New Twists to Old Themes

This year I have 4 classes of Spanish I, so it has been occupying most of my thoughts.  I’ve been reflecting a lot the last couple of years about my teaching, more deeply about ever before.  I am questioning for the first time things that I just always assumed were the way language teaching is supposed to be, never having experienced anything else as a student and as a teacher.  One of the things currently under my scrutiny is the choice of themes for level 1.  I understand to a certain extent that the themes have to be concrete, about self, consistent with novice levels of proficiency.  Yet at the same time this basic information should be, in Helena Curtain’s words, cognitively engaging to the student.  How do I make basic themes cognitively engaging to high school novice learners?

I attended a session by Donna Clementi at the Central States Conference in which she described a unit about reflexive verbs and daily routine that she turned into a chapter about how people use water around the world.  This got me thinking about ways I could do the same thing with other themes.  I’ve brainstormed a few ideas for giving a little more substance to typical level 1 themes.  Again, this is my brainstorming; a work in progress.

The house: I could make this into a chapter about being environmentally friendly around the home, such as water and electricity use and reycling. Recently I came across a website about water conservation at

Describing people:  I am very interested in creating a unit of study where students learn descriptive adjectives through exploration of lucha libre and the luchadores, particularly the idea of the rudos vs. the técnicos.  I envision this unit to be adaptable for Spanish language learners from elementary to secondary, and also for heritage Spanish speakers.

Free time:  I’d like to expand on an activity of mine that focused on community involvement and talk about not only what they do in their free time, but how they could spend their time helping in their community.  The free time theme could also be used to talk about our use of technology (ipods, cell phones, video games, etc.) and whether it benefits us or harms us.

School:  I really struggled with the school theme this year.  There just wasn’t much to converse about expect naming school supplies, telling at what time they had classes, and what the classes were like.  Pretty boring for students who don’t like school anyway, I’d say.  I am thinking of turning this into a unit about creating the ideal school to compare and  contrast with their actual school.  Also, I think they would be much more interested in discussing school if I could actually connect them with a school in a Spanish-speaking country.  I have had very little success in connecting with schools in other countries;  I would really like to work on this.  I think the students would have more motivation to communicate about school if they had a real-life situation for using their Spanish.

La familia:  This was a difficult chapter to teach this year since I was trying to make contextualized, cognitively engaging activities.  There’s really only so much to say when describing one’s family.  I would like to do more with exploring the concept of family, such families in Hispanic art, such as the works of Pablo Picasso, Fernando Botero, and Carmen Lomas Garza.  I would also like to work with a series of short readings about Hispanic families that I found online at a site called  I saved the readings as pdf files; unfortunately, they are no longer available online.  The textbook has celebrations in the family unit as well, and I would like to develop that further in the form of how families celebrate together.   Lomas Garza has wonderful artwork of family celebrations.

Food/restaurant:  This could focus on the concept of healthy eating.  Laura Terrill and Toni Theissen have an excellent unit in French for novice learners called Food and Hunger that looks at food consumption on a world scale.

Going to the doctor:  One year in level 2 I used a video I found about a curandera to explore the idea of alternative medicine.  Lomas Garza also has paintings about curanderas that I used.  It was a very engaging lesson for me and the students.

I think that concepts that may seem complex can be explored by novice learners with the proper scaffolding, such as simplified texts written by teachers, the use of questions that the students can answer with yes/no or true/false or brief answers, and other scaffolding strategies.  Another idea that Donna Clementi shared is that students could do cultural readings in English or watch a video at home for homework so that they have the needed background information to participate in target language activities during class.

We have the International Baccalaureate program at my school, and I realized recently that very little of the themes and vocabulary that we teach in levels 1 and 2 carry over into levels 3 and 4.  Pretty much only the grammar applies.  Perhaps we could look at the new IB themes for Language B to find ways to incorporate them into the lower levels as well, spiraling them through the curriculum.

If anyone who reads this post has more ideas for re-inventing novice level themes, I invite you to comment.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Another thought to entertain is the idea of not using themes in language teaching.  See my blog post called “Thematic Units: Just Say No.”

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5 Responses to New Twists to Old Themes

  1. elliottc1 says:

    I totally agree with you. I teach Spanish 1 prep Ib. Whenever we do something that relates to them, they are much more engaged. When talking about school this year we looked at websites of schools in Colombia and Spain. Then we watched some videos about schools in South Korea. Finally they compare and contrast rules, classes and activities. It was very nice.

    Regarding chores we talked about what people do for us. Then we watched the commercial for the Olympics about moms. Finally students wrote a letter to their moms or the person do more for them. I got the video in Zachary-jones website.

  2. senorab72 says:

    I love the letter writing idea!

  3. I’m not necessarily a teacher, but I tutor in Spanish. With that said, I was once a teenager in Spanish class. I think the first person to comment hit the nail on the head: relevance. I *hated* Spanish I. After Spanish I, I was dead set on finishing with level II so I would qualify for admission at my university of choice, and be done forever. However, Spanish II changed everything, mainly because I had a different teacher–a teacher who engaged the class and made the material relevant to the students.

    What do you think about how Spanish is taught in Spanish-speaking countries? I live in Argentina, and I don’t know of any Spanish class–even for beginners–where English is spoken. In the classroom, the instructors might speak slowly, but the street is a whole different ball-game. In addition to relevance, another big problem with Spanish language instruction in the United States is that it isn’t realistic or practical. What say you?

  4. Pingback: Backward Design for World Language Teachers - Calico Spanish

  5. Noah Geisel says:

    Resource for community involvement with the environment theme: the Environmental Protection Agency has someone who tweets from @epaespanol and she has interacted with my students a few times. We usually set up a todaysmeet chat room. She’s really great about being comprehensible to students.

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