Thematic & topical units: not so fast…

So here are a couple of  requests from a language teachers’ forum.  WHat do they have in common?

Yup– they are “grammar topic” focused.  We also regularly see requests for “units” or stories about shopping, clothing, body parts, etc.  This brings up the question of the day: should language be organised around either grammar or topical vocab?

My answer:  generally no, with one exception: if you work somewhere and you must do the “shopping unit” or the “body parts” test, you do it to save your job, bla bla.  But if you have control, avoid grammar-foc used or theme-focused units.  Why?

First, definitions. For languages, most curricula– with the notable exception of Blaine Ray’s original TPRS– are organised into topics. Typically it will be a grammar concept such as a new verb tense, plus a bunch of vocab on one topic– food, the environment, recycling, shopping– often organised around a cultural idea/place. My Avancemos book, for example, in its first chapter, has a setting (New York), a theme (introductions), a set of grammar ideas (the verb to be) and a bunch of vocab: hellos and good-byes, numbers, days, months, age etc.  ¡Juntos! did its imperfecto “unit” on childhood, as does my colleagues’ French courses.

I actually have never seen a non-T.P.R.S. text that wasn’t topically organised. Texts are done this way because, well, I dunno, as we shall see.

So…why are grammar or theme vocab units a bad idea?

A) Topics are boring. In a typical classroom, where, say, the restaurant unit is being taught, students will typically “do” stuff with the vocab. Match words and pictures. Act out a diner-and-waiter skit. Ask each other what they want to order. Make up their own restaurant and menu, etc. Write about eating out. The problem here is that after the initial interest– if any– of learning new vocab wears off, things are going to get boring because what can you actually do with all this vocab?. You are basically saying and hearing the vocab over and over…for what? How interesting is it to hear “I would like French fries” over and over? While the vocab may be useful (for kids who know they are going to France or Quebec someday) this stuff isn’t inherently interesting.

If you don’t see why, ask yourself this question: when was the last time you spent three weeks talking about one subject– food, say– in one verb tense, using one or two new grammar tricks and say forty words? Never? Why not? Cos it’s totally BORING, that’s why not!

This brings up the, uhh, interesting question “what is interesting, anyway?” I’d say a solid mix of novelty, repetition and control works.  Something is interesting when we don’t know what will happen and we want to find out, and I could be fooling myself here, but doesn’t that make stories the most interesting teaching tool ever?

B) Topics distort authentic language. Ok, I know, people are going to say “well we always use non-authentic (i.e. simplified, learner-suitable) language in a classroom, so who cares?” But by “authentic language” I mean something like “multidimensional.”

Here are two examples. First, from Avancemos Uno, Chapter 6, here’s a sentence from one of the telenovelas:  “I like cats more. Cats are nicer than dogs”

Second, this is from the 5th chapter of Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk:  “Caden knows that there are many gorillas who dance poorly, and so he doesn’t want any old gorilla, but rather one who knows how to dance well.”

The text sentence is tied to the chapter’s objective– teaching comparisons– and so it’s one-dimensional and boring.  Now, the problems with this aren’t the sentence itself (or the many others in the chapter that are just like it).  The problem is the idea of a theme or topic.  If your topic is a grammar point– in this case, comparisons– you are massively restricting yourself with what you can do with the vocab.

Imagine this:  you want to write a short story in English but the only thing you can use– outside of nouns and a few basic verbs– is comparisons.  The story would look something like this:  “There is a boy named John.  He is taller than his sister.  He has as much money as his sister.  He wants more money than his sister.  So he goes to meet a man who has more money than John does.”  OK, we get it, we are bored, it’s two-dimensional…but at least it’s a story.  What are you going to do with it if you don’t use stories?  Have them point to pictures and tell their partner “the girl is taller than the boy”?  Write a paragraph– cleverly disguised as a Facebook status update– about why your favorite actor Channing Tatum is more ______ than Ryan Gosling?  Boooooring!

Ray’s sentence, on the other hand, has two subordinate clauses, the subjunctive, it’s compound, and it’s interesting. Dancing gorillas? Cool! Where? How many?  In T.P.R.S., we don’t have one grammar objective per story, because we use all grammar all the time. The kids are always getting something like authentic– multidimensional– language.  When Ray wants to teach a grammar concept– e.g. comparisons– he’ll just pick one, make it comprehensible, and throw it into the story.  The point is the story, and the language, properly speaking, is incidental…but it’s also more authentic than the impoverished, one-dimensional stuff in texts.

C) Topical units tie grammar to vocab and decrease “transfer” from one theme or topic to another.  Years ago when I taught using a “communicative” program– ¡Juntos!— one problem repeatedly came up. Unit 5 taught the pretérito using school vocab. Unit 7 taught reflexive verbs using daily routines. Unit 9 or whatever taught the imperfect using childhood memories. The problem? Even when these “worked”– and they generally didn’t– at the end of the year the kids could only talk about childhood using the pretérito, daily routines using reflexive verbs, etc. What they should have been able to do was use everything everywhere.

A Spanish sentence such as cuando me desperté ayer, estaba cansado, y no había café en la cocina (“When I woke up yesterday, I was tired, and there was no coffee in the kitchen”) is totally normal. It also uses two past tenses and a reflexive verb (in the past). My kids could never have produced a sentence like that, because the text didn’t offer exercises or reading where these things were mixed together.

Much more effective: use a bit of [non-Englishy grammar item/vocab] in Level 1, and keep on using it all the time.

When I saw the amazing Joe Dziedzic this year at IFLT in Denver, he was rocking a Spanish story with level 2s and using every grammatical structure that exists.  He had 2nd year kids understanding things like “si hubiera ido, hubiera estado más feliz”  (if I had gone, I would have been happier).  Joe’s kids, as a result of his classic (but free-form) T.P.R.S., won’t “see” or “cover” immense vocab lists, and probably couldn’t tell you what exactly an -ar verb is.  BUT…over four or five years of very good C.I., they will hear complex, authentic Spanish that covers most of the grammar etc from Day One.  As a result, this stuff will be “wired in” in a much deeper way than if it were taught sequentially, and when/if the kids ever get to college Spanish, or Mexico, the input they’ll get, combined with having the “mental platform” of all the grammar, will mean much faster comprehension, better output, and quicker learning.

D) It’s harder to remember similar vocab items together. Here is Paul Nation’s paper, and here is Rob Waring’s (thanks, Eric Herman, you deity of rounding up research) which show us that when you have to learn a bunch of similar stuff together– e.g. a big list of food items, or of clothing, or of, say, reflexive verbs– they are harder to remember. Ideally, we should be learning a mix of really disparate things together because– as with the visual system, where it’s much easier to see interlocking patterns when the patterns are each of very different colours than if they are of similar colours– differences = contrast = memorability.  I remember teaching communicatively and oh my God did I ever suck when I gave the kids 40 food items to memorise.

Blaine Ray’s technique– teach, say, only two adjectives and two verbs in a story– is brilliant. This allows for massive numbers of repetitions (= acquisition), and makes sure that, since there are only a limited number of items, they will each “stand out” in memory better than if a massive list of items had each item only used a few times.

E) Topical texts do not follow frequency lists. As I have noted elsewhere, frequency lists– how often a word is used– should guide teaching. If 85% of all spoken language is 1,000 words, and 95% is 2,000 words (as Nation & Davies show) we should teach the most-used words first. Now in my Avancemos book, goodbye is one of the first words taught, yet it is in about 350th place in terms of frequency!  There are 349 more-used words than goodbye. So why does the text teach this before the 349 other more-used words? Avancemos also starts off with days of the week, yet many of these are in 1,100th place! Most texts do a unit on clothes, fashion etc within the first 2-3 years. A word such as T-shirt is in about 4,400 place.

F) Topical and thematic units disregard the order of acquisition.  Basically, people’s brains soak up the grammar they want on their own schedule.  Things like the third person -s in English which appears to be a “basic rule’ is actually late-acquired; in other languages such as Spanish, “complex” grammar” like subjunctive is nearly as frequently used as, say the present tense, and is in any case much easier to soak up with a lot of exposure over time than if it is “presented” late.  As soon as comprehensible input starts coming in, the brain starts “figuring out” grammar…so it is best to introduce it ASAP to maximise processing opportunities.

As ought to be clear by now, thematic texts are introducing too much similar vocab at a time, much of which is not worth learning right away.

Legacy methods use themes to tie language together; the right way to do it is to use stories (or something else that is inherently interesting) which uses all necessary grammar.   Here’s a broader=picture view of this question:

Suggestions for avoiding the topic trap:

use a mix of everything all the time (vocab, grammar, etc)

do not stick to only one verb tense, or grammar point, or whatever, in a story. With true beginners, you may have to do a few present-tense-only (or whatever) stories at the start to get them feeling comfy in the target language. After that, however, do not restrict yourself (Papa Blaine sure doesn’t).

— if you must have a “theme” or “topic” for a story– e.g. you want to teach vocab for ordering in a restaurant, and food items– restrict the amount of new vocab and make the story wacky and fun.

Here’s an example for a food story:

  • ordered
  • returned
  • brought
  • was very _____
  • adjectives,
  • a couple of food items.


What would you like?
— I would like…

Would you like to return it/send it back?
— Yes, I’d like to send it back, because it is too _____.

(Mary) was hungry and went to ___.  The waiter was ___.  Mary was happy because the waiter was very [handsome etc].  She ordered _____. The waiter brought her ____. But the food was very [bad].  So Mary returned it. (dialogue)

Mary went to _____. The waiter was ___.  Mary was happy because the waiter was very [handsome etc].  She ordered _____. The waiter brought her ____. But the food was very [bad].  So Mary returned it. (dialogue)

Finally, Mary went to McDonalds.  She ordered ____.  The guy behind counter was _____.  The food was delicious!  But oh no, the waiter was so (negative quality)/Mary had explosive diarrhea, Mary (lost her appetite/threw up/ etc).

Note:  while the food items are, well, food items, everything else is totally transferable.  E.g. you can order something online, return an ugly sweater, and one will always need to use “I would like.”

pay attention to the frequency lists. Some low-frequency items will be necessary for a good story, but go easy on these. If you must bring in low-frequency items, use cognates.  The Blaine Ray books are great for this.

recycling is your friend. If you’re worried that, oh my God, my kids didn’t master the blablabla vocab in unit one, just throw that stuff into subsequent stories. E.g. you do a restaurant story where you target a few food items and orders. If the kids don’t acquire orders in that story, have characters in subsequent stories stop in at restaurants or a taco stand and order something.

— don’t do entire units on  boring stuff like numbers, weather, etc.  Here’s how to make boring stuff slightly less boring.



    1. The standard advice is this:

      A) if you’re doing a chapter from a text and there’s a ton of vocab in it, pick the essentials

      B) do a story using only the essentials. My basic script is in the entry.

      C) if you have spanish check bryan kandel’s site

  1. I enjoyed reading this. Of course, I agree that teaching tons of vocab topically is a dead end for kids.

    In your post you say, “he’ll just pick one, make it comprehensible, and throw it into the story.” This is a pretty important statement to me. I think the idea of using complex language (subordinate clauses, subjunctive, mixed tenses, etc.) with lower level students causes one of two reactions in legacy-methods teachers:

    Reaction #1: “I already do that.” Unfortunately, that usually means the teacher speaks in a complex manner, but only the very top students comprehend. The teacher provides “authentic” texts and “suitable-level” tasks for those readings. Reading is not used as an acquisition tool but as a skill to be acquired–a la first language–to engage “authentically” with text (big difference in how we/they see this subject). These authentic readings tend to be pretty incomprehensible to most students below a high-intermediate or advanced level.

    Reaction #2: “How are kids going to be able to do that if we haven’t taught them the the other tenses first? They don’t know enough language to be able to handle those “advanced” tenses and constructions. The idea is ridiculous!”

    How do we respond to those teachers? I have a request: Could you write a post about HOW a teacher makes complex language comprehensible (orally) so that its complexity and quantity doesn’t overwhelm the student ? Could you include information on how a teacher will KNOW that this kind of instruction is actually working with her/his students? What if your students are just not getting it? Is it them/Is it me? What do you do?

    Thanks, Chris. Your posts bring up very important topics. I hope my request is clear.

    Jody in México

  2. Thanks for clarifying topics vs. themes. I find that Blaine Ray’s series in general is great at having a general theme around the mini-stories/main stories without hammering things, like the textbooks do. I do feel more organized as a teacher when I teach a series of stories revolving around a theme, such as travel or dating, and I find it also helps me remember to recycle old vocabulary/structures. It’s reassuring to know that threading stories together like that is light-years away from a textbook-style unit. I might share some of the sequences I use on my blog. (I’ll definitely have time to write with classes winding down for finals!)

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