focus of the lesson and is rarely tested.  For the most part, learners must acquire basic social language outside of class, either through independent study or by interacting with native speakers.

The Four I's Rubric points to a possible discrepancy between what we teach in the classroom and what learners want and need to know.  According to Halliday, the representational model (informational function) is not dominant for the child, but is "the only model of language that many adults have" (1975, p. 16).  Because the instrumental model (imperative function) is the first to be acquired, a child will experience difficulties in school when presented with a "stereotype of language which is contrary to the insights he has gained from his own experience" (Halliday, 1973, p. 11).

Educators operate mostly within the “adult” informational context, but in my observation, beginning students are most interested in and motivated to acquire language that expresses the imperative or interpersonal functions.  They want to learn how to find the bathroom, order a pizza, get someone's attention, ask for a job; or respond when someone sneezes or greets them on the street.  If second language learners have intuitive priorities to acquire language to control the environment or establish social contact with others, then it is possible that they will find it harder to learn if taught a model of language that does not address these needs.  The teacher's overuse of the informational and imaginative functions may seem “meaningless” to the learner, not because these functions are not communicative, but because they are not yet important.

Gifted or highly motivated students and those with prior experience can take the language taught within an informational context and transform it to meet their needs.  Many language students, however, including foreign language students with no immediate outside reinforcement, do not make this connection and thus fail to understand how learning the second language will ever do anything important for them.  Unless forced to use the language outside the classroom, the student who has not made a personal connection to the second language will begin to feel that the material is irrelevant and may give up learning altogether.

From the point of view of the rubric, CLT has changed the classroom approach from meaningless drills to meaning-sensitive dialogues, but it has not fundamentally restructured the curriculum.  District and state mandates and commercial textbook programs still follow a grammatical and lexical agenda, sometimes explicitly (“using the present tense with family words”) and sometimes in the service of narrowly defined functions ("describing the family”), which may appear communicative, but in the practical application end up teaching the same material as the original grammar lesson.  Grammatical competence is an easily defined and measurable skill, and a necessary component of second language learning.  However, problems arise when a grammatical agenda governs the scope and sequence of the curriculum, without taking into account the learner's intuitive understandings and motivations.

For example, in the elementary college Spanish courses that I have taught, command forms are not formally covered until after the past tenses, well into the second semester.  “Quiero” (I want) does not appear until mid-semester in Spanish 101, and then only as one of many irregular verbs of a similar pattern.  As the basic expressions of the imperative function, “I want” and commands are among the beginning student's most useful verbs, yet the textbook emphasizes irregularity rather than utility.

The middle school bilingual and high school E.S.L. courses that I have taught have been similarly structured around grammatical and academic competencies, with a primary goal of preparing students to succeed in the U.S. school system.  Of course, teaching students to acquire and discuss knowledge automatically puts an emphasis on the informational and imaginative functions.  Direct instruction of the imperative and interpersonal functions is virtually ignored, except in special education.

Implications for Study

The most successful and rewarding lessons are those in which the practitioner has the freedom to teach what the students want to know, and what they can learn easily and use immediately.  On the other hand, teaching is a struggle when one must contrive textbook or school district grammatical objectives into lessons that appear “communicative,” yet do not engage the learners into activities that are meaningful to them.  With the Four I’s Rubric, the practitioner can create a program that addresses all the learner's communicative needs by changing the context of classroom interaction to be more balanced in terms of  language function.  For example, students learning the names of the colors may be asked to pick out the color of something they want, rather than just answering questions about what color various things are.  The question “What's your favorite color?” can be taught as a friendly ice-breaker, rather than just a tool to acquire information.  By changing the focus, issues of social and cultural appropriateness are brought to bear that might not be transparent in an academic exchange.

Considerations must also be given to which language modalities should be used and where there may be gaps in instruction.  For example, students must follow the teacher's directions (imperative function-listening and reading modalities), but may not be asked to speak or write imperative language of their own.  Learners express wanting to “speak” a language, but classroom constraints and a focus on academic skills make many second language programs heavy in reading and writing.

In the Spanish courses that I have taught for private groups, I have discovered that when the teacher formally presents and tests the imperative and interpersonal functions, especially in beginning level instruction, the students are able to see what learning a second language can do for them personally.  They build confidence in using the target language and seek out opportunities to interact with other speakers.  Finally, the students are motivated to acquire new vocabulary and grammatical structures, because they have already established a framework of social interaction within which to apply them.

Final Words

The Four I’s Rubric raises several questions that can be tested in both empirical studies and action research in the classroom.  Textbooks, course objectives, and classroom dialogue can be analyzed for percentage use of the four functions and modalities.  Studies can be designed to measure learner response to activities presented within various functional contexts at different times.  By virtue of its accessibility to teachers, the rubric has the potential to guide communicative language instruction in a direction radically different from traditional models.  It is my hope that the Four I’s framework and its implications for practice will stimulate critical action by practitioners and researchers alike.


Brown, D. H. (1994).  Principles of language learning and teaching (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1973). Explorations in the functions of language. London: Edward Arnold.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1975). Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. New York: Elsevier.
Hymes, D. (1974). Foundations in sociolinguistics: An ethnographic approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Savignon, S. J. (1983). Communicative competence: Theory and classroom practice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Savignon, S. J. (1991). Communicative language teaching: State of the art.  TESOL Quarterly, 25(2), 261-277.
Thompson, E.C. (1994). Art and the Content-Based Second Language Curriculum: A  Framework for Understanding.  Unpublished master's thesis.  Montana State University, Billings.

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