How is Language First Different from Other Approaches?

March 8, 2023

By: Stephanie Irizarry

My start in dual language immersion education began roughly two decades ago when I was hired to teach first grade in a Spanish immersion program. On the excitement front, I was ahead of the game. I quickly realized, however, that what I had in spades of excitement for my new role, I lacked in knowledge about HOW to actually go about teaching students in the target language of instruction.

So, I did what any teacher new to a school does: I asked around.

Enter: The Monitor Model

That first year taught me all about Stephen Krashen’s Natural Approach to language acquisition. Veteran teachers at my school told me, “If you speak correctly all day in Spanish to your students, eventually they’ll use the language accurately.” This sounded a lot like how we acquire language in the home, so I went with it. Elements of this type of monitor model stated:

  • Comprehension comes before production of language.
  • There are clear-cut stages to language production.
  • Students shouldn’t be expected to communicate before they’re ready.
  • Speech errors that don’t impede communication should intentionally go uncorrected. (Krashen & Terrell, 1988).


With each passing week, when we reviewed student data in the lounge and at staff meetings, we noted that our students’ English scores were on par with where they should be but that students’ Spanish production (written and spoken) wasn’t accurate. We monitored students’ progress but felt defeated because continuing to do the same thing over and over again wasn’t working. Some teachers on staff concluded that the results we were getting were just “how it is” in immersion. But, a larger group of us knew that there had to be more to it, and that we could do more for students to learn the target language at high levels.

Enter: Counterbalanced Instruction

Years later, while serving in the same school district as an immersion instructional coach, I began studying for a Master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, focusing on certification in dual language immersion education. There, I found more teachers who had the same concerns I did: Our students, despite their efforts and the hard work of their teachers, weren’t reaching proficiency levels representative of their time spent in the language. We read Roy Lyster’s book, Learning and Teaching Languages Through Content: A counterbalanced approach (2007). This approach made so much sense because it affirmed exactly what we as teachers were experiencing, and gave us something to do about it!

We rolled up our sleeves and started thinking about how we could focus on form to improve students’ language production by spreading the focus across the core content areas — beyond “language arts” time — to counterbalance language and content instruction. As I began to take my learning from my college course to classroom-based coaching conversations, there were some key things I noticed:

  • It showed promise. Students paid much more attention to accurate forms of Spanish when they were asked to focus on those forms across the content areas.
  • Students seemed a little more prepared to self-correct their speaking and writing when prompted because they had prior experience of explicitly being taught the form.
  • Teachers were exhausted. Each day, they were using the core content areas to drive their language targets.


In theory, it was a beautiful practice, but it felt unsustainable because:

  • Students didn’t get time to “simmer” in a specific target for consistent amounts of time.
  • In some cases, students experienced 10+ language targets per week!
  • Each individual teacher had different opinions about which targets to select, resulting in inconsistencies across grade levels.
  • Ultimately, we knew that we were getting closer to what our students needed given that this model had potential and we began seeing results. We wondered how we could use it to reflect and refine our practice even more for program-level consistency and maximum student benefits.


Enter: Language First

Once I arrived at addalingua, I learned about all of the influence that counterbalanced instruction has on our approach to dual language immersion education. After countless hours of classroom observations, teacher feedback, and student data points, the team further developed resources for Spanish immersion that would remove the “guesswork” involved with establishing language targets for each week across grade levels. And, with the release of the text Scaffolding Language Development in Immersion and Dual Language Classroom by Drs. Tedick and Lyster, we dove right back into reflection and refinement.

  • We landed our thinking on the fact that we want DLI programs to put language first!
  • What does that mean, exactly? Well… Instead of viewing language targets as “more on the plate,” we believe that language IS THE PLATE. So, that’s where we start.
    • We teach how to establish a classroom culture that honors the minority language.
    • We encourage implementation of a structural syllabus that outlines language targets, infusing them throughout content instruction.
    • We provide a Language First instructional cycle (adapted from Tedick & Lyster’s CAPA model, 2020) that illustrates how teachers can infuse their language foci within the content they’re expected to teach throughout an entire week. This gives students more time to see how language looks, sounds, and behaves across contexts!
    • We eliminated the time-taxing guessing game that teachers used to go through to select a language target. And, let’s face it…WHEN in education do we ever talk about getting MORE time?!?


We’re happy with the Language First results we’re seeing in schools from all across the United States. It just goes to show that clear plans for teachers and L2 improvements make all the difference in the lives of young scholars.

If our journey intrigues you, or if you’ve found that elements of our journey resonate with you or your school, reach out to us. We’d love to share with you how Language First could be a transformational way to raise the bar for your DLI program. With Spanish language framework resources available, in addition to three levels of Language First professional learning available (for teachers of any language), there’s much to talk about!

Learn more by watching our Language First webinar: link here.