Against Thematic Units

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28 thoughts on “Against Thematic Units”

    1. Jeffery Brickler


      Maybe you can answer this? We limit vocabulary. I notice that if I limit vocabulary, I can recycle the vocabulary more and I can also use it in more contexts and forms if I don’t introduce more and more vocabulary. However, how much vocabulary can we expect students to reasonably acquire? In years one and two, I suspect that it is less than in years 3 and above. limiting vocabulary can be difficult if you try to use authentic resources. I’m not advocating them, I am simply making the observation. Can students learn 50 verbs in a year. I suspect that they cannot. They definitely can’t learn 50 verbs in all the tenses. It would seem that if we limit, then we can get more reps on the other forms.

      If they learn half that number in one year, then we could recycle them a ton. I was thinking that they could say a ton of things with 50 verbs. Maybe not in the most elegant way every time, but possible. Just thinking here.

      1. Important point to make, Jeffery. It ties into what I gathered from Ben’s War Room experience over the summer: An expert CI teacher can limit vocabulary to a minimum all the while making the CI compelling through l’arte de conversation, enough so that students want to listen. This expert CI teacher can then get the hundreds, if not thousands, of reps needed for that vocab to be acquired within the few hours we see our students over the course of a year.

      2. “how much vocabulary can we expect students to reasonably acquire?”

        Depends. Probably too many factors to ever know, e.g. age, motivation, literacy level, prior L2 experience, method, teacher, etc. And depends on what you mean by “acquired,” e.g. L2-L1 translation, communicative use, receptive, productive, etc.

        Not the answer I want or you want. I doubt there’s ever been a year-long study of a FL classroom, definitely not of TPRS, to test how much vocabulary gets acquired. Don’t studies usually run for a couple of hours, measure the rate of vocabulary acquired and then assume that rate can be maintained? So many variables to control. And then there are issues of how to measure vocabulary knowledge, especially a test sensitive to only small gains.

        Paul Nation once wrote to me he thought 1,000 word families could be acquired in 1 year of FL, but that he’d say 500 to be more conservative. Then again, I don’t know what he means by “acquired” and I don’t know how many hours he assumed in a FL year. And Paul Nation seems to base his figures on 7-12 reps being sufficient to acquire a word.

        We cannot in a 4 year high school program ever hope to get kids to acquire enough word families to manage the outside world (7,000-9,000 for 98% coverage of outside world). Not unless a ton of input happens outside of school hours.

        Ben asked me a little while ago how many verbs and which ones to recommend for year 1 of FL study and I gave him a really long response of all the complexities, essentially because I don’t know and didn’t want to make the decision.

        1. I am always amazed at the depth of Eric’s knowledge. Any question gets a lenghty answer within the hour, with a detailed explanation. Homepage or Forum or Listserv or ACTFL. Eric covers it all.

          With little kids I reach 250 words over 150 hours at a rate of 1hr/week over a 5 year period starting at age 4. Receptive-Productive depends on the kid. Some of my 3rd graders cannot stop talking in the TL. Other kids never reach that level of confidence, but understand what I say and follow along at their own pace. Focus matters the most, but also temperament. It’s hard to know exactly what goes on in little kids’ heads. And senseless to measure.

      3. I would say the sine qua non is the 7 power verbs: is, has, wants, likes/loves, goes, needs, gives.

        Blaine’s reps trick is parallel characters– IMHO still the best– but you can get loads through CWB, OWI etc. My new preference for story-only teaching is that in my experience, if they don’t see it written out– and read it a ton– they don’t acquire it.

  1. What are the chances that one day ACTFL will endorse organic, personalized, natural order, compelling comprehensible input as ALL that should happen in a second language acquisition class?

    Can anyone envision it?

  2. Jeffery Brickler

    I’m still confused about these discussion of Thematic Units versus topical units. I totally understand how incredibly boring it would to talk about food for 3 weeks or about travel for 3 weeks. What are thematic units? Can someone give me an example?

  3. Hey Chris,

    Where does Paul Nation say that? How does he define “functional fluency”?

    I imagine that with 1,000 word families you can productively express enough to survive in the target language country, but you’d be way short of having a large enough vocabulary to comprehend the outside world.

    The other BIG point that needs to be made, and that it seems ONLY TPRS gets and traditional methods fail at miserably, is that for real-world comprehension, the vocabulary has to be acquired well enough that it can be automatically processed at a normal speech rate and in context.

    1. Don’t we ultimately want our students not even to think about the words and grammar before they talk and write? Like while I am writing this sentence the words are just there and they just come out. There is absolutely no conscious working happening, except, perhaps, for stylistic things, like using perhaps for a transition.

      For me, that is output. Everything else is just a dog and pony show.

      How much of THAT can we hope to get from our students after only a few hundred hours?

      1. “How much of THAT can we hope to get from our students after only a few hundred hours?”

        I think quite a bit, if we shelter sufficiently. Depends totally on the engagement of the student though.

        “For me, that is output. Everything else is just a dog and pony show.”

        haha, YES! Effortless output vs Labored output. This is what Blaine has been talking about (Eric referenced it recently somewhere) about turning slow processors into fast processors. Reading and re-reading is a good strategy to increase this processing time (i.e. to get to more effortless output). Blaine and Von showed us “volleyball reading” at NTPRS this summer. The faster the receptive processing then logically the faster the productive processing right?

      2. And production in writing Jim, in my view, is a function of reading, as you say above. I remember about four years ago when you shared how at times you could trick your students into extra reading. That is so cool and we should all do it. I just think it is easier to trick them on readings from stories than novels. DPS got all that money to buy each teacher an entire L2 library for FVR, but I have been in the minority in support of more reading from the stories we create, esp. in the first two levels.

        1. Ben, I trick them into re-reading… and they fall for my trick so hard core. I am giving a “midterm exam” right now (haha). The majority of it is reading six stories from this semester and answering some questions about them. So they are so focused right now re-reading these old stories. And the best part is that they ALREADY re-read a lot of these stories last class as a review (haha) for the big and bad midterm exam today.

          Game, set, and match: Hosler.

        2. There’s a high level of cross-over though don’t you think Ben? Plus, during reading, they’re probably sounding the words out silently while they’re reading (and out loud during volleyball reading, so hearing them, albeit not perfectly), which has to help a bit. But you’re right, nothing comes close to the aural input when it comes to best chances of getting oral output.

    2. Eric– sorry he writes 85% of spoken language = 1,000 words. That seems like a reasonable target (for 4 years). I think you are bang-on re: probably not enough to fully “comprehend outside world.” That said, I can’t think of another method outside of c.i. that would give students real mastery of even 1,000 words.

      I added up wordcounts in Adriana Ramírez’ text and got about 380 over 16 stories. She does about 12/year– and I am on track to do 9 because of our strike-abbreviated year– so she would typically do about 250-300 words/year. This is proper, classical TPRS taught for mastery. She (and I this year) are doing very few non-story ancillaries (e.g. CWB, OWI, team chunk etc) outside cof movietalk and picturetalk.

      From what I have seen at our demos– where she brings 3-4 of her students to show how much they have learned– and from her end-of-year written results, these kids are thoroughly acquiring 95% of the vocab. I am on story 6 right now and the top 2/3 of class has quite thoroughly acquired about 85% of vocab.

      Mind you…Adriana’s kids are wealthy, white and Asian, from stable families, and quite literate in English and often Chinese as well. Mine are mostly Punjabi, nonliterate in Punjabi but not bad in English– we do a LOT of FVR in our school in English classes– and also from stable but not wealthy homes. I imagine that with many U.S. schools with their insane poverty, lack of access to books, management hassles etc, kids would maybe acquire more slowly.


    1. Maybe they can be put on the path of acquiring 250 words per year. That is, they are introduced to the words, get some initial reps, and can hear/read and THINK and understand. But the automatic thing is something else entirely.

      1. I agree James. I personally shoot for the automatic thing for the big dawgs, like “has” and “wants” and “goes” and all the function words. Really, when it comes to oral production, it’s more about the syntactical competence than knowing lots of words, IMO. You can talk around about any idea (circumlocation) if you have the basics down real well and can arrange them unconsciously and semi-correctly while talking. I’ve really been stressing the skill of circumlocation lately with my students, and it is really boosting confidence and staying in TL.

        1. I agree with all of this and it helps me to think of it this way. Let me see if I can get some help from you guys with arguments that a more traditional teacher might throw at me.

          It doesn’t need to be automatic. They aren’t speaking. There is no need for circumlocution. They are reading. These things don’t apply because they don’t need to speak.

          Now, here is my response and maybe you can help me. I want my students to have a real experience with Language. I want them to be able to communicate in Latin like other languages. I want them to make meaning with it. I want them to hear words in their heads and then see pictures. I want real reading and now analysis and figure out what they text means in English.

          Maybe I am crazy, but I doubt very much the ability to truly read a language without the ability to hear the words in your head. In my mind, if you can’t hear the words and then see a picture, you aren’t reading. You are decoding. I can decode really fast. That’s probably why I succeeded in Latin and other languages. However, I know that my decoding wasn’t really language. It wasn’t pure. It was my desire to control the language. I would much rather my students be able to write a correct sentence in Latin about going somewhere and seeing something than trying to make their way through a text. What is wrong with our students becoming part of the tradition of Latin speakers and writers that has been around for 2500 years. Are we relegated to a life of analysis and translation.

          1. Jeff, you said:

            “arguments that a more traditional teacher might throw at me.

            It doesn’t need to be automatic. They aren’t speaking. There is no need for circumlocution. They are reading. These things don’t apply because they don’t need to speak.”

            I realized recently that these are actually arguments FOR CI/TPRS in the Latin classroom. We DO want them to read read read and REALLY read, not just decode. In a CI classroom, you are totally forgiven for never assessing output and for not even requiring it of students. What a dream for a Latin teacher! Now we can focus entirely on reading and more reading! And when our kids read, they will know AUTOMATICALLY what a word means when they see it and NOT HAVE TO LOOK IT UP IN A STUPID DICTIONARY. It is a very cool thing to see kids reading a story from the CLC without needing to look up every other word. In my experience, only CI/TPRS really gets you to that point.

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