Memory plays a big part in learning. After all, what’s the point in spending all day studying something just to forget it all the next day? There are many ways to help retention. For example, I used to use a specific incense stick every time I revised for an exam, then in the test I recalled the scent and a lot of what I had studied came back because of it’s association with the smell. In later years I used this technique to court girls with my intimate knowledge of GCSE Maths.

That example isn’t really suitable for the ESL classroom but there are other things that can be done to aid students’ ability to remember stuff. One way is to tie fun and engaging activities to a theme or topic. Teaching with a topic should help in the creation of memorable content as well as giving a context to what is being studied.

Elementary School

Often people view Elementary School English lessons as just a string of games and songs but I think doing that really doesn’t give the students enough credit. A simple topic can help bring the lesson up from play-time to fun-study-time.

An obvious example that springs to mind is Colours. This topic crops up early in the Elementary schedule and can be one of the most engaging and memorable lessons of the year. Colour is all around us, so there are so many things that can be hooked in to a lesson. Get students to identify the colours of their own belongings, or colours of things they like.

Another topic could be International Cuisine. Students can learn about different dishes from around the world. This is a perfect way to bring multi-cultural content into the classroom, something which a foreign language teacher should always try to do. This topic can also be used to highlight similarities and differences between students’ first language and English. Such as showing how the Japanese word カレー (kare) has a different pronunciation to its English origin word, “curry”.

The important thing to remember when teaching with a topic in Elementary is to not choose something beyond the student’s scope. Stick to simple things, and try to connect to their own interests.

Junior High School

Here topics can get more advanced. It’s still important to link up to students’ interests but it’s now also possible to try and push the boundaries of their general knowledge. So, instead of just presenting food from across the world one could talk about restaurant etiquette or cooking methods.

Especially in the third year of Junior High School the students should have a larger vocabulary. This allows for the telling of simple stories and expanding on thoughts and ideas; instead of just stating what one likes or dislikes there’s room to answer the whys and howevers.

High School

As you might expect, High Schoolers are generally in a position to discuss more complex issues. With younger classes I generally avoid any topics that might have darker under-tones but in High School they should already be well acquainted with topics such as war and poverty so I think it’s appropriate to bring these into the English classroom.

I’ve taught topics ranging from the Civil Rights Movement to the UK General Election – there’s very few things that can’t be adapted to a class of high enough level. One of my favourite lessons that I’ve ever taught was to some high level first year classes. The topic being covered in the text-book was on water usage in Japan. This inspired me to use one lesson to show students how the availability of clean water varies from country to country. We started off by running through a couple of activities to help students think about the amount of water they use daily. I gave them figures such as how much water a ten-minute shower uses and how much water a washing machine uses. After about thirty minutes every student had a rough calculation of how many millimetres of water they use in a day. I then wrote a series of country names up on the board. These varied from rich countries such as the US and UK down to poorer countries like Nigeria and Mexico. I started giving them figures of how water much the average person in each country uses in a day. There was laughter and joshing as I gave out the richer countries’ figures. Some murmurs of “yeh, of course” rang out as the more well-known, poorer countries were discussed. But when we reached the bottom of the poverty scale, and I pointed out that the average person in some of these countries only has enough clean water for a one minute shower or a single glass of water, there was silence.

Source of Inspiration

Getting ideas for a topic can be tricky. Often the easiest thing is to use the textbook as a starting point. If it discusses one or two things within one theme, expand it to include other items. There’s a section in one textbook that looks at football uniforms. They cover the Japanese, English, Australian and Argentine uniforms, but in my lessons we looked at uniforms from many other countries.

Another source of inspiration is a chapter’s grammar point. For example, teaching “I will …” was the perfect starting point for a lesson on Elections. In my lesson I introduced the idea of different political parties and different view points then students formed groups and made their own parties, for governing the school. We ended things with a ballot vote and now The Monkey Party rules the first grade …

Whatever the source, teaching with a topic is an effective way of grounding the language in something real. This aids retention and understanding. It’s also waaaay more interesting than endlessly re-writing sentences of reading a block of inconsequential text.

What content have you covered when teaching with a topic?  Where do you get inspiration? Please share with us in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching With A Topic

  1. I like this post a lot, Leigh! I like your creative approach to teaching and helping information stick in their memory.

    I’m moving on to high school in 2 weeks (after teaching elementary for the last year — ahh!!) I have a lot to learn. I ‘ll need to check back here for some tips and ideas 🙂
    Natasha recently posted…1 Year of Blogging: Our First Blogiversary!My Profile

    1. Thanks a lot Natasha! 🙂

      Good luck in High School! It’s quite different from Elementary but I think it’s possible to have just as much fun with the students, just a little more thoughtful fun than energetic fun. I’m sure you’ll do great!

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