Critical Thinking

Exploring Before Explaining in World Languages

Allowing students to notice patterns and draw on their experiences prior to introducing new concepts can boost their learning.

August 9, 2023
filo / iStock

Explore-before-explain teaching is an invitation to rethink the roles of teachers and students in world language classrooms, increase student agency for learning, and promote the unique combination of dimensions of complicated standards presented by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). In this article, we explore three essential planning considerations and examine an instructional sequence called explore-before-explain teaching. This method helps to immediately engage all students in a meaning-making process leading to deep understanding and sensemaking.

In a PDF that we created, we invite you to explore examples in German, Spanish, and French. Exploring a language other than the one you teach or know provides firsthand experience in active meaning making and what it feels like to earn understanding from a student’s perspective. 

Exploring Before Explaining

This one-to-two-day lesson plan illustrates a key point in curriculum planning and instructional sequencing: Explore-before-explain begins by having students explore new languages. Then, engage them in generating ideas by using critical thinking skills (patterns and cause-and-effect relationships). Then come explanations by the teacher and elaborations to extend the learning.

This approach makes deliberate use of the innate assets that all students bring to class (prior knowledge, curiosity, and a desire to seek answers to questions) and engages learners in developing meanings in a given context. These assertions are well grounded in modern research on how to sequence instruction according to how students learn best.

Big idea 1: Using prior knowledge and critical thinking as tools for sensemaking. Critical thinking strategies like pattern recognition and causal relationships that connect prior and new learning help students connect bits of information in meaningful ways to construct more robust evidence for understanding. 

For example, students can construct initial meanings from cognates (many words in German, Spanish, French, and English look and sound similar); they can look for patterns between new and native languages for specific conventions (using an a in a sentence is explicit in English but not German, French, or Spanish); and they can explore cause-and-effect relationships that establish gender-specific meanings (terms in German, Spanish, and French demonstrate a gender-specific relationship).

Having students think critically transforms their experience from a passive to an active meaning-making experience that facilitates students’ construction of knowledge through a dynamic process—the fundamental idea behind ACTFL and a vital aspect of promoting local and global readiness.

Big idea 2: Enhancing understanding. Teachers can enhance student understanding by helping them develop explanations and using elaboration-type activities in different situations—both promote transfer learning. 

Explanations become particularly potent experiences when teachers discuss new ideas and terms in light of ideas that students have developed firsthand. In the Spanish example, to make learning comprehensible, terms like tío and primo fill in gaps in students’ active meaning making. In the French example, mère and père bridge students’ conceptual understanding of the sentence with specific terms that differ from English.

The approach is supported by contemporary research that suggests that introducing ideas after students draw on their own experiences is a potent time in learning and helps them incorporate new ideas into a more powerful framework for understanding.  In each case, the limitations of prior knowledge and patterns and cause-and-effect relationships allow for introducing ideas that deepen understanding.    

Big idea 3: Reflection on developing skills. Awareness and control of our thinking promote more self-sufficient, independent problem solvers who can activate relevant strategies for making sense of new learning situations. Students with strong metacognitive skills are positioned to learn more and perform better than peers who are still developing their metacognition. John Hattie’s landmark review analyzing more than 800 meta-analyses of research ranked self-reported grades, now termed “student visible learning” (i.e., students thinking about their understanding), as the second-most-influential factor influencing student achievement. 

For example, teachers might ask students to do additional translations and rank their confidence in their abilities to understand new sentences. During the process, students should be encouraged to use cognates, pattern recognition, and causal relationships as they make sense of new inputs. Then, students should reflect on how using prior ideas and critical thinking is useful for developing new understanding and how their confidence in their abilities changed. The goal of reflection is to have students think about strategies they can use independently to learn.       

Leading Change

We have worked with many world language educators, ranging from classroom teachers to curriculum specialists who support teachers, and helped them grapple with questions like “What would it take to better prepare students for a fast-paced world where technology is at our fingertips—think about all of the online translation programs?” and “What does it look like when students begin to develop global-readiness?”

Explore-before-explain teaching helps educators with the challenges of preparing students for the 21st century by homing in on the most vital aspects of learning to promote a more equitable, robust, and memorable experience. For example, teachers first choose sentences with cognates, patterns, and causal relationships to activate student thinking. Next, teachers introduce new terms and ideas that are not easily accessible from firsthand experiences and critical thinking. Then, teachers provide elaborations that allow students to test the utility of new ideas in different situations and reflect on their learning.

By being intentional and purposeful in our instructional design, using explore-before-explain, we can help students enhance their understanding and promote lifelong language learning.   

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  • World Languages
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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