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CHAPTER 8: THEME-BASED TEACHING AND LEARNING

Issues around theme-based teaching


The activities of theme-based are linked together by their content; the topic runs through everything that happens in the classroom.
It is extremely demanding on teachers in both planning and implementation; a wide knowledge of activity types and resources is
needed to plan according to childrens needs.
Besides, knowledge of patterns of cognitive, language and motor skills development is useful for planning and is needed to evaluate
progression in all areas of the curriculum through theme-based teaching.
Theme-based teaching of a foreign language

1. Origins and transfer to foreign language cl assroom
Theme-based has been practiced since the 1960s in UK primary schools, where children spend all day with the same teacher. In this
way, different areas of the curriculum can be taught in an integrated way, without being separated into subject areas that have to
be taught at specific times by separate teachers.

In its original (1st language) uses, theme-based teaching required teachers to choose a theme or topic and then to plan a range of
teaching and learning activities related to the theme, that incorporated aspects of mathematics, science, art, language, history,
geography, music and so on.
With creative thinking and skilled organization, a theme can generate a long list of activities relating to all areas of the curriculum
under one theme
Theme-based teaching has been transferred across from general primary education to the teaching of English as a foreign language.
It offers one way of solving the problem of what to teach in primary FL classrooms.
2. Variations on a theme
In a theme-based foreign language teaching, a topic provides content for a range of language learning activities. For example, other
subject areas, such as mathematics or art, can offer teaching techniques and activities, as well as content, that can be used in the FL
classroom; foreign language lessons can provide content for other subject areas; whole subject lessons can be taught in the FL.
A further variation on theme-based teaching is an activity-based approach. In this approach learning of language takes place as
children participate in a range of activities on the theme, such as sorting, measuring and playing games.
The next figure shows some of the many activities that can be transferred from other subject areas for use in the foreign language
classroom:








Other authors suggest that activity-based approach offers whole learning/whole language experience in which the activities are of
value to the overall educational and social development of the child, and not merely to develop English language skills.
3. Choosing theme-based teaching for the FL classroom
Theme-based teaching could replace course book and syllabus altogether. More realistically, it can be adopted for one or two
lessons in a week, or for several weeks in a term, to supplement other work, and to help teachers build up the skills and knowledge
that are demanded.
Many course books use topics or themes to structure their units, although this is often a superficial covering for a grammatical or
functional sequencing. The title of a unit, such as 'Pets' or 'My Family', can be treated like a theme, and adopting a theme-based
approach can extend teaching and learning beyond the confines of the-text book.
Planning theme-based teaching

The language learning opportunities offered by theme-based teaching in the foreign language classroom arise from the content and
the activities that pupils undertake. Together, the content and activities produce language-using situations and discourse types.

Advance versus ' on-l ine' planning
Theme-based teaching can be planned in advance, or it can emerge from dynamic teaching and learning, that according to the
interests of children and teacher.
The dynamic nature of theme-based teaching can be improved by building in 'choice points', where pupils and teacher have choice
over direction, activity or timing. As a theme proceeds, there may be points at which the class can decide which of two or more
possible directions the theme-based work will take.
In a theme-based lesson, children can be allowed to choose a fixed number of activities from a small set of activities. They can also
be encouraged to take some responsibility for their own learning by being required to organise their time. The use of choice points
contributes to children's capacities for self-directed learning by giving them supported practice in making decisions, as learning
proceeds, so that later they will be able to identify these points themselves.
Finding a theme
A theme can come from the children's current interests, from topics being studied in other classes, from a story, or from a l ocal or
international festival or event. A list of possible themes shows something of the range of sources:
-Spiders and mini-creatures
-Circus
-Potatoes / vegetables
-Islands - Bridges
-Halloween / festivals

Children might be asked to suggest themes, or to select a theme from a list.

Planning content
Two basic planning tools for theme-based teaching are:
BRAINSTORMING: it is a mental process that starts with one idea and then spread others through random and spontaneous links. All
possibilities are noted down and are then used to select from

WEB: it is a way of writing down ideas and connections without forcing them into linear form as in a list or in a text. The main idea is
put in the centre of the board or paper, and connecting ideas with lines showing connections.
The brainstorming and webbing processes can be carried out with the children, rather than by the teacher alone. A good way to
start is by asking the children for words connected to the theme, and writing these on the board, constructing a web as words are
suggested. This can be done in the foreign language, or bilingually, with the teacher translating words that children suggest in their
first language.
The advantage of doing this work with the children is that it also provides a quick assessment of their knowledge and interest around
the topic, through the words that they suggest and through areas that they do not mention.
Planning language l earning tasks
Planning has to bring a 'language-learning perspective', so that planning moves from content to FL classroom activities, with
discourse types and aspects of language use guiding the construction of tasks with clear goals and stages. Tasks can be organised
into stages, each with language and content goals, and fitted to the timing of the lessons. It is necessary to construct classroom tasks
that will build on what pupils already know of the FL and extend their language learning.
Learning language through theme-based teaching

The language learning potential of theme -based
The language is not selected in advance as a set of language items to be taught. Planning can predict some possibili ties, but there
will still be a degree of unpredictability about the language that will appears in the activities. Children may need support to
understand content and teachers will help them to notice and understand the language.
Learning vocabulary
Theme-based work is likely to introduce new vocabulary items, with the theme providing support for understanding and recall.
Vocabulary items that have already been introduced in the course book may be met again in the new context of a theme, and the
encounter will reinforce the words or phrases while also adding new meaning aspects to them.

Learning discourse skil ls
A real benefit of theme-based is that it offers a natural use of discourse types, both spoken and written. Texts that can be used in
theme-based teaching will include relevant songs, rhymes, video, stories, and non-fiction informational texts, including sources
accessed through the Internet or on CD-ROM, catalogues, leaflets and magazines, and educational materials written for native
speakers.

The text itself is likely to include short self-contained chunks of information, often around pictures or diagrams. The different types
of writing - introduction, description, narrative, argument or summary - will use grammar and vocabulary in different ways from
stories. Information books can be used as resources for finding out specific information or as starting points for a theme. They offer
opportunities to see the language used for these purposes and to develop reading skills at text level. They also provide a model for
writing information texts in the foreign language.

Motivation to precision in language use

When communicating with others about a theme, it can become more important to communicate precisely and accurately. Precision
in language use involves learners selecting and adapting their language resources to say or write exactly what they mean; accuracy,
the term more often used in the literature, refers to using the language correctly relative to the target form.

Outcomes and products from theme-based learning
As a theme proceeds, children will produce pieces of work - poems, pictures and sentences, reports, graphs and so on. These can be
saved by each child in a personal folder for the theme. As a final stage in the theme, the pieces of work are gathered together to
make a record of what has been covered for the children and for other people.

Giving feedback to each other
Pupils can plan an activity together before starting, and can be brought together in the middle of the process to show their 'work-in-
progress3 to others. If planning and giving feedback are carried out with the teacher at the beginning of the year, pupils can
gradually take over the processes themselves, using the language modelled by the teacher.

Encouraging private speech in the foreign language
Vygotsky emphasised the importance of private speech in children, the 'talking to oneself' that leads developmental from soci al
speech with others to inner speech and thinking. Talking to oneself when making or doing something can help even adults to focus
and concentrate.