End of Year Reflection: CI for Thematic Units

Happy 2017-2018 school year everyone!

This was a banger of a year for me! I feel like I’ve learned so much and improved so much. However, every mountain climbed reveals the next looming in the distance. Over the next few days or weeks, I’m going to be thinking deeply about what I learned and how I’ll look to improve next year.

The subject of this reflection is going to be CI for Thematic Units. Before the 2017-18 school year, the only CI I really knew how to do was stories. In the 2016-17 school year, I did targeted stories with two or three target structures in the fall and then Invisibles stories in the Spring.

Teaching through stories is amazing. I think it’s probably the most effective way to learn a language. I love them. My students love them. But they don’t really fit into common curricular units of thematic vocabulary that are mandatory for the vast majority of world language teachers across the country…. Stories dip into a whole host of themes. For example, my best story of all time was a toilet paper roll named Teddy Da TP. It starts out describing where he lives (house/family vocab theme), what he looks like and his personality (descriptions theme), then the family going to a Mexican restaurant for Taco Tuesday (transportation/around town/restaurant/food vocab themes), and so on. You get the point. Stories can’t really be constrained to just one thematic vocab lexicon because plot creation depends on many lexicons.

Now, I’d love to see some county-wide curriculum that does allow for story-based activities, but I’m not exactly sure what that would look like (other than Mike Peto’s Sweet 16 Curriculum here), and I don’t think my local situation is going to abandon thematic units anytime soon. So, in an effort to fit into my county’s and department’s expectations more, it was important to me to be able to cover the thematic units with CI.

The breakthrough really came by watching Tina teach French at the Express Fluency Conference in August of 2017 in Vermont. The key was going non-targeted. Non-targeted is more flexible. You can literally deliver comprehensible, compelling input about anything by using some foundational non-targeted techniques:

  • having the question words posted
  • personalizing the conversation to the students’ interests
  • using non-textual support like body gestures, acting, pointing, drawing
  • grounding conversation in the sweet 16 verbs
  • gesturing those high-frequency verbs
  • Note-taking on the board to provide visual scaffolding
  • Doing a daily Write and Discuss so that we codify the spoken conversation in text and read that text on a regular basis

I also relied on TWO high-powered activities to talk about the vocab themes, student interviews and Questions of the Day:

  • Student Interviews-I called students up front on a regular basis to ground the conversation in their interests. I tried to solicit volunteers based on the vocab at hand. So, when we were talking about sports vocab, we interviewed the athletes who played for the school. When we talked about clothing, we interviewed the student who loves to collect stylish shoes. This is where getting to know your students really pays off. You know who would be interesting to call up for an interview.

    A few logistics for this type of interview:

    –For high school, the interviews went anywhere from 15 minutes to multiple days depending on how interesting the subject was.

    –I found it most effective to let the students in class ask the questions, rather than ask them myself. Of course, I rephrased them in correct, full sentences. But the engagement was better when I let them direct the questions.

    –I called it “Hablando Con Chonko” and set it up like a talk show where I was the host and the class was the audience. It was fun!

    –It was best when I could get the interviewed student to send me actual photos of them doing the activity: the shoe collector surrounded by all his shoes, the horseback rider at a competition, etc…

    Here’s an example from the shoe conversation:


  • Question of the Day-I used this activity a ton. I just asked the class a question and fleshed out how they felt about the topic. It’s just conversation, but I made sure to survey the class, get multiple perspectives, and take note on the board as we went. For example, in the food vocab theme, a sample question of the day might have been: “What is your favorite dessert?” I would have tried to figure out what two or three desserts were the most popular, and who in class liked each of them. Then, I would have tried to get some specifics about flavors or restaurants that feature the desserts, etc. I would have encouraged some healthy rivalry between the different opinions in class. All along, I would have taken notes on the board and probably projected images from google for the different desserts that came up. In the end, I would have written it all up via a Write and Discuss.

    Here’s a sample for the dessert question of the day:


You could go through your entire year’s worth of vocab themes just via questions of the day: who’s your favorite basketball player, what’s your favorite holiday, what is your favorite place to shop online, which smartphone app do you use the most, what’s your favorite social media platform, what’s your favorite class, what’s your favorite pet, etc…



Using non-targeted CI in this manner helped me cover the county’s required thematic units but still deliver 90% of class time in the target language to level 1 and 2 students, even in September!

When I was supposed to teach clothing and colors, I played a bunch of guess who in class and talked to kids about their favorite clothes. Done.

When I was supposed to teach family, we did OWIs and made up bizarre family trees with some of our favorite characters. And I polled kids to see who had interesting or big or fun families in some way, or had pet families, and we did student interviews with those kids.

When I was supposed to teach sports, we interviewed a student who does dance, a horseback rider who won the state championship, all the students who tried out for spring sports, the two towering varsity basketball players. We did questions of the day such as “what’s your favorite basketball team” in which we surveyed the class to make a little chart of popularity, see how many students preferred nba or college bball, to see who the most popular players were, then explored why different students liked each team/player. We talked about the super bowl. We talked about the nba finals. We talked about the world cup in Russia. We even did a movie talk of  a big Liverpool FC victory because I had an Egyptian American in a level 1 class that absolutely adores Mohammed Salah, the amazing Liverpool player.

And the same thing for all the thematic units…

At a certain point, I realized that you could write up guiding questions for all of our county’s thematic unit, and it could be a paradigm shift away from curriculum organized around sequenced grammar and vocab lists. To check out what I mean for my local curriculum, click here.

I think this could be a breakthrough for curriculum change. It could be a common denominator between traditional and CI so that curriculum could be written in such a way that the two could coexist. The traditionalists can still generate vocab lists and grammar sequences that align with the guiding questions if they want to. And the proficiency folks can focus on target language usage, personalizing the class to the students’ interests, generating compelling input, and grammar in context.

CI for thematic units is also a great way for new-to-CI teachers to transition, or to dip their toes in the CI waters. I love story listening. I love the Invisibles. I love storyasking. I love OWIs. I absolutely love how all these creative activities bring the language alive for the learners in a way that talking about shopping or even sports doesn’t. But all that creative story-based stuff is a big jump for new-to-CI folks if they have concerns with fitting in with their departments/curricula. Non-targeted CI for thematic units fits right in, though. It’s just a little pivot in technique. You can even give the same common assessments (as long as they aren’t discrete grammar term assessments and are actual integrated proficiency assessments).

So, what progress will I look to make next year when it comes to CI for Thematic Units?

  • I think it would be a really good idea to make a survey for the students at the beginning of every vocab theme to find out who has interesting contributions to make. Take sports: it would be useful to know what sports everyone plays. I happen to stumble upon that student who is a champion horseback rider because she was absent one Friday for a tournament. How many other interesting contributions did I miss because I never asked!!!
  • I’d also love to collect interesting photographs from my students’ lives in relation to the vocab themes. We’ll stay with sports/extracurriculars. I’d love to have a collection of all the athletes playing their sports to spark conversation. Getting these up front would allow me to prioritize the conversations, or even let the class pick which conversations they wanted to have first (voice and choice–Yay!)
  • I think is room to grow in adding a greater variety of activities for each theme. Even with how great “Student Interviews” and “Questions of the Day” are, they got stale because I overused them. I only did 1 MovieTalk the whole year-a highlight reel of a Liverpool FC soccer game. It was one of the best classes of the year. MovieTalk works, and I’ve underutilized it for sure. Just to add variety, I plan on adding Quizlet back into the mix and creating vocab lists based on the vocabulary that comes up in class. The students absolutely love Quizlet Live, so that’ll be fun. And despite my gut feeling, many teachers have told me that targeted stories and even non-targeted stories can work for thematic units if you tell the kids that the story has to be about the thematic unit. For example, an Invisible story about a basketball that is red instead of orange, so everyone thinks it’s a kickball. So, I might give thematic stories a whirl.
  • I also hope to incorporate more culture each unit next year. For example, a PictureTalk about indigenous clothing in Mexico during the clothing lesson, or a discussion of ceviche during the food unit, etc.

Check back later for more lessons learned from the year! And happy summering!


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