Thematic, Communicative Language Teaching in the
K-8 Classroom. ERIC Digest.
by Haas, Mari
Foreign language instruction for children can be enriched when teachers
use thematic units that focus on content-area information, engage students
in activities in which they must think critically, and provide opportunities
for students to use the target language in meaningful contexts and in new
and complex ways. The national standards for foreign language teaching
and learning support this approach to language instruction (National Standards
in Foreign Language Education Project, 1996).
According to the standards, when teachers plan lessons they should focus
on the five Cs of Communication, Culture, Connections with other disciplines,
Comparisons with students' native languages and cultures, and use of the
foreign language in Communities outside the classroom. Increasingly, foreign
language educators are integrating the five Cs of the standards into "content-related"
(Curtain & Pesola, 1994) or "theme-based" (Scarcella & Oxford,
1992) curricula. These curricula reinforce or extend the content of the
regular classroom curriculum to give coherence to the language lessons.
A unit on the solar system, for example, might include vocabulary that
describes the attributes of the planets, which students are also learning
about in English. Students might also listen to and recite a poem about
the moon and the stars, compare the view of the "rabbit in the moon" found
in Aztec and Asian cultures to the North American view of the "man in the
moon," observe the night sky (phases of the moon and star constellations)
in their area at different times of the year, and compare their observations
with those of students in other parts of the world through email exchanges
in the target language.
PLANNING THEMATIC UNITS
Themes for curriculum units can be derived from many sources. Planning
thematic units allows the teacher to incorporate a variety of language
concepts into a topic area that is interesting and worthy of study and
that gives students a reason to use the language. Teachers should choose
themes that lend themselves to teaching language that will be useful for
their students. Themes and lessons should integrate language, content,
and culture into activities that allow students to practice the foreign
language and that prepare them to use it in a variety of contexts. A focus
on communication, including the interactions present in all uses of the
language (for speaking, listening, reading, and writing) is essential.
Students need to be able to interpret the language, express themselves
in the language, and negotiate meaning in the language (Savignon, 1997).
In beginning communicative language classes, the teacher's role includes
introducing vocabulary and phrases and providing comprehensible language
input for the students. Visuals and manipulatives, gestures, sounds, and
actions all help students understand the new vocabulary and structures.
Students need opportunities to be active participants in tasks that require
them to negotiate meaning and practice language in communication with their
teacher, their peers, and others.
Pesola (1995) developed the Framework for Curriculum Development for
FLES programs, which begins with a thematic center and creates a dynamic
relationship among the factors that teachers must take into account: language
in use, subject content, and culture. (See also Curtain & Pesola, 1994,
for a detailed description of the framework.) The framework highlights
a set of questions to guide curriculum planning:
* Who are the students in terms of learner characteristics, such as
developmental level, learning style, and experiential background?
* What are the planned activities, and how will teachers assess students'
* How will the classroom setting affect the planned activities?
* What materials do teachers need to support the activities?
* What language functions, vocabulary, and grammatical structures will
students practice through the activities?
* What knowledge about subject content and culture will the students
EXAMPLES OF THEMATIC UNITS
Three thematic units--"Visiting the Farm," A German Fairy Tale, and
The South American Rainforest--are described below. They were developed
by teachers who used Pesola's framework to guide their planning process.
In each of these units, the teachers created language immersion settings
in their classrooms, planned lessons around themes that were interesting
to the students, asked the students to think critically, reinforced concepts
and skills from the regular classroom, integrated culture, and gave students
many opportunities to use the target language in a variety of situations
"Visiting the Farm" Martine's second-grade French class focused on the
farm for 4 weeks. The class began each day with an activity that reviewed
previously learned language. For example, one student would make an animal
sound and call on another student to say the name of the animal. As the
students moved from activity to activity, Martine gave them short time
limits for specific tasks to be completed on their own or in pairs or small
groups. The students used French as they manipulated pictures and completed
assigned tasks. Activities included brainstorming a list of names of farm
animals in French that students already knew, learning new animal names
in French, and drawing a farm mural on butcher paper; singing a song about
animals in the barnyard (Dans la basse cour); comparing barns in France
and the United States; planting two types of vegetables chosen from seed
packets of common French vegetables; measuring and charting the plants'
growth; tasting radishes with butter (as they are served in France); creating
a labeled farm page for their book of all of the places they "visited"
in class that year; sorting food by plant or animal and completing and
describing a food pyramid; making baguette sandwiches; comparing with a
partner pictures of vocabulary words (e.g., the animals on their farm pages,
their favorite foods, the ingredients in their baguette sandwiches) with
a partner; listening to the story of the three pigs in French and creating
their own versions of the tale (e.g., the three horses and the big, bad,
hungry cow), which they acted out; and taking their baguette sandwiches
with them to a fantasy picnic on the farm.
"A German Fairy Tale" In this 3-week unit, Frederike introduced her
third-grade German students to a story based on a Grimm's fairy tale about
a pancake ("Pfannkuchen") by singing the song "Ich Habe Hunger" ("I Am
Hungry") with them, then preparing batter (measuring in grams) and cooking
a pancake in class. Next, pairs of students compared the sentences they
had cut apart from mixed-up copies of the recipe and resequenced them in
the appropriate order. Throughout the unit, Frederike began each class
by telling or retelling part of the pancake story. "The Thick, Fat Pancake"
("Der Dicke Fette Pfannkuchen") is the story of an old woman who bakes
a pancake that does not want to be eaten. It jumps out of the pan and rolls
through the forest. The pancake's delicious smell attracts one forest animal
after another. The names of the animals describe their characteristics,
such as Wolf Sharptooth ("Wolf Scharfzahn") and Rabbit Longears ("Haselongohr").
As the animals tell the pancake to stand still so that they can eat it,
each one adds another adjective to describe the pancake: "Thick, fat, dear,
sweet, yummy, wonderful, golden, delicious, marvelous pancake, stand still!
I want to eat you up!" At this request, the pancake laughs and waves and
continues rolling down the hill. Finally, the pancake meets two hungry
orphans, jumps into their laps and begs, "Eat me, I will give you strength."
The orphans then eat the pancake.
The students practiced new vocabulary by drawing pictures on the board
as Frederike recited the scene and by sequencing sentences about the story
using sentence strips and a pocket chart. The retellings were never boring
and always included student input and probing questions that elicited information
about the animals in the fairy tale. With each storytelling, Frederike
emphasized different vocabulary or introduced a new animal. She also engaged
the students in activities that provided practice in using German:
* copying sentences from the story and illustrating them to create personal
* listing characteristics of the animals, such as the large, sharp teeth
of the wolf
* creating surnames for the animals, like Wolf Sharptooth
* playing "inside outside circles" (Kagan, 1986), with one circle of
students asking questions about the story and their partners in the other
* pretending to become animals and pancakes when the teacher waved her
magic wand, then role playing their actions in the story
* singing and dancing the "duck dance" and learning the parts of the
* listing what the animals ate and learning the German words for carnivore,
herbivore, and omnivore
* practicing reading the fairy tale to a partner
* selecting roles for a play based on the fairy tale and presenting
the play for their parents and the first-grade German students
* reading their illustrated storybooks to the first graders.
"The South American Rainforest" "?Necesitamos los portafolios de espanol?"
(Do we need our Spanish notebooks?) is one of the questions students ask
as they prepare for Soledad's fifth-grade Spanish class. Soledad begins
the first class of this 6-week unit on the rainforest with a song about
the weather and questions about the weather outside. Soon the class is
working with maps, first with Soledad asking questions about the location
of various rain forests in the world, then with the students in the role
of teacher, asking other students questions.
The activities that follow lead students to communicate with each other,
practice their Spanish, and focus on vocabulary and structure: locating
rainforests on the map using their background knowledge from social studies
class; contributing to a written description of rainforests on the overhead
projector; reading chorally what they have written; and playing games and
singing songs that practice the names of animals and their movements. They
also work in small groups to tell each other how to color the different
animals, to create sentences about animal pictures, to introduce themselves
as an animal to their neighbors, to create a dialog between two animals,
to write their animal dialogs on chart paper and to read and role-play
them, and to edit the dialogs that they have written. They learn about
the layers of the rainforest and where each animal lives, what they eat,
and what their body coverings are. They write and record conversations
between two animals that incorporate all of the information covered in
class. They create the sounds of the rain in the rainforest through claps,
snaps, and pounding feet. They write a paragraph about the rainforest and,
finally, they make batidos de mango (mango shakes).
Although each class is different from the others in content and specific
activities, all of the teachers planned interesting thematic units that
included daily review of language; rich, comprehensible input in an immersion
setting; and opportunities to think critically and to process language
and negotiate meaning. They also involved students as active and interactive
participants in a variety of activities that reflect the goals of the national
standards. Although creating thematic units takes time and effort on the
part of the teacher, this way of teaching engages students and provides
them with a meaningful and exciting context in which to learn a new language.
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dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Kagan, S. (1989). "Cooperative learning resources for teachers." San
Juan Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers.
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Pesola, C.A.D. (1995). "Background, design, and evaluation of a conceptual
framework for FLES curriculum." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University
of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Savignon, S.J. (1997). "Communicative competence: Theory and classroom
practice" (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Scarcella, R.C., & Oxford, R.L. (1992). "The tapestry of language
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