“Hello, class! Today we’re going to talk about [fill in the blank].”
If you are an ESL teacher, you have probably started at least one class this way. You might have finished the above phrase with one of these themes: food, pets, sports, or music.
Whether teaching grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, listening, speaking, reading, or writing, teaching language within a theme can be very useful.
However, choosing the right theme can be tricky.
Here are some of my tips for choosing the right theme.
- Know Your Students: One class I taught consisted of students who had to take part in various volunteer programs as part of their semester. They had to volunteer at local food banks, in elderly care homes, and at local cultural events. I used “Volunteering” as a theme in one of their Listening/Speaking classes. They loved it. It elicited a lot of discussion and debate. However, when I tried to use the same theme with another class, they were bored to tears by it! When choosing a theme, make sure you choose one that speaks to your specific group of students.
- Be Unconventional, But Not Too Unconventional: Students can get bored if they constantly encounter themes that are too conventional and unchallenging. For example, some of my advanced students fell asleep once when I used “Morning Routines” as a theme in a Grammar class. However, don’t get so unconventional to the point that the theme you use is confusing or doesn’t match the learning objective. In one class, I tried to use “Dreams” as a theme to teach past continuous. For example, “In my dream, I was flying above the clouds.” It was way too unconventional a theme, and it just confused my students. Be creative, but don’t be overly unconventional. There is a reason why certain conventional themes, such as Food, always seem to work.
- Use Concrete and Abstract Nouns When Picking Themes: One thing I notice about a lot of the themes I use as an ESL teacher is that they are based on concrete nouns–“food, animals, clothing, etc.” There is nothing wrong with themes based on concrete nouns. However, an interesting practice you can do is choose themes based on abstract nouns as well. For example, you can use abstract nouns such as “friendship, kindness, fear, or happiness” as themes. One of my most successful themes was based on two abstract nouns: success vs. failure. This theme elicited a lot of discussion, and worked naturally as a way to teach the grammar point of modal verbs. For example, “To be successful, you must work hard. If you don’t want to fail the project, you should not procrastinate.”
Choosing the right theme for your ESL class can help engage students, make the learning objective understandable, and give meaningful contexts for communicatively using language. Choosing the wrong theme for your class can bore students, make the learning objective more confusing, and give meaningless contexts that don’t match the language needs. Therefore, you must be wise when you choose your themes.
“Hello, class! Today we are going to talk about [fill in the blank].” How will you finish this sentence? Make sure you fill in the blank with the best theme you can.
What are some of your favourite themes to use in your ESL classes? Why?