The why and how of thematic units in the world language classroom

The December 2015 article on the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do statements guided world language educators on using the resource for identifying learning targets relative to proficiency level. This article builds off of that idea, and it looks closer at thematic units in order to understand why and how they best empower educators to teach to language proficiency.

Effective thematic units strengthen teaching and learning experiences. Teachers can use thematic units to:

  • Create meaningful, real-world contexts for standards-based teaching and learning.
  • Develop a meaningful center around which activities, tasks, and assessments are focused.
  • Allow students to engage in complex thinking, even if they are novice-level language learners.

A thematic unit is just as it sounds: it is a coherent unit of instruction organized around an essential question or theme. An effective essential question is one that can be answered by any language learner at any age, relative to his/her level of proficiency. For example, “What is healthy living and why is it important?” is an effective essential question that could organize a thematic unit. Pre-kindergartners learning languages and high school seniors alike could answer this question, although the depth, scope, and level of detail of their answers would vary. An essential question guides the deeper learning and enduring understandings of the unit, as well as the vocabulary and language functions that are involved. By the end of the unit, language learners will have developed a comprehensive answer to the essential question guided by the content, vocabulary, and language functions learned throughout the unit’s teaching and can demonstrate this learning through an Integrated Performance Assessment (IPA) assessing the three modes, or purposes, of communication (interpersonal, interpretive, presentational). Enduring understanding from this thematic unit would also typically touch upon the cultures standard area. Students would learn that cultures differ in their understanding of what are considered to be healthy practices and wellness. In addition, students would learn how diet, sleep, and physical activity can positively or negatively impact health.

The first step in developing a thematic unit using an essential question is for an educator to craft an interesting essential question that cannot be answered with yes or no. Next, the teacher can use backward design to identify the learning targets for the unit and the language functions that are needed to support them. In the example above, the enduring understanding takeaways center around the cultures standard area as students learn that what are considered to be healthy practices vary from culture to culture, as do definitions of wellness. In addition, students learn how diet, sleep, and physical activity positively or negatively impact health. The language functions and vocabulary that support these targets might include expressions and statements of daily routine, expressing preferences about physical and recreational activities/lifestyle, and expressions and vocabulary around food, meals, sleep, and wellness.

Wish to go further to learn more about and begin to implement thematic units? The Keys to Planning for Learning: Effective Curriculum, Unit, and Lesson Design by Donna Clementi and Laura Terrill (2014) is an excellent resource for language teachers of all levels and grade spans that provides detailed research and instruction on how to begin to develop and implement thematic units for those wishing to start, as well as providing teachers experienced with thematic units deeper knowledge for continuing to improve and grow.

For more information about thematic units or other world language topics, contact Maine DOE World Languages Specialist Jay Ketner at