Real Context, Real Language

At John Stanford International School (Seattle), students mix comparative literature, world geography, and statistics all in one class--conducted completely in Japanese. Image: Asia Society.

Early language programs should focus on students communicating ideas in real ways: understanding and communicating meaning – and transferring vocabulary and language skills to convey other ideas.  

Today, elementary curriculum in most subjects is built around themes. For example, a teacher might teach a unit on “What Does That Symbol Mean?” involving the use of symbols in English and other languages, mathematics, graphic depictions, and symbolic representations in the world. Language teachers can tie instruction to these themes to make language instruction more meaningful and seamlessly integrated into the school day. Students not only learn the language, but also content and culture.

Helena Curtain, co-author of Languages and Children: Making the Match, explains there are many benefits of thematic learning in language classrooms. For one, it shifts the focus from how to say or write something to communication for a reason. Students are more motivated to learn as a result.  

Thematic planning makes instruction more comprehensible because the theme creates a meaningful context. When students are studying a thematic unit, they are using their new language skills in context—and not simply learning vocabulary in isolation. For instance, a language unit on food, when tied to the exchange that took place as a result of Columbus coming to the Americas, can feature vocabulary used in context to discuss food exchange and origins; geography and climate for growing food; staples now and then; food pyramids; and the experiences of other immigrants to a new place.

Curtain teaches us that students are engaged in complex thinking and more sophisticated use of language when they are learning thematically. For example, in a Spanish lesson combined with the thematic study of environmental preservation, one student wrote “No soy un abrigo” (I am not a coat) under a picture of an endangered leopard. The student demonstrated a much more sophisticated use of the verb “to be” compared to writing “I am a girl.”

By teaching on a theme, the teacher can avoid isolated exercises with grammar practiced out of context, which fragment language at the word or sentence level and avoid conversation. Research shows that the “kill and drill” method of language learning is less efficient than using language in context. By teaching in a story form, activities, lessons and units are engaging, meaningful, and memorable and have a clear beginning, middle, and end.

These key points show us how thematic instruction can help students learn to communicate in real-life situations where they are required to convey important ideas and collaborate with others to solve problems. These are skills that will result in globally competent students prepared to work in an interconnected world.

To learn more about thematic learning please see the book by Helena Curtain and Carol Ann Dahlberg: Languages and Children: Making the Match, 4th ed. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

Author: Heather Singmaster

Discussion topics:

Have you taught—or learned—a language? What has been your experience? Does the thematic approach make sense?

Should teachers be trained or required to teach a language using a thematic approach? Why or why not?