Infusing Meaning and Rigor Into Language Instruction

By: Dr. Anne Dahlman

In this blog entry, I will attempt to explore strategies that will enable us to provide high levels of cognitive content to our language learners who might be lower in language ability.  This is especially important for older learners who might be just learning the language but who are cognitively more mature than younger learners.

high cogn level lowerl lang level

I will walk you through an example to demonstrate how this might be done.  My goal with this entry is to provide language teachers, whether EFL, ESL or foreign language, a way to think about planning language instruction that is focused on teaching language, no matter what level or context, through meaning and rigor.

To elaborate on the concept, I will draw from two workshops I recently delivered to elementary EFL teachers in Poland.  Given my background as an EFL and ESL teacher and language learner, I will draw from various frameworks of language learning to walk the reader through a simple example.

Nothing demonstrates the complexity of language learning better than the task of instructional planning for language teachers, whether ESL or EFL or world languages.  Teachers vary, depending on their context of instruction, which of the components of language they emphasize more than others.  The image below illustrates these various aspects of language learning that a language teacher needs to attend to while planning instruction (adapted from Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Organizing Principle for Course or Unit Dr. Anne Dahlman
Organizing Principle for Course or Unit

While teachers vary in what their main focus might be or what their entry point to instruction is, the reality is that meaningful language learning necessitates a focus on all of the components.  This is where skillful integrated planning comes into play.

What does this skillful integrated planning look like then? Here I will use the framework of CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), a useful conceptual framework used in language classrooms across Europe (I’ve added the emphasis):

“CLIL seeks to develop language proficiency as well the mastery of subject matter, critical thinking, and other cognitive skills through the use of a syllabus that integrates both language and subject matter (e.g. science, geography, history, environmental studies).” Richards (2013)

The three components that we will focus on are language, content, and thinking. These three aspects offer connections between the various components of language instruction we discussed above.  In addition, integrating these three components will provide as a model for teaching language through rigorous, relevant content that support higher level thinking, which results in meaningful learning.

Thinking Lang Content

What do we mean by content?

Often when dealing with students who are just learning the language, we by default identify content topics that are simplistic, trivial and non-academic. These include:

  • Hobbies
  • Likes and Dislikes
  • Animals
  • Colors
  • Songs
  • Family
  • Games

The argument I’m making in this entry is that language learners at all levels need sophisticated, rigorous content to learn academic language in a meaningful way.  So, what we, for our discussion here, mean by content is relevant, academic, real-life, deep content.  The more the content engages students in thinking, makes them care about a topic, and gets them invested in thinking about the topic, the more language they will learn through meaning.

Relevant Academic Real Life Deep Content

Often we think that by simplifying language we help our lower level students.  While scaffolding is critical, we need to maintain the natural structures of language intact as language acquisition occurs in context. This context offers clues for meaning and understanding that naturally exist there.  So by making input simplistic for learners eliminates these crucial markers for meaning for the learner.  We know that complex language is best taught within a framework that focuses on complex and authentic content (

Identifying rigorous, academic content

Here I will discuss two sources of academic content at your disposal.  First of all, K-12 language teachers, ESL, EFL or world language, have access to academic content through the grade-level classrooms.  By exploring what students are learning in their regular classrooms, e.g., Social Studies, Science, Language Arts, Art, Physical Education, Health, will give you access to rigorous, academic content that you can use for meaningful language learning in the language classroom.  Just a brief look at the content area standards (upper elementary grades here) you can identify many academic topics:

  • Health and disease; space/universe; earth; American Indians; use of microscopes in science; climate and weather; flora and fauna; habitat; magnets; oceans; water consumption in homes; vaccinations; communities.

Another technique is starting with the more simplistic topics, such as hobbies, likes and dislikes, animals, colors, etc., and adding rigor and deeper levels of concepts to these topics.

Adjusting levels of language and content

How do we bridge the level of rigor and complexity of grade-level content with the developing level of language proficiency of students? Or at the other end of the spectrum, how do we add rigor to more ordinary, trivial content so as to expose students to more meaningful content and thus more meaningful language learning? In other words, how do we preserve the complexity of thought while maintaining the appropriate levels of language for learners?

This is done by exploring the topic closer for underlying aspects and meaning and by asking important questions about the topic. Instead of watering down content and concepts, a skillful language teacher will deconstruct the topics to identify key concepts and ideas and present them to the students in manageable chunks while preserving the integrity of the concepts.

In the following, I will illustrate this by using a common topic for language instruction, namely “Family”, which often is taught using low-level , non-academic content and language.

Integrating Content and Thinking

There isn’t a classroom where a student hasn’t been asked to draw a family tree and describe their family.

family tree

Unfortunately, language learning using family trees is often limited to describing things, which is a very low level thinking and language skill.  We describe who our family members are, their names, possibly where they live, what they like, etc.  This is all a very basic level of language and thinking. Yet the topic of a family tree lends itself to endless opportunities to learn high level, academically rigorous content while engaged in high levels of thinking and processing.  How do we do that?

First, to tease out the different levels of concepts embedded in a topic, let us break down the topic of Family into three components, namely the embedded facts, understandings and essential questions.

facts, und, ess qs

Here I am using the framework by Wiggins and McTighe (2005).  Facts are usually expressed in nouns, the basic components, pieces of knowledge related to a topic.  Essential Questions consist of a variety of types of questions targeting various levels of thinking.  This is where we draw a connection to thinking through Bloom’s taxonomy.  Understandings illustrate what the intact big understandings embedded in a topic might be.  To keep these understandings big, they are expressed through a statement, “Students will understand that…” followed by a clause.


In our example Family, the possible facts could include:

  • Members
  • Immediate vs. extended family
  • Generations
  • Unique features of my family
  • Meaning of family

Notice, that we have already elevated the level of rigor of the topic by including facts that allow us to expand the notion of family from just names of family members.


Essential understandings illustrate the foundational ideas and core notions about a topic.  Remember, you will always use the format “ Students will understand that…” when identifying essential understandings. In thinking about our Family-example, these understandings could be the following.

“ Students will understand that

  • Their families are unique.
  • Differences between generations can be significant.
  • Their family is a part of who they are.

Essential Questions:

A great way to vary the level of rigor of academic content and concepts is by generating questions about the topic and by including higher level questions around the topic using Bloom’s taxonomy. This well-known and much used framework is a handy tool when adding rigor to ordinary content or when deconstructing grade-level complex topics. We all know the six levels of thinking of Bloom’s illustrated below.

blooms anne

So, when we write questions about the topic, we label the questions with the level of thinking it addresses.  With our Family topic, these questions might be the following:

  • What do you know about the life of your grandparents? (understand)
  • What do you see as the differences between generations in your family? (analyze)
  • Do you think different generations should live under one roof – why/why not? (evaluate)

Here we have identified three types of questions, each targeting a different level of thinking.  Here is a link to a resource that will help you match your questions with the appropriate levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy:

Now it’s your turn to practice.  Pick a topic.  This could be from grade level content, academic standards or a more ordinary, lower-level topic.  Analyze the topic by identifying the embedded facts, essential questions (with the associated levels of thinking) and the essential understandings (“Students will understand that…”). You can use a simple template, such as below, to guide your work.

your turn

Adding Language to Content and Thinking

As you’ve noticed above, even though we’re teaching language, we began with identifying and analyzing content.  This is because meaningful language stems from real and rigorous content.  How do we add language to what we have done with content and thinking above?

Levels of thinking serve as the link between language and content. Levels of thinking, such as evaluate, describe, analyze, etc. are the other side of a coin from language functions.  Namely, evaluate, describe and analyze and also language functions. It is important to note that while these connections are not fully direct as there are only six levels of thinking in Bloom’s and dozens of identifiable language functions, all language functions can be connected to one of the six levels of thinking. In addition, as we have shown above, thinking also serves as a link to content because essential questions have a direct link to Bloom’s levels as well. The graphic below will illustrate these connections.

So by identifying the level of thinking we are also identifying the various language functions. This is because thinking and language are intrinsically connected.  In our example of the topic Family, we had identified three levels of thinking as possible for instruction around the topic: understand, analyze and evaluate. So these are our possible language functions. Of course there are other possibilities for language functions and levels of thinking, but for simplicity’s sake, to illustrate the connections between language and content, let us use these three.

levels of thinking = lang functions

Once you have identified the levels of thinking and language functions associated with your topic, for us they were understand, analyze and evaluate, we’re ready to identify the other aspects of language, namely, language forms/vocabulary and modes of communication.

There are many places on the Internet, where one can find a list of language functions and the embedded language forms (grammar and vocabulary).  For example, here’s a very useful resource:

From the chart available in the above link, we can see the embedded language forms for our language functions:

Level of Thinking/Language Function Examples of Embedded Language Forms
Understand/Seek information, Inform Adjective use, descriptive language, superlatives/comparatives, _____said, the book says, first, second, next, etc., according toRetell, recount, reorder, represent, depict, paraphrase, summarize, give examples, draw, explain, conclude, convert, describe, prepare, transform, translate, restate, rewrite, prepare, give in your own words, generalize, extrapolate
Analyze/Analyze, Compare, Contrast Is a part of, is related to, to be, same, different, similarities, differences, the common traits, to, so that, nevertheless, thus, accordingly, if…..then (conditional connectors), makes, causes, because, creates, results in, due to, on account of, therefore
Evaluate/Evaluate I think, according to, for example, in fact, most important, for instance, for example, specifically

By carefully thinking about the alignment between content, thinking and language, you will ensure that your language instruction is based on meaning and rigor.

Modes of Communication

So far, we have explored a topic analyzing deep concepts related to the topic (facts, essential questions and essential understanding) as well as identified the embedded language forms (language functions and forms/vocabulary). We’ve also learned that thinking is the link between content and language in that essential questions (content), Bloom’s taxonomy (thinking) and language functions (language) are all meaningfully connected.  The last component we will discuss is identifying the modes of communication.  Instead of talking about the four language skills, reading, writing, listening and speaking, I am referring to the various uses of language skills, called modes of communication, borrowing from a framework “Integrated Performance Assessment” (ACTFL, 2003) in foreign language instruction. The modes of communication are interpretive (listening and reading), presentational (speaking and writing) and interpersonal (two-way communication, either written or spoken).

For our example of Family, you will at this point plan for practice in communicating, through the three modes of communication, about the various aspect of the topic we have identified so far.

In my work with students and teachers, whether ESL, EFL or world languages, I will always refer to the framework of content, thinking and language when designing instruction.  You might find it useful to print out a copy of the chart I referred to above, so as to guide your planning. I’m pasting it here one more time:


Any part of your lesson plan, whether objectives, assessments, or activities, you can plug into this framework to ensure alignment, meaning and rigor.

Below is a list from a brainstorming activity that the language teachers in Poland participated in.  Note that these are teachers teaching English as a foreign language in the elementary setting.  Take a note of the level of rigor of the concepts. The prompt was to list possible topics for language instruction that are relevant, academic, real-life and deep.

content topics for lang instr

Start thinking about what the associated understandings and essential questions might be.  And then continue on to think about what levels of Bloom’s are addressed in the questions. Next, you will align the Bloom’s levels with the embedded language functions.  As the last step you will identify the language forms (grammar and vocabulary) and modes of communication connected to the language functions, thus thinking and content.  Now you are ready to write your lesson plans and plan activities that support language learning that is based on meaning and rigor.


American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). (2003). Integrated Performance Assessment Manual.

Richards, J.C. (2013). Curriculum Approaches in Language Teaching: Forward, Central, and Backward Design.  RELC Journal, 44(1), 5-33. Available at:

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (expanded second edition). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.


anne dahlmanDr. Anne Dahlman is Professor of K-12 and Secondary Education and the incoming Honors Director (Summer, 2015) at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her main professional interest focuses on Equity and Academic Excellence. Dr. Dahlman has eighteen years of experience in higher education, having taught in two-year, four-year, and doctoral institutions in four states and internationally.  Dr. Dahlman is a teacher, teacher educator, researcher, linguist and has worked as an ESL, EFL and foreign language instructor.  Dr. Dahlman is a proud immigrant from Finland, is fluent in four languages and has lived in four countries.   


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