Theme-based Teaching and Learning for Young Learners

1. Introduction
Theme based units are a vehicle for teaching a range of skills and content by integrating curriculum areas around a topic. This method of teaching links curriculum strands and capitalizes on children’s interests, creating a sense of purpose and community in the classroom. By building on their interests and life experiences, young people’s attitudes, skills and knowledge are developed in meaningful ways. Inquiry and communication are activated by a desire to know more, resulting in enthusiastic participation in the learning process (Diana Mumford, 2000).
Although students may be given a greater voice in the topics they study and the strategies they use, the teacher’s role is not diminished, but changed. Young people still need teachers to help them reflect on their learning and lead them to make connections between prior and new knowledge. The acquisition of skills needs to be planned and the possibilities for application of these skills in other situations needs to be illustrated. The role of the teacher becomes one of coordinator or facilitator, who maintains a sense of the whole picture and a vision of the skills the students need to acquire through classroom activities.

An excellent strategy for teachers wishing to make the transition from teacher directed to more student directed learning, is to begin planning thematic units with another teacher. Working in cooperation with a colleague— sharing ideas, reflecting on activities attempted, developing resources, planning activities—affirms the skills of both teachers and provides an opportunity to build on each other’s expertise to create something that neither would have accomplished alone.
School-wide theme studies are usually planned for multi-aged groups created by combining the student population in different ways than the usual grade level groups. The structure and duration of the theme study vary according to the resources available and the objectives of the unit. Often this type of activity is limited to a single day or several half days because of the complexity of organization required.

2. Issues around theme-based teaching
School-wide theme studies are usually planned for multi-aged groups created by combining the student population in different ways than the usual grade level groups. The structure and duration of the theme study vary according to the resources available and the objectives of the unit. Often this type of activity is limited to a single day or several half days because of the complexity of organization required.
One advantage of school-wide theme studies is that teachers benefit from the interchange of ideas when they come together to work collaboratively. Also, the sense of the school as a community is enhanced when teachers and students from different classes become acquainted and when students work with others of different ages.
Community members can be invited to bring their skills and perspectives into the school, and parents recruited for assistance. This type of activity can be planned y the staff, or a joint committee of staff and students. Plan your student groupings according to your goals for the theme study and the types of activities you wish to use. If you want senior students to work with younger children, pair
Grade 7 with Grade 3,
Grade 6 with Grade 2,
Grade 5 with Grade 1, and
Grade 4 with Kindergarten students
so that there is the maximum age range between paired students. This would work well if you wanted senior students to read to younger children or to help with art projects.
Sometimes it may be more appropriate to group primary and termediate students separately, e.g. different primary and intermediate activities might be planned for a fitness day that encourages students to strive for personal achievement.
School-wide theme days can be wonderful spirit builders and an excellent way to celebrate special days (e.g. World Food Day) and holidays
The essential notion of theme-based teaching is that many different activities are linked together by their content; the theme or topic runs through everything that happens in the classroom and acts as a connecting thread for pupils and teachers. Good theme-based teaching has produced some of the most inspiring teaching that I have ever seen; done less well, it leads quickly to chaotic and ineffective classrooms. Because it can lead to such extremes of learning experiences for children, it is worth taking a long, hard look at what makes for good theme-based teaching.
Effective theme-based teaching is extremely demanding on teachers in both planning and in implementation; knowledge of a wide repertoire of activity types and resources is needed to plan for children of all abilities to be stretched and learning all the time, and to avoid children spending too long on cognitively less demanding activities, such as drawing pictures. Skilled management of class, group and pair work is needed to keep all children actively learning, even when good activities have been planned. An equally issue also can arise if teachers choose themes that they hope will keep the interests of quieter pupils. Knowledge of patterns of cognitive, language and motor skills development is needed to plan, ensure and evaluate progression in all areas of the curriculum through theme-based teaching over the school year. Organizational and technical skills are needed to find or create a wide range of resources. To the knowledge and skills required for good theme-based teaching, we must than add the language-using demands that will be made on the foreign language teacher to carry out theme-based work in the foreign language.

3. Theme-based teaching of a foreign language
1. Origins and transfer to foreign language classroom
Theme-based, or topic-based, teaching has been practiced since the 1960s in UK Primary classrooms, where children typically spend all day with the same teacher. In this setting, different areas of the curriculum can be taught in an integrated way, without being separated into subject areas that have to be taught at specific times by separate teachers. Teaching that is integrated around a theme is claimed to better suit the way that young children naturally learn. In its original (first language) uses, theme-based teaching required teachers to choose a theme or topic, such as ‘People who help us’, and then to plan a range of teaching and learning activities related to the theme, that incorporated aspects of mathematics, science, art, language, history, geography, music and so on. For example, children of five or six years might work with the teacher to make a list of people who help them on the way to school: parents who make the breakfast, a friend who walks with them to school, the lollipop man who helps them cross the road, the play ground helper who looks after them before school begins.
Many teachers plan their classroom programs around themes, integrating curriculum areas into a single unit of study. These units vary in length depending on the resources available and whether or not the study is extended by the students’ enthusiasm and interest.
The theme may be chosen by the teacher or in collaboration with the students, or may develop from the interests of one or two students whose enthusiasm spreads to all their classmates. The teacher remains responsible for ensuring that skills are practised, but the subject matter and activities may be directed by the students.
Although many teachers plan their theme based units themselves or with other teachers, there are advantages when theme studies are developed by teachers and students together. The students bring innovative ideas, resources and strategies and become committed to the learning process that is driven by their own interests. Learning becomes more meaningful when learners choose their methods and topics of study; the model of lifelong learning is brought into the school setting. Interpersonal relationships between teachers and students are improved when authority is put aside, and teachers become collaborators rather than lecturers.

2. Variations on theme
In the simplest version of theme-based foreign language teaching, a topics provides content for a range of language learning activities. Halliwell (1992) goes beyond this and suggests that the links between the foreign language classroom and other lessons at primary level can work in several directions:
– other subject areas, such as math or art, can offer teaching techniques and activities, as well as content, that can be used in the foreign language classroom;
– foreign language lessons can provide content for other subjects areas;
– whole subject lessons can be taught in the foreign language.

This last variation edges foreign language teaching towards a partial version of immersion education, found increasingly in European schools, sometimes under the banner of ‘plurilingual’ education; for example, German pupils learning geography in English (Wode 1999) or Scotish pupils learning Maths in French (Hurrel 1999).

3. Choosing theme-based teaching for the foreign language classroom
Theme-based teaching can be used in large or small amounts, and in varying concentrations. In concentrated form, and in skilled hands, it could replace course book and syllabus together. More realistically, it can be adopted for one or two lessons in a week, or for several weeks in a term, to supplement other work, and to help teachers build up the skills and knowledge that are demanded. Even when the course book is used fairly closely, theme-based ideas can provide extra activities. Many course books use topics or themes to structure their units, although this is often a superficial covering for a grammatical or functional sequencing.

4. Planning theme-based teaching
1. Advance versus ‘on-line’ planning
Theme-based teaching can be planned in advance, or it can be allowed to evolve ‘on line’ through dynamic teaching and learning, that changes direction in the light of task outcomes, developing and evolving with the emerging interests of children and teacher. The expert teacher will usually need to carry out careful planning of theme in advance, to prepare sub-themes, tasks and materials, and to identify the language learning goals of each activity.
The dynamic nature of theme-based teaching can be enhanced by building in ‘choice points’, where pupils and teachers have choice over direction, activity or timing. As a theme proceeds, there may be points at which the class can decide which of two or more possible directions the theme-based work will take. In a theme-based lesson, children can be allowed to choose a fixed number of activities from a small set of activities.
2. Finding a theme
A theme can come from the children’s current interests, from topics being studied in other classes, from a story, or from a local or international festival or event. A list from Vale and Feunteun (1995) of possible themes shows something of the range of sources:
– Spiders and mini-creatures
– Circus
– Potatoes/vegetables
– Islands
– Jack and the beanstalk
– Halloween/festival
– The house that Jack built
Children can be given a stake in the process from the start by asking them to suggest themes, or to select a theme from the list.

3. Planning content
Two basic planning tools for theme-based teaching are brainstorming and webs. Both techniques allow the connection of ideas in non-linear ways, reflecting the learning process that we are aiming to produce. Brainstorming is a mental process that starts with one idea and then sparks off others through random and spontaneous links. A ‘web’ is a way of writing down ideas and connections without forcing them into linear form as in a list or in text. The main idea or topic is put in the centre of the paper or board, and connecting ideas written around it, with lines showing connecting. A theme can be considered as including:
People + objects + actions + process + typical events + places
This notion help start the brainstorming process.

4. Planning language learning tasks
Having identified sub-themes and guiding questions by taking a ‘content perspective’ on the theme, planning now has to bring a ‘language-learning perspective’ to it, so that planning moves from content to FL classroom activities, with discourse types and aspects of language use guiding the construction of language learning tasks with clear goals and stages.

5. Learning language through theme-based teaching
1. The language learning potential of theme-based teaching
2. Learning vocabulary
3. Language learning through ‘communicative stretching’
4. Learning discourse skills
5. Motivation to precision in language use
6. Outcomes and products from theme-based learning

6. Increasing target language use in theme-based teaching
Inserting choices or decision-making
Giving feedback to each other
Encouraging private speech in the foreign language
Background language exposure

7. Conclusion
Theme-based teaching is considered as a good approach in teaching language for young learners because it offers exciting possibilities to the pupils and the teachers.
There is a real potential for effective language learning take place, because the pupils and teachers open up the language classroom by bringing in the world outside and linking into children’s real interests and enthusiasms.


Cameron, L. (2001) Teaching Languages to Young Learners, Cambridge: Cambridge Universities Press.
Linse, C.T. (2005) Practical English Language Teaching: Young Learners, New York: Mc Graw-Hill.
Brewster, J. and Ellis, G. (2003) The Primary English Teacher’s Guide, England: Penguin English.
Nunan, D. 1988. The Learner-Centered Curriculum; A study in second language teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Richard, J.C. 2001. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ellis, R. 1997. Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About tarira

English Teacher of High School in Batam(SMAN 1 Batam) Mobile Phone:082127585643
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5 Responses to Theme-based Teaching and Learning for Young Learners

  1. indri says:

    im very intrested in this post, meanwhile, im in processing writing my thesis and that’s about theme based teaching in elementary school. would you mind posting another information about TBT…thanks before.

  2. Agunbiade Tolani says:

    This is a very good post and quite timely as my school is delving into TBT. Hope to read more post from the author.

  3. Olena says:

    Thanks a lot. It’s a very useful article

  4. Indira Satnoor says:

    It is very useful page on Theme based teaching and learning and also systematic approach to implement. Thank you…

  5. florence says:

    i want theme based lesson plan for age 6 to 8 young learner. can u please help for my assignment.

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