The integration of theme-based instruction into language teaching originates from general primary education and “has been practiced since the 1960s in UK primary classrooms, where children typically spend all day with the same teacher” (Cameron, 2001, p. 181). Theme-based teaching contains different activities which are linked together by their content and it intertwines with communicative lan-guage teaching (cf. ibid., p. 180).
A teacher can include theme-based teaching in different ways in classroom. One possibility mentioned by Cameron (ibid., p. 182) is to use content, teaching tech-niques or activities from other subject areas. The opposite can be carried out as well because the foreign language classroom provides content for other subjects. The third way is that “whole subject lessons [are] taught in the foreign language” (ibid.). Besides, another possibility of including theme-based teaching is by inte-grating activities that come from different subject areas. This approach is also called ‘activity-based’ (cf. ibid.). Like other approaches and teaching methods, theme-based language teaching can be integrated in the regular classroom setting to different amounts and in varying concentrations (cf. ibid., p. 184).
Cameron 2001 states that the outcomes of theme-based learning may result in presentations (cf. ibid., p. 194). Children might collect pieces of their work and save them in a folder. Afterwards they can show their work to parents and friends which will lead to a greater motivation for learning as well as for precision in language (cf. ibid.).
Because theme-based teaching is very demanding – which will be discussed later - the teacher is supposed to plan the lesson in advance even if he is experienced. Nevertheless Cameron (ibid., p. 185) states that there should always be some choice points in theme-based teaching. Those choice points are for the teacher and the students to decide which activity to do or how much time to be spent on it. The finding of the theme doesn’t represent a very demanding task. It’s always helpful to integrate the students’ current interests by, for example, “asking them to suggest themes, or to select a theme for the term from a list” (ibid., p. 186). Mumford (2000, p. 4) also supposes that it might be useful to share ideas with other colleagues and therefore work in collaboration with others. Two basic planning tools Cameron (2001) mentions are brainstorming and webs (p. 186). These facilitate collecting ideas and connecting them not only in a linear direction, so that themes and sub-themes can easier be developed from them. Apart from that, Mumford states that it is advisable to integrate the students in the planning process because “[learning] becomes more meaningful when learners choose their methods and topics of study; the model of lifelong learning is brought into the school setting” (2000, p. 6). The teacher is not the only one who has to come up with constructive ideas – students’ interests can be used as a further source, too (ibid., p. 6). However the first step would be to define the theme and then continue with the sub-themes. Afterwards activities can emerge from the sub-themes. The activities chosen for theme-based language teaching should be age-based.
The use of theme-based units in language teaching offers the possibility for students to decide what topics to cover. The role of the teacher changes with the advanced integration of the students. But even if the students had greater influence, “the teacher’s role is not diminished, but changed” (Mumford, 2000, p. 4). The teacher now has the role of coordinator or facilitator – especially young children need someone to help them reflecting their learning process. During the lesson, he is also often needed as the one “commenting on what they [the children] are making and suggesting alternatives” (Cameron, 2001, p. 196). Besides the teacher is still involved in the process of planning the acquisition of skills and has an over-view of the process of learning in classroom (cf. Mumford, 2000, p. 4). Apart from that, “the teacher retains ultimate control over behaviour and remains accountable for ensuring that students are engaged in worthwhile projects that extend skills and result in increased knowledge and positive attitudes” (ibid., p. 6). The teacher should always be aware of the unpredictability of the development of the lesson. The teacher must be flexible and able to handle situations that arise out of a con-text. Especially the offering of choice-points leads to new, unknown language situations (cf. Cameron, 2001, p. 191).
Children can profit from choice points in teaching sequences by practicing self-directed learning (cf. Cameron, 2001, p. 185). Vale and Feunteun 1995 list some issues that should be kept in mind while planning teaching English to young chil-dren. One of the main points they mention is that “English is not an isolated educational issue. The child has ‘whole needs’ in terms of learning. It is important to acquire language across the curriculum” (Vale, Feunteun, 1995, p. 66). They therefore consider language as only one part of child education and suppose to supply a balance between different subjects and the use of themes as the source for teaching (cf. ibid.). Halliwell also states that “learning other things in English will help children to learn English” (1992, p. 131). Bringing meaning to language learning and especially its content is considered to be very helpful in the process of learning (cf. ibid.). When theme-based language teaching is compared with ‘normal’ language teaching, it becomes clear that the former offers more opportunities for using the target language in different contexts. Besides, theme-based language teaching provides the learner with more different material and input than the ‘normal’ teaching with a course-book does (cf. Cameron, 2001, p. 191). Furthermore the integration of theme-based teaching can help identifying learner’s individual difficulties since they might come across new content. Nevertheless, “[supported] by meaningful content, children may be able to work out the meaning of new or unfamiliar language, or motivated by real interest in a topic, they may struggle to communicate their knowledge to someone else” (ibid., p. 192). Therefore theme-based teaching is helpful for communicative stretching, too (cf. ibid.).
Cameron 2001, Halliwell 1992 and Vale and Feunteun 1995 provide many exam-ples and themes that can be used for theme-based language teaching. “You can, for example, include an occasional English poem in mother tongue classes. Or you can teach the children an English song when it is time for music” (Halliwell, 1992, p. 133). Of course a whole subject could be taught in English, as it is sometimes the case in European schools (cf. Vale, Feunteun, 1995, p. 68). These examples again show that the amount of theme-based teaching can vary according to topics, school curricula and the teacher’s as well as the students’ wishes.
List of References
Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching Languages to Young Learners. Cambridge: CUP.
Halliwell, S. (1992). Teaching English in the Primary Classroom. Harlow: Longman.
Mumford, D. (2000). Planning a theme based unit. Retrieved July 23rd 2012 from the World Wide Web: http://www.pacificedgepublishing.com/pdf/PlanThem.pdf
Vale, D. with Feunteun, A. (1995). Teaching Children English. A training course for teachers of English to children. Cambridge: CUP.