My Thoughts on Thematic Units

I belong to a number of teaching groups on Facebook and I come across a lot of posts that are similar to these:

Does anyone have a good Movie Talk for a unit about shopping?

Does anyone have any good stories to use to talk about sports? Preferably one with command forms?

Posts like this make me cringe. Guys, I am so over planning units based on a theme with a body of knowledge that I need to cover, and the reason why is pretty simple. Teachers who “do” a unit on a specific theme, like eating out in a restaurant or protecting the environment or whatever, are almost always just talking about these themes to “cover” vocabulary expressions and grammatical structures about that theme and are hardly ever really communicating with their students about the topic. And when this happens, little language acquisition is actually taking place. If I try to steer a conversation to make sure that I cover a certain group of vocabulary words or grammatical structures, my kids will very quickly realize that my main objective is to “cover” those vocabulary words or grammatical structures. They will quickly tune me out, because the actual message is not important.

And come on, guys, you have to agree that when you attempt to talk about a certain theme while making sure that you “cover” certain structures, the sentences you end up saying are artificial and often don’t resemble normal conversations. Here, just off the top of my head, is a list of questions that I have asked in a language class that I have never, ever said in a real conversation.

Do you wear pants in the summer when it’s hot out?

Do you use a spoon when you eat ice cream?

Do you get dressed for school before or after you eat breakfast?

Do you reuse or recycle to help the environment?

In case you’re interested, the answer to every one of these questions is the same. Who cares? Not my students.

My goal in my classroom is to talk with my students in a way that feels like a natural, normal conversation. I want them so caught up in what I am saying that they don’t even realize that they are acquiring language. When I think about what to talk about with my students, I choose things that I think my students will find interesting. In addition, I allow the conversation to develop naturally. And while I limit the number of new vocabulary expressions I use with my students, I use whatever grammar I need to make my message comprehensible and interesting. Subjunctive in first year? Yes, if it’s needed. Do I teach the word for sweater without teaching twenty other clothing words? Yes, if what I need to do is tell a student who is cold to put on a sweater or tell one who is hot to take off a sweater. Have I taught all numbers? No, not yet. I have covered 1-31 and the number 2018 because we need them to tell the date. I have taught my French students 55 because it is my favorite number, and I have taught my Spanish students the number 87 because that is how old I tell them that I am.

So I imagine the question you are asking yourself is, “Well, if she doesn’t do thematic units, what does she do?” The short answer is that I do whatever I think my students will find interesting that I can talk about with compelling, comprehensible input. Here is a short list of items that fit this criteria.

  1. Movie Talks. I find a short, compelling video clip, preferably one with a twist at the end, and I talk about it with my students. Sometimes I have additional activities that I do along with the video (If you don’t know how to “do” a Movie Talk, you can read this post and this post).
  2. Calendar Talks. At the beginning of each class, we talk about what is going on that day. We talk about the weather, but mainly only as a springboard to talk about other things. For example, one day last April when it was raining for the tenth or eleventh day in a row I used our weather talk to lament that it had been raining for over a week straight. I got lots of past tense practice by saying, “Saturday it rained,” followed by “Sunday it rained,” and so on. This is when I also talk about any upcoming events, like birthdays or holidays or school functions, and any other event my students might want to mention, such as if they are taking a trip anywhere or playing in an important championship game. I posted recently about using this online calendar as a visual for my Calendar Talks, which my students liked.
  3. Student Interviews. Bryce Hedstrom blogged about this activity here. Basically it involves the teacher interviewing students about themselves in the target language. It is a great activity to use to acquire personal information. I have been doing student interviews for the past few months (I only see my students 3 days a week, so it has taken a while to get through the whole class), but because of this practice my students have acquired language they need to talk about their family, pets, favorite activities, favorite foods, and more.
  4. Personal Anecdotes. My students love it when I tell them stories about my life and my family, and this is one way that I give my students a lot of exposure to the past tense. Sometimes I show my students pictures from my weekend on Monday mornings, which gives us the opportunity to use the past tense. In other instances, I tell my students about interesting events that have happened in my life recently. For example, last year I lost my wedding ring. This turned into a great lesson in class during which I told them that I had lost it, where I looked for it, where it could possibly be, and where I ultimately found it (although I found it a week before I told my class that I had found it, because our conversation about the missing ring was so compelling).

Once I moved away from doing thematic units, two things happened. First of all, I felt liberated. Forcing myself to “cover” a set list of words or grammar structures was making me feel trapped. I didn’t want to have those artificial conversations to make sure that I used all the vocabulary and grammar structures in the unit. Second, student interest increased when we started talking in a more natural way about things they really cared about, which, based on data from their reading quizzes and writing samples, is helping them acquire language. My students are happier and so am I.

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