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Jo a n K a n g S h i n

Developing Dynamic Units

for EFL

n foreign language situations, it rich input for lessons that are either
can be challenging to find real- language-based (i.e., with a focus
life communicative contexts in on vocabulary, pronunciation, and
which to use the target language. grammar) or skills-based (i.e., with
When teaching English as a Foreign a focus on listening, speaking, writ-
Language (EFL) at any level, the class- ing or reading). In this environment,
room has to be a place in which lan- students can successfully acquire lan-
guage is not only taught but also used guage.” For EFL teachers, developing
meaningfully. If language is being thematic units around their required
used “meaningfully” in the classroom, curriculum can be a way to build a
it is not taught only in isolated chunks larger context in which to teach lan-
or by breaking the language into its guage that spans a group of lessons
grammatical or semantic components. and can provide more opportunities
Instead, language is being used within for communicating in English.
a context that either mirrors real world A unit of instruction, as referred
discourse or possibly uses subject mat- to in this article, consists of a series
ter content, such as science, math, of lessons that are connected to each
business, law, etc., depending on age other, possibly by a theme, gram-
of the learners and their purpose for matical point, or language function.
studying English. A lesson, as defined by Brown (2001,
Using theme-based language 149), “is popularly considered to be
instruction, which is one type of con- a unified set of activities that cover
tent-based instruction, can be helpful a period of classroom time, usually
for various age groups and proficiency ranging from forty to ninety min-
levels. Brinton (2003) supports the use utes.” Therefore, a thematic unit is
of this approach when the purpose for a series of lessons, possibly for four
EFL students is language acquisition. to five classroom periods, that are
According to Brinton (2003, 203): connected by a topic or theme that
“The thematic content stretches over connects students with language in a
several weeks of instruction, providing communicative manner.

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Support for Use of Thematic Units matic units can be a dynamic way to integrate
There is much support for using this kind all four language skills communicatively and
of foreign language instruction. Haas (2000) promote learner autonomy through project-
states: “Planning thematic units allows the based instruction and experiential learning.
teacher to incorporate a variety of language Since experiential learning, which can be
concepts into a topic area that is interesting found in the form of project work, “provides
and worthy of study and that gives students opportunities for the negotiation of mean-
a reason to use the language.” In addition, ing between learners in pair work and group
Brinton (2003) points out that using this type work activities,” it can help build the kind
of instruction provides optimal conditions for of acquisition environment that is needed in
language acquisition because “(1) language foreign language contexts (Eyring 2001, 335).
is being continually recycled throughout It is through this notion of learning by doing,
the unit and (2) students are given multiple which is at the heart of experiential learning,
opportunities to use the new language they that the classroom can become more than just
acquire as they read, discuss, and write about a place to learn a foreign language; it becomes
the topics” (201). Curtain and Dahlberg a place of meaningful communication using
(2004) also support the use of thematic unit English and an independent process in which
planning for grades K–8 because they contend learners can think critically and make choices
that thematic units provide a meaningful con- in realistic situations.
text in which to teaching language, thereby
Characteristics of Dynamic Units
making the input more comprehensible as
well as engaging the learner in more com- This article will suggest some ways to
plex communicative situations that emulate make your EFL units more dynamic. These
real-life situations. Brown (2001) also points techniques can be applied to all grade levels as
out that the use of theme-based instruction well as proficiency levels and can be applied
can be effective for EFL because it promotes to classrooms that are required to follow a
automaticity, meaningful learning, intrinsic set curriculum as well as classrooms that have
motivation, and communicative competence, more creative freedom. As we will see in the
which, he says, “put principles of effective examples provided in this article, dynamic
learning into action” (236). Furthermore, use units for EFL instruction have five character-
of thematic units integrates all four language istics; they:
skills communicatively, and as Oxford (2001) 1. incorporate real life situations in
explains, it is this type of skills integration instruction.
that “exposes English language learners to 2. integrate all four language skills com-
authentic language and challenges them to municatively.
interact naturally in the language” (2). All 3. encourage learner autonomy or learner
this support for the use of thematic units is choice.
based in Krashen’s (1985) notion that second 4. use experiential learning.
language acquisition mirrors first language 5. apply project-based learning.
acquisition, which entails providing students These characteristics are not completely
with comprehensible and meaningful input separate from each other since incorporat-
in second language instruction. Certainly ing real life situations that are genuinely
EFL teachers can apply this mode of instruc- communicative tend to integrate the four
tion to foster acquisition in foreign language language skills naturally. In addition, the use
contexts. of experiential and project-based learning
If thematic units can be connected to both encourage learner choice and autonomy,
familiar, interesting, and relevant topics for and using project work can be considered one
students, including grade level content for kind of experiential learning. Therefore, the
school age students, such units can provide list is not mutually exclusive. However, the
opportunities to engage in real communica- five characteristics are all, in their separate
tion that can move beyond teaching language ways, important for an EFL teacher to consid-
merely in its grammatical and semantic parts. er when developing units of instruction based
In addition, as we will see in this article, the- on a particular theme in order to spark learner

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interest and provide real opportunities in the Step 2: Choose a theme that is meaningful and
classroom for communication in English. relevant to students.

Five Steps for Planning a Thematic Unit

There are several considerations when
selecting an appropriate theme (Curtain and
Now we will look at five steps toward Dahlberg 2004; Crandall 1998). The theme
building more dynamic units. Within each should:
step are suggestions for application, which u be motivating, interesting, and rel-
revolve around a specific example of a unit evant to the learners (and teacher).
that can be applied in many different con- u connect to real-life situations, includ-
texts––Eating Out With Friends.
ing content from across the curricu-
Step 1: Examine curriculum standards and lum for school age children.
required units for the class. u appeal to and/or develop various
First, consider what your students are learning styles and intelligences.
required to learn, based on the curriculum u provide a context for meaningful,
standards set by your Ministry of Education authentic discourse and interaction.
and/or your school; then develop a theme u facilitate the development of appro-
that can support the current educational goals priate, useful and real-world lan-
of your particular program or class. From guage functions and communication
there the challenge will be to build a the- modes.
matic unit that can provide the learner with u connect to the target culture(s),
a larger context within which students can wherever possible.
make meaningful connections while learning The most important aspects of choosing
a foreign language. For school age students, it an appropriate theme are that it be interesting
is highly recommended to make the learning and meaningful to students and that it have
process more holistic by connecting between potential for real-life application. Realistically,
the foreign language class and students’ other it is necessary to acknowledge that the choice
classes since the most relevant topics for of theme may be determined by the required
young learners revolve around their subject texts or curriculum of the school or school
matter content (Curtain and Dahlberg 2004). system, but the choice of materials and activi-
Therefore, a study of the grade level cur- ties in the next steps can make any theme
riculum for students in their required subjects more motivating, interesting, and relevant to
might also be useful. However, regardless of students.
age level or relevant subject matter content, Application: Eating Out With Friends Unit
the starting point for the thematic units
should come from your EFL program’s cur- In order to choose a theme that incorpo-
ricular goals; once you meet those goals, you rates the commonly found topic in various
can move toward what interests and motivates textbooks mentioned in Step 1––ordering at
learners the most. a restaurant––we need to consider the audi-
ence and real life communicative situation.
Application: Eating Out With Friends Unit Even though we could use variations of this
Many EFL textbooks have a chapter or content for learners at all levels, let’s consider
section on food and drink or ordering food creating a lesson for secondary students at
in a restaurant. It is a common topic for the high school level. A common context in
language instruction that has real-life applica- which young adults would use language for
tion particularly because international travel ordering at a restaurant would be for “Eat-
is a main purpose for learning English. The ing Out With Friends.” As we will see in the
language functions for ordering food at a next few sections, this theme and its real-life
restaurant and asking for the check or bill are application will be the defining organizational
easily found in most textbooks for English at force in the planning process. Note that the
the adult, secondary, and even primary lev- theme is much broader than ordering food at
els. Therefore, the example for developing a a restaurant and has been created to incorpo-
thematic unit in this article will focus on this rate this language function into a larger com-
commonly used topic for EFL instruction. municative context.

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Step 3: Brainstorm ideas that can incorporate down every possibility in order to decide
real-life situations and tasks. which ones are going to the best ones to use
Using a web, chart, or list can be helpful based on availability of resources, level of
to brainstorm ideas. The approach to brain- difficulty, and the variety of skills and text
storming can be based on real-life tasks that types.
are necessary for communication or based Step 4: Choose, organize, and order the
on different subject or content areas. The activities.
approach to brainstorming depends on the After brainstorming ideas for a particular
purpose or approach to your particular EFL theme, it is a good idea to put these ideas in a
classroom. For example, if you wanted to chart. (See Figure 2.) Putting the activities in a
develop a unit for young learners (5–12 years chart helps you to see what kinds of activities
old) related to content, then you might con- can be used and what content is covered. In
sider webbing activity ideas based on the vari- addition to creating a meaningful context in
ous subjects the learners study, such as math, which to teach language, it is also important
science, social studies, physical education, to order the activities effectively. When orga-
art, etc. This is a way to infuse the subject nizing and ordering the activities in a unit,
content that students are learning into foreign you will want to think about:
language instruction, since that content is
meaningful to their lives. 1. varying the tasks and language skills.
However, thematic units do not necessar- 2. choosing the activities that are the most
ily have to incorporate content from different useful to your learners.
school subjects. Choice of an appropriate 3. ordering the tasks to mirror the real life
theme should always be based on what is application of the tasks.
most interesting and relevant to your learn- 4. connecting one activity to the next, i.e.
ers and can often be based on purposeful, from receptive to productive skills.
real-life tasks in a particular social situation 5. sequencing the content in order to
or context. recycle language and scaffold students’
Application: Eating Out With Friends Unit
This is an important step in planning
Because this thematic unit is based on an individual lessons within a unit. In order to
authentic social situation that includes spe- make sure that the unit is relevant and moti-
cific communicative tasks, the brainstorming vating for the learners, it might be helpful to
revolved around the different stages of the give the learners some power to choose which
social event. Notice that in Figure 1 there are activities might be most useful and interest-
various ways to invite friends to dinner, to ing for them. Whenever possible, try to give
make a reservation, or to get to the restaurant. the learners some autonomy in the planning
The purpose of the brainstorming is to write stages.

Figure 1: Brainstorming real-life tasks with a web

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Application: Eating Out With Friends Unit Step 5: Incorporate projects that can encourage
Notice in Figure 2 that the activities that learner choice and autonomy
had been brainstormed in the web above have Once you have chosen the activities and
been ordered based on the real-life order of established the order of the activities, you can
the various tasks. In addition, the language develop a project in which the learners can use
skills and content used for each communica- the language communicatively by experienc-
tive function have been listed as well. Obvi- ing the language in a realistic situation. This
ously in most activities the skills are naturally project should connect to all of the lessons and
integrated because the communication is two be an integral part of the unit. Use of project-
way; therefore, reading and writing tend to be based learning or project work offers the
paired as well as listening and speaking. Now following positive points for foreign language
that the activities are ordered, it might be nec- learning: It focuses on real-world subject mat-
essary to eliminate some depending on avail- ter and topics of interest, is student-centered,
ability of resources. For example, if students is cooperative, integrates skills authentically,
cannot get easy access to the Internet, then it has a real purpose, is motivating, and fosters
might be difficult to get directions through learner autonomy (Alan and Stoller 2005;
Google Maps ( However, Stoller 1997). A good project should encour-
you might keep the activities for making age learners to cooperate with each other
Internet reservations and finding information using the target language communicatively,
on restaurants on by printing and it should incorporate all of the language
out samples from your own computer and learned in the whole unit. The project should
handing out hard copies of screen shots for also allow learners to make choices and think
authentic reading practice. As discussed above, critically about the subject matter.
the choice of which way to invite someone or Application: Eating Out With Friends Unit
to make a dinner reservation, orally over the
phone or in writing through email, could be The project for this unit is ongoing, and
decided by the learners themselves. If one way students work together in the same groups
throughout the duration of the unit. In
is more interesting or relevant to them, they
groups of 4 or 5, students create their own
can let you know which one to incorporate in
restaurant, which entails deciding on the type
instruction. In the chart, the tasks chosen for
of cuisine, type of dining (i.e., casual, casual
this unit are shaded. Notice that the tasks cho-
elegant, or fine dining) and the name of the
sen for the unit balance the instruction of all
restaurant and then writing a description of
four skills, recycle the use of language content,
the restaurant, an appropriate food and drink
and can be incorporated well into the project
menu, and a map with directions to the res-
developed in the next step.
taurant. Then the students will prepare their
Based on the tasks chosen, the unit could
restaurant for others to see on Restaurant
then be planned as five consecutive lessons:
Day, which is scheduled at the end of the
Thematic Unit: Eating Out With Friends unit. There are two established goals for this
Lesson 1: Inviting friends to dinner by project:
Goal 1: Each group will prepare a res-
Lesson 2: Using taurant and classmates will be their cus-
(includes finding a restaurant tomers. Preparation of the restaurant will
and making a reservation) begin after students learn about different
Lesson 3: Getting directions to a restau- restaurants when using or
rant reading hard copy samples from that site.
On Restaurant Day, the restaurants will be
Lesson 4: Ordering food at a restaurant set up in different areas of the room, and
(includes reading the menu) students will take turns practicing English
Lesson 5: After eating out with friends while making a reservation for a customer,
(includes thank you email and giving directions to the customer, and then
talking to a friend) hosting a group of friends eating out.

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Figure 2: Organizing tasks with a chart

Real-life Tasks Skills Language Content

Inviting through email and accepting an Reading, Letter form – greeting, body, signature
invitation writing Present Progressive/Future Tense
I am going to…What are you doing on…?
I am having... Will you be free…?
Asking opinion
What kind of cuisine/food/restaurant do you
Vocabulary: cuisines, types of dining, price
range, types of food and drink

Calling friends to go out and eat and Listening, Phone greetings and farewells
accepting phone invitations speaking Present Progressive/Future Tense
I am going to…What are you doing on…?
I am having... Will you be free…?
Asking opinion
What kind of cuisine/food/restaurant do you
Vocabulary: cuisines, types of dining, price
range, types of food and drink

Making a dinner reservation over the Listening, Requesting/making reservation

phone speaking I would like to make a reservation for…on…
Would you like to…?
How many in your party?
Finding a restaurant; reading restaurant Reading, Scanning for information
descriptions and sample menus on writing Vocabulary: cuisines, locations, types of dining, price range, party size, types of food and drink

Making an Internet reservation through Reading, Scanning for information writing Vocabulary: cuisines, locations, types of dining,
price range, party size, types of food and drink

Finding directions to the restaurant Reading, Reading a map and directions

through Google Maps ( writing Go straight… Turn left/right at…
and sending them to friends Writing email to friends with a link to map and
Taking a cab and giving driver directions Listening, Giving directions: Imperative
speaking Go straight… Turn left/right at…

Calling the restaurant for directions and Listening, Giving directions: Imperative
giving directions to your friend speaking Go straight… Turn left/right at…
Discourse markers: First, Next, Then, Now, etc.

Reading a menu Reading, Vocabulary: different food, drinks, cuisines

Ordering food from a waiter and asking Listening, Request
for the check/bill speaking I would like…Could we have…?
Would you like…?

Writing a thank you email to friends and Reading, Thank you letter form – greeting, body, signa-
responding to a thank you email writing ture
Thank you so much for…
I really appreciated…
Past tense

Talking to another friend about the dinner Listening, Past tense

speaking Discourse markers: First, Next, Then, Now, etc.

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Goal 2: Each group will go out with a References
group of friends in twos or threes. Students Alan, B., and F. L. Stoller. 2005. Maximizing the
will first engage in inviting and accepting benefits of project work in foreign language
invitations, making reservations, and finding classrooms. English Teaching Forum 42(4),
directions to the restaurant, which will occur Brinton, D. 2003. Content-based instruction.
during class time in the various lessons in the In Practical English Language Teaching. ed. D.
unit. On Restaurant Day, students will engage Nunan, 199–224. New York: McGraw-Hill.
in a role play in which they eat at one of their Brown, H. D. (2001). Teaching by principles: An
classmates’ restaurants. Finally, students will interactive approach to language pedagogy. White
Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.
send thank you notes to each other and tell Crandall, J. 1998. The expanding role of the
another friend what happened at dinner. elementary ESL teacher: Doing more than
teaching language. ESL Magazine. http://www.
With these goals, students will participate
in a project that will encourage creativity with rticle&sid=15
the language content as well as real communi- Curtain, H., and C.A. Dahlberg. 2004. Languages
and children: Making the match. Boston: Pear-
cation in English. In addition, it will provide
a way for students to experience the language Eyring, J. L. 2001. Experiential and negotiated
for all the different tasks involved with eating language learning. In Teaching English as a
out with friends since foreign language con- second or foreign language. 3rd ed. ed. M. Celce-
texts cannot provide a real world experience Murcia, 333–44. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
Haas, M. 2000. Thematic, communicative lan-
in English.
guage teaching in the K–8 classroom. ERIC
Digest, EDO-FL-00-04.
More detailed lesson plans must be haas.pdf
designed for each day of instruction; how- Krashen, S. D. 1985. The input hypothesis: Issues
and implications. London: Longman. Oxford,
ever, the five steps suggested in this article
R. 2001. Integrated skills in the ESL/EFL class-
with the examples for application have given room. CAL Digest, EDO-FL-01-05. http://
some useful ideas for how to conceptualize
a theme and develop effective units for EFL Stoller, F. L. 1997. Project work: A means to
instruction. The example unit called Eating promote language content. English Teaching
Out With Friends shows how to bring real-life Forum, 35(4): 2–9; 37.
tasks into the classroom, integrate all four
skills communicatively, encourage learner
autonomy, use project work, and employ
JOAN KANG SHIN, a full-time lecturer in the
experiential learning. Units of instruction
Education Department at the University
which have these characteristics will most
of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), is
likely lead learners to improve their ability the Coordinator of Online and Off-campus
to communicate in English and make classes Programs in the ESOL/Bilingual Education
more lively and motivating. Even in countries MA Program. She is a doctoral candidate
where real-life communicative contexts in in the Language, Literacy and Culture PhD
English are hard to find, EFL teachers can still program at UMBC and works as an
plan creatively around their required curricu- English Language Specialist for the U.S.
lum in order to build dynamic thematic units Department of State.
that can bring authentic communication into
the classroom.

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