Theme-based Teaching

In order to distinguish theme-based teaching from content-based, it is important to distinguish between what I will ll "strong" and "weak" versions of content-based teaching (not to B confused in n way with "good" and "bad"). In the strong version. the primary purpose of course is to instruct students in subject-matter area. Of secondary and subordinate interest is language. four of the examples of content-based instruction named above are good illustrations of the strong version. English for Specific purposes (ESP) t the university level fr example, gathers engineering majors together in course designed to teach terminology, concepts, and current issues in engineering. Because students r ESL students, they must of course lrn this material in English. which the teacher is prepared to help them with immersion and sheltered programs, along with programs in writing across the curriculum r similarly focused.

weak frm of content-based teaching actually places n equal value n content and language objectives. While the curriculum, to b sure, is organized around subject-matter area, both students and teachers are fully aware that language skills do not u subordinate role. Students hav n doubt chosen to take course r curriculum because their language skills need improvement, and they r now able to work toward that improvement withut being battered with linguistically based topics. Th ultimate payoff is that their language skills r indeed enhanced, but through focal attention to topic, and peripheral attention to language.

This weak version is actually vr practical and very effective in mn instructional settings. It typically manifests itself in what has m to b called theme-based, or


topic-based teaching. Theme-based instruction rvides n alternative to what would otherwise b traditional language classes b structuring course around themes r topics. Theme-based curricula n serve the multiple interests of students in classroom and n offer focus n content while still dhring to institutinl needs for offering language course, r s. So, for example, n intensive nglish course for intrmdit r-univrsit students might deal with topics of current intrst such as publi health, nvirnmntl awareness, world economics, etc. In th classroom students read articles r chapters, view video programs, discuss issues, rpose solutions, and rr out writing ssignmnts n given theme. "English for Academic purposes"- () in university is n appropriate instance of theme-based instruction.

Granted, there is fuzzy line of distinction between theme-based instruction and "traditional" language instruction. You could easily argue that mn existing reading and writing courses, for example, r theme-based in that they offer students substantial opportunities [ grapple with topics of relevance and interest. I do n! think it is important, r necessary, [ dichotomize here. What is imrtnt is to ut principles of effective learning into action. The major principles underlying both thm-bsd and content-based instruction r:

. the utmtiit principle

. the meaningful learning principle

. the intrinsic mtivtin principle

. the rnmunitiv mtn principle

All these principles r well served b theme-based instruction and/or B courses that r successflully bl t get students excited and interested in some topic, issue, idea, r rblm rather than bored by overanalyzing linguistic rules.

Numerous ESL textbooks, especially t the intrmdit r advanced levels, offer thm-Bsd courses of study. Such textbooks catch the curiosity and motivation of students with challenging topics and as they grapple with multitude of real-life issues ranging frm siml to ml, they n also focus n improving their linguistic skills.

Consider just n of n abundance of possible topics that has Bn used as thm through which language is taught: nvirnmntl awareness and tin. (For collection of environmentally thm-bsd ESL activities, see Hockman, et al., I99I). With this topic, u r sure to find immdit intrinsic mtivtin-w all wnt to surviv! r r sm possible thm-Bsed activities:

(I) Use nvirnmntl statistics and facts for classroom rding, writing. discussion, and debate. You don't have to look very fr to find infrmtion about the nvirnmntl crisis, research n the issues, nd n what individuals n do d forestall global disaster. Fllwing r some things that students n do with such material:


Integrating the "Four Skills"

for intrmdit r advanced students:

. scan [reading selections] for particular information . do "compare-and-contrast" exercises

. detect biases in certain statistics

. use statistics in argument

. learn the discourse features of persuasive writing

. write personal opinion essays

. discuss issues

. engage in formal debates

for beginning students:

. use imperatives ("dont buy aerosol spray cans.")

. practice verb tenses ("th ozone layer is vanishing."), develop new vocabulary

. learn cardinal and ordinal numbrs

. work with simple conversations/dialogs like:

: Why do you smoke?

: us I like it.

: You shouldn't smoke.

: Well, it makes m less nervous.

: But it's not good for your health.

: I don't care.

: Well, ull die young.

(2) Conduct, research and writing projects. When our ESL syllabus calls fr research project, n very intrinsically motivating possibility is to assign n environmental topic. Libraries, bookstores, newsstands, television and radio, and even political campaigns r fruitful sources of infrmtin. While individual projects r suitable, why not encourage students to work in pairs r teams, each assigned to different aspect of n issue. data r sought, gathered, synthesized, ountr-rgumnts explored, and man presented orally and/or in writing t th rest of the class.

(3) Have students create their own environmental awareness material. whether u r teaching adults r children, beginning r advanced students, u n get great deal of language and content material ut of "language experience approach" in which students m create leaflets, posters, bulletin boards, newsletter articles, r even booklet that outlines practical things u n do to "save the earth." If tim and equipment permit, som exciting things n b done with video mer, for example, n informtin program, drama, interviews, news reports, etc.

(4) Conduct field trips that involve pre-trip module (f perhaps several days) f reading, researching, and other fact finding and post-trip module [ summary and conclusions. Field trips n B made to recycling centers, factories that practice recycling, wildlife preserves, areas that need litter removed (abandoned lots, beaches, parks), etc.

(5) growing numbr [ simultin games r being created that use the environmental crisis as theme around which to build various scenarios [r the gaming process. Some games n get quite elaborate, with countries f the world and their respective resources represented B objects like egg cartons, bottles, cans, newspapers, and the like, and players charged to resolve rblems f unequal distribution f wealth as well as environmental controls.


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