CI for Thematic Units

The subject of this reflection is going to be CI for Thematic Units.

It’s an essential conversation to have because I think the vast majority of world language teachers are asked to teach a curriculum based on thematic units. Teaching with CI has been a non-starter for some teachers because the CI community for so long was primarily based on teaching through stories (TPRS, targeted stories, story-asking, storytelling, CI novels, etc). Teaching through stories is amazing, but it’s hard to use stories to cover thematic units like 95% of world language teachers have in their curricula. Stories dip into a whole host of themes. For example, my best co-created 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 don’t easily focus on just one thematic vocab lexicon because plot creation depends on many lexicons.

However, awesome teachers around the world have invented and/or shared non-story based conversation formats and techniques for making input comprehensible that can easily be applied to thematic units.  So, teachers no longer have to be wary of whether teaching with CI will allow them to still cover their department’s themes and cover the content on the common assessments.

The key is to practice some foundational CI techniques and conversation formats.

First, the Techniques:

  • Having the question words posted in the front of the classroom in the TL. The question words are what drive the class conversations forward. And having them posted means they are tangible. You can literally go over to them when needed and touch them. It slows you down giving your students time to process the TL and clarifies the input.Here’s an example video from my YouTube Channel. Skip ahead to about the 2 minute mark. Notice I walk over to my question words and gesture to them, signaling to the class that they should drive conversation forward by asking interesting questions about the cake.
  • Personalizing the conversation to the students’ interests. To get students to pay attention to 90% of class in the TL from Day 1 in level 1, you have to make class about them. If you’re working with the “getting to know you” unit at the beginning of the year, find out who plays which sports in class, who plays what video games, who is the oldest, who is the youngest, tallest, shortest, when the next birthday is, who has the biggest family……literally whatever content you need to get done. Just do it by talking about the kids in the room!
  • Using non-textual support like body gestures, acting, pointing, drawing. In level 1 in particular, but really whenever saying any new vocabulary in any level, you need to make the new content obvious using something beyond the text itself. When I talk about height, I get two students to stand up back-to-back and then use my hands to point to the taller one and gesture really tall as I’m describing her. When we’re talking about dogs, and we find out that little Johnny has 5 dogs, I walk over to the board, write “Johnny,” speed-sketch 5 little stick-figure dogs and write the word “perro.”In this example video, if you skip ahead to about the 4 min. mark, you can see me drawing and taking notes on the board to help clarify the TL. It’s also really important to have those visual cues on the board for when co-creating the daily textual summary. Skip ahead to about the 23 minute mark, I transition into the co-creation of the textual summary (the Write and Discuss) which draws heavily on the visual scaffolding on the board.
  • Grounding conversation in the highest frequency verbsThe Super 7: is (2 verbs in Spanish), has, there is, wants, likes, goes

    The Sweet 16:
    those above plus…. can, does, says, thinks, needs, knows, prefers, sees, should (These are mine. Other CI folks have some differences in their lists)
    Frequency studies have demonstrated that the vast majority of everyday communication is comprised of a shockingly small range of vocabulary words. Bryce Hedstrom has some really valuable blog posts on his blog about this topic, and HERE is one particularly good explanation of high frequency verbs.

    Mike Peto also has a nice article HERE and HERE about how he grounds his classes (all levels) in circumlocuting with the highest of high frequency words to such a point that his curriculum is basically his Sweet 16.

    The point is, you can communicate a lot with a little. Many folks in the CI community (including myself) believe it is much more valuable for students to know the Sweet 16 in all forms and tenses with as much instinct/control as possible, rather than long lists of lower frequency verbs. This grounding in high frequency verbs gives your students more repetition on the most important parts of the language, thus increasing their communicative power more quickly.

  • Gesturing those high-frequency verbs. Take a look at one of my videos. You can see me gesturing a lot of verbs. I reach out and grab at the air for “wants.” I walk my fingers down my forearm to signal “goes.” I tap my heart to signal “likes.” Et. I have a gesture for every single one of the Sweet 16 verbs that helps reinforce its meaning. I don’t do gestures for all new vocabulary like TPR teachers do, just the Sweet 16 verbs, because they’re that important. I also point my thumb over my shoulder for the past tense in combination with a verb, and combine the signal for “goes” with another verb to signal the near future (is going to say…). The signals don’t matter much. I got most of them from Grant Boulanger’s language lab at the iFLT conference, but some I modified and created.The point is two-fold: First, the visual gesture helps scaffold learning.Just as importantly, I’ve found that having a gesture also aids in encouraging student output/speaking. Students constantly start sentences that they don’t know how to complete. When they get stuck, I frequently can predict what word they need and can gesture it. Then, voilá, they say it! It’s guided output! And it’s MAGNIFICENT!!! Check out my guided output of “nosotros……necesitamos” at 21:45. I do this constantly! And it’s also the reason I teach the gestures to upper level classes too. They don’t need the reminder of what “quiere” means, but often they still need guided output when they get stuck mid-sentence.
  • Doing a daily Write and Discuss (the co-construction of the textual review of the daily conversation) so that we solidify the spoken conversation in text and read that text on a regular basis. You can watch an example here. The oral conversation goes from about minute 3-21:30. At about 22:00 I start the write and discuss. I have written extensively about the importance of the Write and Discuss. Just click that category on the right side of this blog.



Conversation Formats

In addition to techniques, you have to have conversation formats to teach thematic units with CI. There are many, but I rely most on TWO high-powered activities to talk about the vocab themes:

  • Question/Topic of the Day-I used this activity a ton. Here’s an example video about John Cena, the wrestler. It popped up in my 1st block one day because they were weirdly into him. So, we talked about it a few class periods later.  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…


  • Student Interviews (aka Persona Especial/special person)-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:


There are a few other really popular CI conversation format that you could use to cover your themes:

  • PictureTalk-just project a picture or group of pictures to drive conversation forward. I kind of do this every day as a compliment to the other conversation formats. I just google whatever we’re talking about and add it as visual scaffolding to the conversation.
  • MovieTalk-like PictureTalk, but with a short movie clip. My most successful one was a highlight clip of a soccer game. Some kid loved Liverpool in my 1st block level 1 class last year. He came in talking about how his favorite player scored 4 goals and had an assist. So, I projected the video and paused it every few seconds to describe what happened in the TL.


Using 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).

Some things I hope to build into my practice in the future to cover themes even more successfully:

  • 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.



  1. Thank you for this post! I think this is exactly the compromise I need to get my non-CI students on board with CI – to have units that are “about” something, rather than seemingly random stories. And I see how it would appeal to non-CI colleagues too. Brilliant! Have you blogged in any more detail about the clothing unit that you co-created with colleagues? I searched, but came up empty-handed. I would love to hear more!


    • Hi Lea. Thanks for the feedback! I don’t actually remember talking about making a unit, and that’s because the units in my use of the word depend a lot on the class in question, not premaking a bunch of resources. My type of clothing unit would implement a daily conversation format. One day I’d do a student interview about a student who likes to talk about style. Another day I would do a question of the day about the students’ favorite places to shop locally and what they buy there. I’d probably do another question of the day specifically about shoes since kids love talking about shoes. I’d probably mix in impromptu picture talks using google images to support our conversations each day. I would do a lot of guess who since it’s really fun and it’s all ci. And at the end I would probably do some cultural picture talks about traditional or festive clothing around the Hispanic world. Maybe I could find an interesting MovieTalk. Along the way I would collect a few quick quizzes and/or translations as formative grades as well as the interpersonal communication rubric, and I would finish up my unit with a freewrite or in my case my counry’s IPA.

      You can apply this unit building approach to any vocabulary, the only difference would be that after level 3 or so I would start to provide increasing amounts of easy authentic reading cause they can start to handle it. But for level 1-3 and 4 to a certain extent I would rely almost exclusively on class content that we talk about together and then write and discuss together. That with daily independent reading.

      So for the lower levels, my idea of unit planning doesn’t really rely on extensive teacher prep: just a few pictures, perhaps 1 short video clip. It’s more about developing ci skills to make yourself comprehensible and gaining experience in the different conversation formats like student interviews, picture talk, question of the day, etc.

      I hope that helps!


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