Content-Obligatory Language/alx

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Content-Obligatory Language
Contributors Christian Köppe, Mariëlle Nijsten
Last modification May 15, 2017
Source Köppe and Nijsten (2012)[1][2][3]
Pattern formats OPR Alexandrian
Learning domain

The content of a course is mostly focused on one domain, which often has specific terminology used in this domain. If students have a low general language proficiency, the chances of them failing to understand the real meaning of this terminology increases[4].


Some lexical items and terminology of the foreign language are so closely related to the content of a course that mastering them is crucial to students in order to achieve the course objectives.

Some students may get the wrong understanding of the domain of the course contents. When explaining this terminology in the foreign language, they use phrases in the foreign language without grasping their meaning.

Definition Repetition. Students know that it is sometimes sufficient to memorize definitions without understanding, as tests are often asking for memorized knowledge only. Not all things have to be understood more deeply and in the broader context.

False Friends. When reading a text in a foreign language there are often words which are unknown or the meaning is only vaguely known. Usually the meaning becomes somewhat clearer in the broader context and through the position of the words, but these are just assumptions. Especially terminology in specific domains can give a different meaning to common known words, which can lead to “false friends”.


Therefore: Define the content-obligatory language before and during course design. Expose the students to this language continuously in different ways with an emphasis at the beginning of the course. Let this language repeatedly come back during the whole course to improve assimilation and understanding of this language.

The content-obligatory language can consist of different parts:

– vocabulary - the terms used in, and specific for, the domain covered in the course. Example for mathematics would be the terms: Subtraction, Addition, Division, and Multiplication.

– language constructs - domain-specific ways of using the language, which are specific for the domain. Examples are the mathematical constructs: ”x is subtracted form y” or ”factor out the greatest common factor”.

The language specific for a domain often includes visuals as well, but these are mostly independent of the language used and should therefore already be included in the content-related material. However, these are also very helpful in language acquisition[5], as they help in relating knowledge structures to associated language expressions[6]. In some cases it therefore can considered to be helpful if these visuals are also explicitly added to the content-obligatory language. The known uses section gives an example of this.

The defined language is a reference for the course design — the used materials, presentations, etc. It therefore also forms the basis for Input Selection (Input Selection).

Use different communication ways — as defined by the Lucky Language Clover (Lucky Language Clover) — for explaining the language and exposing students to the language and letting students grasp, practice and apply the language.

To check whether they really understood the domain concepts, ask students to explain them in their own words. This way you will find out whether they’ve simply learned phrases or really grasped a deeper understanding of the concepts and terminology. Especially in the beginning these explanations can also be in the students’ mother tongue, which gives more insight into the deepness of understanding[7].

De Graaf et al. suggest the learners should be stimulated to request new vocabulary items[5]. However, in order to ensure that these items contribute to the content too, a list with the essential vocabulary items should be made in advance. This list could also contain the items of the Content-Compatible Language (Content-Compatible Language).

A serious risk when defining the Content-Obligatory Language (Content-Obligatory Language) is that is costs the teacher a lot of preparation time, mainly for two reasons: (a) it is not always obvious which parts of the language are really essential for understanding the course content, so determining these parts requires extra time and (b) the amount of relevant terms and constructs can be overwhelming, leading to excessive lists which are not easy to create and handle. To avoid this, select input texts of the appropriate level, using the Input Selection (Input Selection) pattern or use visuals to explain domain language.

Köppe and Weber defined in a course on (Design) Patterns & Frameworks a list with the essential terms (and important visuals like UML class- and sequence-diagrams), which included: class, association, generalization, specialization, inheritance, interface, Pattern, Framework, sections (of a pattern), context, forces, abstraction, coupling etc. Even though some of these terms can be assumed as known to the students because of earlier programming and UML courses, they are included again here as they are essential for understanding the patterns but also the pattern solutions and their impact on the overall design. In the first lecture the students had to give short presentations in English about general design principles and techniques including examples. The use of some of the terms was implicitly required for this exercise, and the teachers emphasized the importance of these terms by immediately asking questions like ”Why have you chosen a generalization and not an association” which requires deeper understanding of the terms in order to be answered correctly. This exercise gave a good overview of which terms the students already knew at a sufficient level and which terms did need more explanation and repetitive attention during the following lectures.

Nijsten designed an energizer exercise that took around 10 minutes. She made flash cards with an English expression — chosen from the Content-Obligatory Language (Content-Obligatory Language) — on one side and its definition in English at the back side. Students walked around in class. Whenever they ran into another student, they showed their flash card with the definition up front and asked for a definition in English (or the mother tongue). The fellow student then returned the question using his flash card. Afterwards, they exchanged cards and walked on to have such language exchanges with other class mates. This exercised lifted spirits and improved students’ mastery of the main course vocabulary as well.


  1. Patlet first mentioned in Köppe, C., & Nijsten, M. (2012). A pattern language for teaching in a foreign language: part 1. In Proceedings of the 17th European Conference on Pattern Languages of Programs (EuroPLoP 2012) (p. 10). New York:ACM.
  2. Also mentioned in Köppe, C., & Nijsten, M. (2012). A pattern language for teaching in a foreign language: part 2. In Proceedings of the 19th Conference on Pattern Languages of Programs (PLoP 2012). New York:ACM.
  3. Pattern published in Köppe, C., & Nijsten, M. (2012). Towards a Pattern Language for Teaching in a Foreign Language. In Proceedings of the VikingPLoP 2012 conference. Saariselkä, Finland.
  4. Met, M. (1994). Teaching content through a second language. Educating second language children: The whole child, the whole curriculum, the whole community, 159-182.
  5. 5.0 5.1 De Graaff, R., Koopman, G. J., & Westhoff, G. (2007). Identifying effective L2 pedagogy in content and language integrated learning. Vienna English Working Papers, 16(3):12–19.
  6. Leung, C. (2005). Language and content in bilingual education. Linguistics and Education, 16(2), 238-252.
  7. Mehisto, P., Marsh, D., & Frigols, M. J. (2008). Uncovering CLIL: Content and language integrated learning in bilingual and multilingual education. Macmillan.