Thematic Units – 4

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76 thoughts on “Thematic Units – 4”

  1. I have a copy of the second edition of Languages and Children: Making the Match. I will bring it to the TCI conference tomorrow if anyone who is going would like to borrow it.

  2. It’s in the middle of the night here. Can’t sleep so forgive me if I say something crazy …again.

    I wish Ben, now that you have a little more time, that you would write to the New York Times.
    Seriously. It could not be 5 pages long. It could not be personal attacks on individual teachers.No slamming of textbook companies, or politics. No naming of certain methodologies, or Krashen. No mention of the success in Colorado, nor Diana.

    Let me represent the “little people” in what I wish you would do for us. I am not thinking of my students now.

    Not by order of importance.

    We are teachers who have sat through hours of useless conferences, trusted our methodology professors and been misled, been humiliated on discussion boards when asked important essential questions, been frowned upon by colleagues and school administrators. We are not doctorates, or academics, but hardworking, intuitive, in touch with reality. We are parents who’ve seen first hand the damage on our children, mothers who’ve poured on our kids senseless homework. Students who would have loved school if it were not for fill-in -the-blank class, kids who cannot ask for a cup of water after 7 years of daily foreign language class. We’ve wasted money, time, sleep, hours away from life, that is too short to begin with.

    Ben, the way you can play with words, to reach our heart where it all really happens, that lovely skill you possess could be so perfect to reach out to the whole country.

    Eric, my hero, started this little earthquake.

    Take it further, Ben, gently, respectfully with the power of your words.

  3. You know it’s real when it wakes you up. I have done that so many nights over the past 14 years. An idea comes in, and won’t leave you alone. You can’t shake it so you get up and stare at the screen and write and hours later you realize that you will be tired the next day.

    I so much appreciate your words, Catharina. It makes me feel as if I have done something real during those wakings up, when true things are less opaque. But as one person lucky to be in touch with others of like mind, I certainly don’t think of myself as a leader, but really a follower of you all.

    I’m not just saying that. For years, we have communicated largely within our closed group and put most of our focus on what was going on in our classrooms with our kids – trying in the most trying of circumstances to get a handle on classroom management and making ourselves understood – how to do that. We should be careful to not lose that focus by looking at other things, in my opinion. Laurie would make exactly the same point.

    Not to say we can’t go in and, laughing, pull off some clothes and run away in glee, like we are doing now, but our real work is here, I feel, and it is a daily work.

    So much of that work has been authentic that the relatively few years together here have more than made up for those 32 or so fake, hurting years that preceded them in my own career. All those years when suffering was so deep because we couldn’t frickin’ reach our kids with anything real, and now we can.

    We are a group and our power lies in the group energy. Some never post here but feel what we are doing and grow, and it is a grinding growing for most of us. Some post a lot, but we have all lined up shoulder to shoulder facing in the same direction. So let’s reach out and keep shaking the house, or in Eric’s case, rocking it, and see what happens.

    As children grow up and suddenly then they are tall, this is how our work will be. We are still growing up. It is a good thing. We can relax now. We know what we want, many others don’t want it, God bless them so I say we cool our jets and just keep on teaching, as per:

    1. I am in a period of laziness and lethargy. I’ve been gone to a teacher training and so a few days before that I was zonked out and now I am zonked out upon my return to the classroom. I feel like I need a “reset.” I am going to start “afraid of the package” Monday with my 1s. I was planning on doing it today but… gosh golly. Excuses.

      I can only imagine (actually, I can remember from before I started with CI/TPRS) what this would feel like if I weren’t at all excited about starting the new stuff on Monday. As it is now, I am only a little excited. But at least it’s “a little.”

      1. Not to worry my friend. Anne’s best combination of target structures is in my view her greatest story script, and that is saying something. I did it with the Swedish school last weekend and every sentence worked. It’s just the best story. Tell us how it goes Monday. And welcome back! You are now trained in IB! That is something to crow about! Right? James? … Is being trained in IB something to crow about?… James! James, wake up!

  4. Did you all see this addition to Eric Hermann’s thread? I don’t know what even caused this.

    While we encourage lively discussion in the ACTFL Community, we want to make sure users are respectful, courteous, and professional at all times. Please keep in mind E-Group Rules & Etiquette, specifically “All defamatory, abusive, profane, threatening, offensive, or illegal materials are strictly prohibited. Do not post anything in a EGroup message that you would not want the world to see or that you would not want anyone to know came from you.”

    We thank you for your cooperation.


    Jaime Bernstein

    Jaime Bernstein
    American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)
    Manager of Member Services
    Phone: 703-894-2900 Ext: 108
    Alexandria, VA

  5. Yeah I commented on it. I asked for clarification. Eric, this is about control.

    Eric (Mad Dog Eric, not Erique le Paresseux), has, by his question, invoked a reaction that is not unlike that evoked by Bilbo Baggins in Smaug’s house beneath the mountain. That is why Jaime said that. Hmmm. Maybe t’s time to connect the dots between ACTFL and the textbook companies. Hmmm. Is Smaug’s treasure at risk? Does Eric have Sting? Is Sting lighting up? Are there Orcs? Are we, the other hobbits, at risk? I have more things to say on this, but can’t right now. Sorry.

    If there is in fact nothing to show that thematic units work, then my speculation above is not mere speculation, but based in fact. This fact will then make a lot of really pricey textbooks obsolete. Hmmm.

  6. Damn, I check out for a couple days and all kinds of badass happens. (I was blessed with a little baby girl on Monday evening, thanks to her amazing mother!)

    I created an account and posted this response to Eric’s general thread.


    A colleague recently recommended I go read this thread. I’m glad I did. This is a really good question. I too would like to see the research supporting the use of Thematic Units and/or Authentic Resources in the FL classroom. Perhaps there is evidence supporting their use in one’s native language or at levels beyond Beginner. But that is not where the great majority of FL students in this country find themselves. We need position statements from ACTFL that align strongly with research and, when implemented, will serve the general FL student population.

    I have not taught using Thematic Units since straying from the textbook 7 years ago. Perhaps the most obvious reason to me for not doing so is the fact that Mr. Herman brings up, namely that words in a semantic set are bound to include only one or two “high frequency” words; the others in the set are not going to be priority for them to know, generally speaking. As language teachers, we benefit by understanding how the Pareto Principle applies to language learning. Consequently we shelter the scope of vocabulary of similar semantic sets, surely at the Beginner levels, and likely until Advanced or Superior level has been achieved).

    Frank Smith in Reading FAQ says “We remember things best when they are organized with everything else we know, when they come with stories attached, rather than as isolated bits of information.” I have found that interest, and long-term retention, are highest when the organizing force is a story. I suppose it is possible to tell a story with a long list of semantically/thematically-related words and phrases, but based on the research cited and points made here over the past couple days, and based on my own conception of interesting/compelling material, it doesn’t appear to be in our best interest or the best interests of our students.

    I had the opportunity of presenting to colleagues at my state conference on use of the target language in the classroom last year. It was comforting to know that ACTFL’s position statement on the matter urges us to use the target language 90%+ of class time. This is a statement of what works best for all students, based on solid research and case studies (with the stipulation that the 90%+ TL is comprehensible and engaging to the student).

    Based on what I’ve read here and my own personal experiences, I do not have the same confidence in ACTFL’s statement supporting Thematic Units and Authentic Resources in the FL classroom.

    Grateful for the conversation, and will be following closely…

    1. Leigh Anne Munoz

      Jim and Eric —

      what a great day for our little PLC — we are respectfully asking the big questions in an appropriate forum and demanding nuanced, research-based responses.

      So far, all I hear are crickets chirping in the background….

      BTW — Jim — Congrats! Enjoy your new baby, my friend…

      1. Jim when you and Grant and Bryce and I got together in Breckenridge I could see that you are a real daddy with your little boy, and now you have two angels. I am sure I speak for everyone in the group in sending you and family all the very best wishes possible. When I know that you are being a dad in Iowa, then there is hope for all dads in the world. If you are anywhere near the dad that you are a teacher, you are going to raise some fantastic human beings. In our profession, we are all dads and moms to millions of kids every day. Now that is something to think about the next time we feel like not going to work. And get some sleep dude. How is that going?

  7. Those following the thematic unit thread, which is more like a rope, over on the ACTFL Language Educators list, know that we have now been given, by one of their members, something really valuable – Helena Curtain’s email address.

    Finally now we can directly go to her and ask the very simple question that Eric posed in the first place, which, you are so right Leigh Anne, has generated at this point no more than a lot of cricket chirping and a few tired old phrases by four percenter teachers (they exist in droves) on that list.

    Here’s what I suggest we do now. We ask Eric to write the email. After all, it is his question. I suggest that first Eric write a draft and publish it in a comment field here. Then we can all read it before he sends it. We can even do a group edit on it, to make sure that the question is well crafted. (Not that Eric doesn’t craft good questions – look what his first two questions caused over on that huge list of 18,000 people).

    Anyone wanting to read in the Helena Curtain category here can sharpen their awareness of Helena’s work. If nothing else, one thing that can come out of this is a better awareness by us of this woman’s work and the effect, a very deleterious one in my opinion, it has had on countless children’s self esteem.

    So Eric can we do that in the next day or so? Does that sound all right?

    1. I’m all over it. But my first instinct was to just send Helena a brief email with the main 2 questions and direct her attention to the ACTFL discussion. (I would bet someone has already brought her attention to it). I’d ask her if she could clear up our confusion and guide us to the answers. . . And I’d tell her to get out from behind the curtain 😉

        1. Ok. Here’s my letter. I couldn’t wait. I already hit “send.”

          Dear Dr. Curtain,

          As you may already be aware, on the ACTFL online community I asked for the research support that teaching thematic units and using authentic resources in the FL classroom is best for acquisition.

          10 days have passed and still no answer. Someone mentioned your book, which led me to learn more of your work and you became part of the thread. I trust you will understand that any critique is not meant to be personal. For many of us this is a “high-stakes” thread.

          It still seems that following a textbook and submersing kids in authentic texts is the dominant approach in FL departments across the country, whether or not that is ACTFL’s intention. And there are some departments that teach more around “themes” rather than “topics” (as you distinguish the two) and that really try to scaffold the authentic texts so that they are comprehensible to the students.

          And there are those of us (me included) who want to take a different approach, one we see aligned with findings from the second language acquisition field, i.e. teaching non-thematic units with high-frequency language and doing so with texts (often stories) written on the students’ level. Because we dare to question the status quo in our departments we receive a lot of heat from our colleagues.

          My main point is that for ACTFL to be recommending thematic units (however defined) and authentic resources, then there should be a lot of research support that it is the BEST way to develop proficiency.

          I sense that some of this is politics. If ACTFL is receiving sponsorship money from textbook companies then there is pressure not to come out against textbooks.

          I would like to ask that you read through the discussion linked above. At this point there is a lot to read (42 posts). I have posted 4 separate times. I hope you could address points I raised in each of my posts as well as concerns raised by others. We need someone to clear up the confusion and any possible misunderstandings. Please, be the one to guide our search for research or perhaps you could direct us to others who could guide us.

          I don’t want us to lose sight of the bigger picture. In the end, this is all about the kids. How can we best build a students’ self-esteem and make life-long acquirers out of as many students as possible?

          Thank you.

          1. Eric, you are a true warrior. It was a pleasure to meet you and talk with you. Thanks for your persistence and courage. I’m watching this like other people watch football or the stock market!

          2. Thank you, Eric, for all your questioning, honesty and fearless exploration, not just in this important thread where such basic things are being brought out, but in all you do. I was really happy to meet and talk with you, too, in Maine. It was a great conference. I wish I could have stayed the extra day. Next year!

          3. Eric, this is a great letter. You are opening a dialogue here. There is not one shred of negativity or antagonism or attack, at least that I perceive. The tone is respectful and sincerely inquisitive. I know, I am biased, but I read it a couple of times, trying to stand in the other person’s shoes. I really hope there will be a thoughtful response.

            Great to see you in Maine. See you again this week 🙂

          4. Eric I think we could have edited this as a group for a million years and not come out with a better message to Curtain. This is truly a work of art. I felt the command you had for the topic, the respect was there, every single word was perfect. I consider this to be a tour de force, an atomic bomb, unmatched in anything I have read in our many attempts to articulate the issue in cyberspace. My hat is off to you, my friend. Now I am going over to:


            to see if you posted it there. I hope so. It should be read by the greater FL Educators group.

            It should be read by everybody in the world who cares about social justice in the American classroom, who cares if kids stay in their isolated verb cages, with their suffering, distant faces, or are some day let out of them and allowed to learn languages in the way their brains really learn them, so that their faces can soften and even learn to smile again. After all, they are only children. Can we not work for that on their behalf? Is that a reason to go to work tomorrow morning? I think so. I really do think so.

            My hat is off to you, my friend, again. I tip my hat to you twice.

          5. Thanks, Ben! I hadn’t thought to post the letter to ACTFL’s listserv, but you’re right. I think people would benefit from reading what was a respectful and honest inquisition. So I posted. And by making the letter public it throws more gasoline on the fire. 🙂

            How much do the big wigs at ACTFL hate me right now? hahaha. I’d also like to hear from some textbook representatives. . .

            Laurie’s closing remarks at the Maine Conference were so amazing. One of the things she said was that we are “Revolutionaries.” Revolutionary, because we teach in a way in which EVERY student can acquire a FL. This isn’t about the method, TPRS, but about democratizing the classroom!

          6. Agree! At the root, none of this is even “about” the language. It’s about the innate capacity of each student and the innate gifts and contributions each of them have, which are typically ignored in the frenzy of marching through a curriculum, forcing them to “get to” some benchmark at a certain time.

            John Piazza said this back in September:

            “I am more and more coming to realize that the true content of our classes is genuine compassionate human interaction, the language being simply a means to the cultivation and development of a classroom community”

            Yup. Revolutionary.

          7. Wow, jen. You wrote:

            …none of this is even “about” the language. It’s about the innate capacity of each student and the innate gifts and contributions each of them have, which are typically ignored in the frenzy of marching through a curriculum, forcing them to “get to” some benchmark at a certain time….

            You have to go post that bad boy on the ACTFL thread. That is very bad boy right there. Find a place where it fits and go post it. It’s like you have your own private flame thrower there.

            The social justice part of this discussion does indeed underlie all the points made about pedagogy. That is why this thread is so compelling – it gets down to how we treat each other as human beings in the face of controlling interests.

            This is not about teaching as much as it is about justice for all. Each kid has a right to succeed. Each kid should have an adult to defend them from being made to feel stupid in school.

            No one has been able to come up with anything better than the textbook until now. So it is not so much their fault, those who advocate traditional methods, as ours, if the message does not get out there.

            I know I know, some of us aren’t activists. Fine, this work will get done by all of us, the quiet ones who just try their best to get comprehension based instruction going in their classrooms, as well as the Navy Seals out there like Eric who fear no one and nothing.

  8. I checked out for the past week too, like Jim, and look what happens! Next we’ll see Herman giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.!

    …I’m so happy to hear about Jim’s new baby girl. Congratulations Jim!

    My reason for checking-out from the blog relates to getting involved in unionizing at my charter school in Chicago. We need to unionize for the same reasons we need CI instruction in our foreign language classrooms: to best serve our students, especially those from disadvantaged families and communities. But WOW, following Herman’s lead to fight for CI nation-wide is a bit more compelling for me than following Karen Lewis’s (Chicago Teachers Union president) lead to fight for better schools in Chicago.

    Let me get on that ACTFL thread (or rope as Ben called it) and contribute to the posts. The more we are heard, the more influential we become.

    1. Here’s my post to the ACTFL listserve thread:

      It is crucial that we get a response from ACTFL to the question that Eric Herman submits, asking for reference to research that shows the benefits of thematic units and authentic texts in the foreign language classroom. As ACTFL is the authoritative organization nation-wide, the organization that we foreign language teachers reference to legitimize our work to our administrators and the parents of our students, we must be able to rely upon ACTFL position statements as reliable. As I’m reading this thread, it appears that the position statement made by ACTFL in support of thematic units and authentic texts is not valid; is not backed by research.

      I’m afraid that ACTFL will lose it’s credibility if it can not either provide research-backed evidence that shows the value of thematic units and authentic texts or change its position on the matter.

      Thank you for taking the time in addressing our concerns!

      Sean Lawler
      Spanish teacher
      ChicagoQuest High School
      Chicago, IL

      1. Beautifully written, Sean. You are expressing my exact thoughts.
        Someone please edit or erase my text below. This has been on my mind since 2008 (!!)
        I will not post it if it does not contribute in any way.

        (to ACTFL):

        I am one of those teachers Mr. Lawler. Have we been misled?

        I apologize if I am repeating something previously said on this thread. It is becoming difficult to keep up with the daily posts from so many teachers asking the same question:
        where are “the empirical studies”?

        I was a “good student” myself in the methods class that ACTFL endorses on it’s website. Happens to be that our final project was a thematic unit. In my case, centered on an authentic resource.

        With all due respect to my professor, I had so many unanswered questions, and to this day wonder what Judith Shrum and Eileen Glisan had in mind in reference to the importance of integrating authentic texts: “Edit the task. Not the text.”
        (Shrum, Judith, Glisan, Eileen, Teacher’s Handbook, “Integration of Authentic Texts” pg 170-174, 3rd ed. Thomson, Heinle, 2005)
        (At a cost today of $152 I have not purchased the 4th edtition.)

        It may well have been a misprint.

        Catharina Greenberg

        1. This is a great post, Catharina. I hope you put it up on the ACTFL thread. Perhaps it will draw out the argument as to why integrating authentic texts is helpful in a foreign language classroom.

          1. Thank you Sean. I have been thinking a lot this morning. Too much maybe…
            I hope I am not stirring trouble by bringing in Shrum and Glisan, whom I have an even bigger problem with than Helena Curtain. My FL methods class (endorsed by ACTFL) was based on their “Teacher’s Handbook -contextualized language instruction-. ”
            In the 4 pages written specifically about integrating authentic texts, there is an amalgam of “clichés (great word Ben), urban tales, research, theory… all based on “Empirical studies”. Really???

            Authentic in of itself never bothered me. I love to use Babar, Petit Chaperon Rouge .. anything authentic, cultural, whether it’s books, magazines, youtube, whatever.
            The problem comes from “editing the task not editing the text” !?
            Read those pages (p. 170-174 in the 3rd edition) and you will need to go for a long brisk walk to decompress.

            Sean, thank you again for your feedback.It means so much to me.

            On a side note I wrote a personal email to my college professor who still teaches the same FL course, and asked for her expertise on the matter. I don’t like putting her on the spot, and prefer to keep it private. I’ve been burnt to the 3rd degree by commenting online.

  9. Thank you Sean. You said:

    …the more we are heard, the more influential we become….

    This is a rare opportunity for us to get our point of view about how kids learn languages across into a serious venue. Few teachers ever even think about the points Eric and the others have made. Yes, they go through entire careers not ever hearing of Krashen.

    But we may blow our opportunity here. How? When only a handful of people write in to express the same message, those few become seen in the discussion as a few rabble rousers. A small group of rabble rousers can be dismissed.

    Yet there are many members of ACTFL who are not posting who are hearing us. Eric and I have received positive private emails agreeing with our points. One encouraged us to write to Curtain right away. She wanted to know.

    The thread on thematic units is getting much attention that, clearly, ACTFL hopes goes away. Don’t think the top brass in this big system called ACTFL aren’t aware of this.

    A few rabble rousers can be dismissed. A big swell of hundreds of voices cannot be. So my point is that the only way we are going to get them to answer is to be more vocal. I am talking about volume of posts here, not quality or length.

    ACTFL can wait out a small group, and they are experts at waiting out individuals. They even wait out Krashen by paying him lip service and mentioning him in the context of their own purposes in ELA textbooks. Helena Curtain is an expert at this.

    I need to repeat this. ACTFL fully intends to not be stopped in continuing to push their agenda on American teachers, even if it turns out that one of the main pivotal points of their agenda has no basis in research. All they have to do is wait out those of us who have posted so far.

    I’m expressing this in a clumsy way, but Eric’s point. so important, will no longer be a thread in a week unless more people from this PLC, a lot more people, write in.

    You don’t have to write a book. This, taken from what Sean wrote in tonite, would suffice, or some variation of it:

    It is crucial that we get a response from ACTFL to the question that Eric Herman submits, asking for reference to research that shows the benefits of thematic units and authentic texts in the foreign language classroom. As ACTFL is the authoritative organization nation-wide, the organization that we foreign language teachers reference to legitimize our work to our administrators and the parents of our students, we must be able to rely upon ACTFL position statements as reliable. As I’m reading this thread, it appears that the position statement made by ACTFL in support of thematic units and authentic texts is not valid; is not backed by research.

    So go to this site:

    and if you are not a member take the three minutes required to become one and then cut and paste a short part of what Sean said, or take something from the existing thread somewhere, or just say something really simple, hit send and be done with it.

    The situation is simple – ACTFL has given their blessing to something that is not proven to work for kids. As long as nothing else existed as a possible better option, they were set. They even were able to marginalize Blaine quite successfully for 25 years. What we need now are PEOPLE weighing in on this thread.

    What do you think the authorities are doing in Ferguson, MO? They are waiting for the protests to die down. Why do they try to restrict the vote in certain American cities? To silence the democratic process. Why do you think ACTFL will wait Eric out? To protect their position.

    In the end, they will not admit to what Eric has uncovered. And a lot of people will look to other topics or tire of seeing that the same names have posted again yet another day on that site and they will stop reading. To repeat that point: people reading the ACTFL thread will tire of reading posts by the same names. They will look for new names to read. If there are no new names, they will stop reading and ACTFL will have avoided having to defend its position, which lack of defense at this point is professionally inexcusable. The thread will then die with absolutely nothing having been resolved, and the kids will all be sent back into their verb cage/incomprehensible instruction classrooms.

    Don’t let our chance here be squandered. If it were a football game, we are way ahead. But we need more people on the field.

    So please take those ten minutes out of your coming week and do this. We don’t need to win the argument. We already have. But we need to make the argument real, and not let it be dismissed as the odd complaints of a few. We have been there done that with TPRS. We are the most dismissed movement in education. By registering on the above site and saying one simple sentence in response to any post you want, you will make the difference in this situation.

    Don’t rely on others. There are over 200 people in our group. Do it for the kids. They don’t want to learn in that old and boring and shitty way any more. Do it for them.

  10. I agree with Ben. It’s important that ACTFL see a lot of different names from a lot of different places.

    Another good jumping in spot is Luann Smith’s second post. I’ll paste my reply below, but I think a good reply to her question “What do all of you do to ignite the fire in your students?” would include the following two points:
    1. Authentic communication (without recourse to thematic units)
    2. A request for sharing the research that answers Mr. Herman’s questions

    So, here’s my reply:

    Luann, you make some comments that prompt me to reply.

    First, though, I will answer your question: “What do all of you do to ignite the fire in your students?” Obviously, I can’t answer for others but only for myself. Like you, I use my passion to ignite the passion of my students. So what is my passion? My passion is communicating with my students as authentic human beings about things that matter in a beautiful language that opens an entirely new world to them. By seeing that this beautiful new language is a means of relating to others in a meaningful way, they become excited about using it to connect with other human beings, both inside and outside the classroom. We have meaningful exchanges on campus, at the football games, in the local drug store, on the street, and anywhere else we happen to encounter one another. They use the language with one another in their other classes, among their friends, and at home with siblings. But I accomplish that without thematic units. Instead, we talk and read about what interests my students and me, so a single conversation might include “Sports” when we talk about the games my students have played or will be playing, “Clothing” when we talk about what people are wearing for Spirit Days or if one student is wearing something unusual (like a suit), “Weather” because it is really hot that day (or it is raining or cold or foggy), “School” because someone just had a test in English as is concerned about a grade, etc. That’s in a single conversation, not a series of “thematic units”. That’s how I ignite the fire for my students, by making the language a bridge to others through Interpersonal Communication, a way to truly hear what others are saying through Interpretive Communication, and a means of sharing ideas, opinions, and information through Presentational Communication, not through units on certain topics.

    In return, I would like to ask you, “What is your passion?” You said it is your passion that ignites your students’ fire, so I would love to know what that passion is. From your post, it looks like your passion is inductive and deductive reasoning. If that’s what ignites the fire in your students, then wow. Just. Wow.

    You quoted the old adage that “figures don’t lie, but liars figure”. Could you expand on that? What was your intent on including that in your reply? How does it apply to the current thread? Are you implying that there are liars on this thread? Are you suggesting that the researchers who find no support for teaching semantic sets have manipulated the data? What support do you have for that belief? How does that position relate to your other statement that “research and vetting … [are] how we validate what we are doing”? If the research is unreliable, how can it validate what we are doing?

    You also wrote, “If I wanted to leave the field, I have years of research and compiled statistics to support that research, but I am not ready to become a statistician.” While it’s nice that you have the means to establish yourself in a second career (statistician), no one is suggesting that as a course of action. Mr. Herman’s still unanswered questions are for those who have the research supporting thematic units and authentic texts to share it with the rest of us so that we know that the research validates ACTFL’s position. If you have that research and the statistics, it appears cruel to me for you to withhold it from Mr. Herman and the rest of us. Please, at least tell us where to find the research that shows the efficacy of teaching with thematic units.

    Thanks for sharing at least some of your years of research and your compiled statistics that support the research on the efficacy of thematic units with the rest of us. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing it.

    1. Here is a very sweet sentence:

      …my passion is communicating with my students as authentic human beings about things that matter in a beautiful language that opens an entirely new world to them….

      This sentence to me makes the same sound as the bells (les grelots) in Le Petit Prince. It is prose poetry. It is what we want, isn’t it? I would call it the best statement of philosophy I have ever read for a language teacher. Isn’t that what ignites the fire in our students? Love it. Even if ACTFL doesn’t budge off their position, we are really getting some beautiful stuff to read here out of it. Thank you for yet another jewel, Robert.

    2. Goodness I just went back and reread the entire first paragraph by Robert above. Wow. A tour de force paragraph. Blaine and Krashen and Susie would be blushing. It’s what we do, right there in one paragraph!
      The crusher is here:

      …I accomplish that without thematic units….

      Have you ever seen those soccer players take off their jerseys after scoring a goal because they are so happy they don’t know what else to do? That’s what I felt like upon coming to the end of that first paragraph. It completely dismantles the thematic unit sadness with one giant swoop of the Harrell bear paw.

      1. Now the second paragraph is very in the face of the person who said that she ignited her students through inductive and deductive reasoning. That was four swipes of the bear paw. I remember asking her to explain that, and have not seen a response. That’s because there won’t be a response coming. My view, and Robert’s clear message, is that this teacher ignites her passion for what a wonderful teacher she is when she uses inductive and deductive reasoning, but if we were all annoying flies sitting on the walls of her classroom (that is probably how she views us at this point), we would probably not see a lot of passion for the language happening in the students, the way we know is possible, anyway. There are so many teachers on the ACTFL list like that. They use their careers to boost their own view of themselves. They wear the clothes, they strut the language, they strut around all over the building being French or whatever, but they do not do what Robert describes in the first paragraph so when it comes to igniting passion in the kids for real, forget it. They light themselves up but not the kids. The hell with that.

        1. Now the third paragraph by Robert about figures not lying is about six swipes of the Harrell bear paw. It’s brutal but in the way Gandolf can be brutal. He demolishes her point. You know, nobody has ever done this in the ACTFL group. They have had their own little mutual admiration society for so long, and I have no problems with that except when what they are admiring in each other comes at the expense of children. There are a number of such hard to figure out statements these people have made in this discussion, and I mean to go back and find them all and ask for expansion on them. Again, though, as I said, we who post often should post less frequently, and those who haven’t posted should post at least once, more like ten times over the next few months. That is the only thing that will keep Eric’s original question alive. This is truly going to have to be a total group effort by us, so if you are a lurker or feel possible reprisals on something you say from someone in your building, take a deep breath and post there anyway. Do not be afraid. Take all you have learned from Laurie about this work and put it into action. Take with you into this discussion her direct but loving confrontive style. Why? Because kids need us to. They can’t change the way they are being taught by themselves.

          1. The fourth paragraph, the one about the teacher becoming a statistician, is a full ten swipes of the bear paw. Oh boy. That person has got to be smarting today. How can she not? She said some bullshit because she has gotten away with it in her career so far, but then someone whose argument resides in pure logic points out the serious and hypocritical flaws in her argument. It is as it should be. She can only get away with such empty statements for so long. Ten swipes.

  11. hey all, just a word of caution…

    Robert referenced the research in one of his posts as being for ‘monolingual’ situations. It’s crucial, when we request the research, that we specifically say what Robert said (I don’t have time to go find it in this moment).

    The benefits of thematic learning for monolinguals is established and accepted. it’s the benefit for learners who are not yet proficient in their 2nd language that really is at issue.

    are thematic units and authres really the most effective and efficient way to build develop proficiency…

    if we don’t specify that, we’ll be dismissed out of hand.

    the issue is that we’re teaching in a way that does NOT develop proficiency in 90% of the kids who begin language classes at the secondary level. So, proficiency is the linchpin that holds this argument together.

  12. Thank you Grant for that dose of logic. We must keep the pressure on in a non-emotional, almost robotic way, citing details in our argument like the ones above at every turn. They are the ones getting appalled. We merely need to stick to our logic guns and keep asking the same question – how does teaching using semantic sets and thematic units contribute to measurable gains in proficiency in our students? If we all frame our (millions of) of comments around that one idea, just as Grant suggested, we may be able to hear if not see a crack in the ACTFL beam of snot-ass perfection, which has never had to bear so much logical weight before, I would say in their history.

  13. Leigh Anne Munoz

    Ben et al,

    I’m half-way through reading Eric’s ACFL discussion on research and ACTFL recommendations on the ACTFL site.

    All I can think of is the joy I feel when I see the way this issue is addressed by the members of our PLC. Just today, I was in the throws of dealing with a real-life colleague that kept throwing the words ‘thematic’ and ‘linear content presentation’ at me like a knife. Keep in mind that I have done AP French reading, and she has not….sigh…. she still likes to feel as though she is in control… bless her heart…

    As far as I’m concerned, each of Anne Matava’s stories represents the best effort to make interesting material for students; I like to call it ‘thematic’ when it serves my purposes. My dear Real-life colleague had some trouble accepting my view, but she started to wind down a bit when I don’t respond at all to her diatribe.

    I will continue reading at the ACFL site with great interest…

  14. What a beautiful post by Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg!

    Diane N. had mentioned Alisa in a previous post, how brave she had been standing up to Helena Curtain as the school district switched to TCI.

    I am in awe at the level of knowledge, wisdom and talent of Comprehensible Input teachers.

    I will not forget Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg so soon.

    1. Yeah. Alisa makes quite the attack. She concluded:

      “Perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree by trying to change ACTFL or demand inclusion. Perhaps the time is ripe for the growing Comprehensible Input / proficiency-oriented teaching community to press for recognition and adoption beyond ACTFL.”

      1. “The ideas of Curtain and Met, it turns out, are not as knowledgeable as everyone thought. They have fooled most teachers. ”

        You are so right Ben. I follow the threads on Ñandu, an online forum for “early language learners” where Helena Curtain comments.

        Time after time teachers ask the same question: What should we teach in “Kindergarten”?
        (or whatever grade). 99% of the responses are what you’d expect: Thematic Units -Colors, Numbers, Farm Animals, Weather + a bunch more-. One teacher will suggest focusing on “verbs” and/or offer to buy her curriculum. Madame Curtain eventually chimes in with “I think it is important to focus on language chunks rather than focus on one-word vocabulary lists!”

        The thing with “language chunks” is that no one really knows how to teach those. It is quite vague. Helena Curtain herself isn’t quite sure how to go about it. Her demos are pathetic.
        When you have drilled into teachers the importance of “units” “topics” whatever… you end up with a mess in early language classes.

        That will be the day Ben, when the legacy teachers will show some humility, retire somewhere warm and get back to playing Bingo.

  15. For readers new to the closing of the curtain on Curtain there are lots of articles on her in the Helena Curtain category on the right side of this page. We have known about her for years. (Eric’s pointed letter to her two weeks ago has not yet and will not receive a response.)

    Note: My own request four days ago to the ACTFL group calling out Paul Sandrock, Elvira Swender and Amanda Cynkin HAS received, by a Mr. Heller, a dagger-like response that only will exacerbate the situation because it is not written in a spirit of kindness.

    For more on that:

    1. Heller’s response made me upset. How he condescended (and even vilified) those who create and sell products for other teachers, that was not a subtle punch to you Ben, since you do important work to help train teachers to reach students more effectively. I’m not going to respond though, because that anger may come out in my writing. Mike handled it much better. And props Ben for resisting the urge to go for a 1-2 punch on Heller (a boxer and a runner?!)… I bet it was very tempting.

      1. Ok, just read Robert’s response to Heller.

        Harrell for president of the world. (That does not exist I know, and even if it did, Robert is way over-qualified.)

      2. A bad boxer. I got knocked out of the ring once by a Golden Gloves champion from Texas, Steven Zanitas. When you remember the guy’s name fifty years later, they made an impression on you. In my case, on my forehead. I did cut him over the eye before he dispatched me over the ropes, and there is a lesson in that. But even good boxers shouldn’t be jumping into the fight right now, it’s time to soften this entire thing up, as I said in another comment here this morning.

  16. Nice response by Mike Coxon. Mike, with a spirit of kindness, pointed out the confusion and lack of familiarity with ideas the Mr. Heller understands as transparent and settled issues. Mike, you speak for all of us when you shared that there was a time when this was unknown and neither transparent or settled in your own mind (“I did not always know what CI was or meant and I continue to work with language teachers that have never heard the term or know what CI is. ” Mike Coxon).

  17. So, Paul Sandrock, apparently as the voice of ACTFL at large, has responded as of 7pm EST today.

    Ummmmmm… I the only one who reads in his response a refusal to take a stand? Is my feeling accurate? Obviously it’s great (or maybe not great at all, considering his response) that we’re getting a responses from him. But I feel like the gist of his reply is that, as long as you have a context (thematic unit, story, whatever), you can teach however you want. I.e., his response shows a refusal to take a stand on the process by which the brain most efficiently acquires a language.

    Are my feelings about his response off base?

    Does his mention of the largest attendance ever at the upcoming ACTFL conference (thrown in at the very end of his post) possibly point at what could be a possible motive for taking a relativist stance on such large issues???????????

    You know what I would seriously like to know? ACTFL’s position on how one acquires a language. Does anyone know if they have stated a position on that? Or maybe that is somehow beyond their realm, since they are the American Council on the TEACHING of Foreign Languages, and not the learning of foreign languages.

    This is turning out to be a great show, especially with Paul Sandrock’s middle-of-the-road response. I think I’ll get some popcorn…anyone else want some?

    1. I had the same reaction !!!
      I think his response is a win for us, in the sense that he is validating what we do. Inclusion!
      I would like to post something to ACTFL now to reiterate that TPRS is ACTFL-aligned.

      I think we also need a thread that makes it clear that TCI doesn’t mean the kids only listen and only listen to language they can translate.

      A theme is a story. A story can be used instead of an essential question. The important thing is to have a meaningful context. High-frequency language is good. Semantic set lists are bad.

      Still, Sandrock says nothing about authentic resources. And nothing about the recent thread of tests.

      I don’t think ACTFL would take a stance on how language is acquired. There’s a lot of disagreement among SLA researchers. But given that VanPatten is getting so much attention now from ACTFL it would be awesome to get him to publicly praise TPRS.

    2. …his response shows a refusal to take a stand on the process by which the brain most efficiently acquires a language….

      He would vigorously refute that statement. I shared my own thoughts on just that point in a post today called Rigor – 4.

      Thank you, Greg.

      1. Ha!

        Although on second thought it seems like it might miss some key ingredients of an eventful plot.

        I challenge you to a duel!
        —What duel?
        This duel!
        —There is no duel!
        Yes there is, look at my sword!
        —Why do you have a sword?
        Because we are having a duel!
        —What’s a duel?
        etc., etc.

        1. I don’t feel comfortable with our sword waving. How can we keep this from being two-sided? (Says the guy who boxed in high school and has lived a life of pure competition from the gitgo.) We’ve got to find a way into their hearts with this information, and the sword thing isn’t going to work.

          I’m thinking out loud here. Don’t we need to soften our tone right now? We can’t wave a sword and threaten people who, at their base and this includes Heller and Sandrock big time, don’t really get what we are saying, and feel no need or inclination to do so.

          How do we go forward now? The answer to that question is big. We could alienate our colleagues beyond repair for a long time if we act in an ill-advised way right now. I don’t know what to do.

          1. I think this like other things including convincing co-workers will just take time. I know you have been waiting a long time for this shift and it is coming, but if we push too hard too fast it causes some to push back. At my school, I am actively doing this work, the French teacher is adding more and more and the three Spanish teachers are making strides, but since they coordinate with each other this is taking more time.

            We do need to make sure ACTFL is at least neutral in their statements to us and focus on getting more teachers the support they need to do this work. Locally, we have been meeting monthly out here among just my school and the surrounding two.

            Ben, you have noted before what a complete shift of how you think about teaching this is. It is a huge shift and people won’t make a huge shift if pushed from outside, we have to make them feel a need for it, by drawing their attention to the retention issues (in privacy) and by playing on their desire to be successful with more students, especially those they usually aren’t successful with. Eventually they may have a class that rejects the traditional and forces them to reevaluate (that is what happened to me). We need to always be there with the solution and pushing for CI friendly exams when we have to all do an exam together.

            Additionally we need to continue the work at getting this pushed and at least recognized in schools of education, one school at a time. I know for me and most schools there are not enough foreign language specific evaluators during student teaching and not enough actual instruction in methods. It sounds like many of those that do focus on method give short shrift to this too. I saw nothing of Krashen in my classes.

            I wish it were faster, but I think this is how we make it sustainable.

          2. Great points Eric, especially this one:

            …there are not enough foreign language specific evaluators during student teaching and not enough actual instruction in methods….

            Based on my own experiences, university methods classes are truly still in the dark ages. Bless their hearts. But it’s not a good thing when people going into a profession emerge from their training with little or no awareness of some of the most important work – Krashen’s – in that profession.

          3. Definitely soften up. I’ve been reading the thread off and on. Our side has won. Anyone reading with a clear mind can see that. The thread will last forever as a reference on ACTFL’s own server. If we back off now we aren’t retreating, we are letting them gather their wounded.

          4. Can I bring up one (somewhat) worrisome element to this whole deal?… that someone could take a screenshot of what is going on in these conversation OF OURS and use it to claim we’re seeking to undermine ACTLF (instead of what we’re actually doing, seeking to *push* ACTFL into the 21st century. I’m not saying it will happen, but Ben, I hope you are guarding the fort very well in these days… no doubt they’re looking to infiltrate.

          5. Now that you mention it Jim, I have spent the past two months doing all I can to barricade the doors. That mainly took the form of working with my server and tech people to assure that no access to these pages is available to anyone but paying members.

            The one thing that we have not been doing, just because there hasn’t seemed to be any time for it, is to insist on bios from all new members. I just don’t think that is even possible.

            My position is simple – we have stated our truths on that list and now we must just go forward because further truth statement making is going to really alienate and piss off a lot of people. We are in such a difficult position. We want to say what we think but we don’t want that to be perceived as an attack on someone, because it’s not.

            The one thing I want from this group right now is that we soften up. The attack mode sword waving thing is simply not going to work and will backfire. Read again what Eric Spindler wrote above. It is the predominant position among group members here right now.

            I am going to say this again – its’ time to soften our position. I cannot control what people write on the ACTFL list but I can request that our discussion here return to discussing things that will help us get better at comprehensible input.

            It’s hard for me too. I want to fight because I love to fight. I have written things – one article this morning – that I won’t publish on the ACTFL list out of respect to Sandrock since, as Robert pointed out, they have their conference next week but I probably will never publish it over there. Why? They don’t want to hear it. I’ll publish it here this morning to get it off my chest.

            Won’t it be nice to get back to discussing how we employ comprehensible input in our classrooms? Our sweet way of teaching in loving ways to children so that they really feel good about their capacities to learn? Let’s focus on that. It’s time to slow down the attack train. We really have to do that. There’s enough attacking going on right now in this world.

  18. I agree Eric – and I would love to see ACTFL formally declare that TPRS is ACTFL-aligned.

    What kind of change in expectations for teachers would such a declaration bring though, in your thinking?

    I ask because one of my former WL supervisors was totally fine with TPRS (even though she seemed to only understand it as only making up stories every day, without the PQA, reading, and the other myriad possible spin-offs).

    HOWEVER -and if I could type any larger I would, because it’s a big however – that supervisor expected me to use whatever methods I used (which was mostly TPRS, with some other TCI stuff) as a framework in which my students developed their listening, speaking, reading, and writing simultaneously. For me, this posed a problem because my students were beginners and I felt they needed much more listening-heavy interaction and reading before doing any significant writing.

    In other words, even if ACTFL formally/publicly approves of TPRS, people (like supervisors who evaluate us!) can still get away with saying “Yes, TPRS is great, as long as you’re using it to get the students to practice x, y, and z.”

  19. You make a huge point here Greg:

    …that supervisor expected me to use whatever methods I used (which was mostly TPRS, with some other TCI stuff) as a framework in which my students developed their listening, speaking, reading, and writing simultaneously….

    It can’t be done. Output just doesn’t magically appear. We’ll have to see how this plays out in the next week. I hope you throw in some thoughts like this one on the ACTFL list. But I think we all need to take a few days, like a time out in the action. If we respond with constant attacking energy we will fall into the same divisive and unfounded crap talk that is coming from Bill Heller. The man embarrasses himself. We don’t want to do anything like that. Anyway, I’m going to think this through before responding, if I respond. I wonder what the general reaction of Sandrock’s blather is. I mean, it sounds so political and therefore meaningless. But your point is big, and I feel in some way should be made. It’s a huge point, really – they approve of us but they don’t know what we do. That’s just messed up.

  20. Well said, Eric! I agree – when I started, I was SO passionate, that I alienated my colleagues. I have stepped back, and they are now stepping forward with more questions about what I do and what resources I can share and help them with. I admit, I have to bite my tongue, because I start to get SO excited that they are asking, but a little at a time…..They are seeing that retention rates are an issue, and we are now starting to build the program again (my very traditional colleague was let go two years ago because she only had 4 kids in Level 3!!! This year we have a combination of 38 kids taking Level 3) We’re hoping for a Level 4 next year!! 🙂

  21. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Having been in contact recently w/HC on the Nandu listserv (she was an old ‘friend’/consultant of our district and I often attended her FLESFEST Wisconsin before switching to T/CI) it looks like there may be a crack in the veneer.
    I don’t believe she was ever about textbooks or a grammar syllabus. She, like us, has fought against that. Her adherence to thematic units, I believe, came from her belief in their importance and the desire to legitimize elementary WL programs – establish a rationale for teaching WL in at the earliest levels. That is her PASSION. Gen Ed Elem school ( often/used to?) teach in themes, and good ones integrate content across domains (i.e., the 2nd grade economics/store study integrates math, reading, social studies, art).
    When her star was rising, this was the best practice of the day in regular ed. She was looking for ways to transpose this for language instruction for young learners – as she knew that grammar instruction and other legacy methods were developmentally inappropriate and ineffective. So she built her empire on thematic units using teacher-made materials and exploiting excellent children’s literature.
    Once, years ago, she showed our dept how to use the kids’ classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” for language instruction. It’s just that there was NO SCAFFOLDING for the actual language contained in that book. According to HC, the kids would ‘get the gist’ because they were already familiar with the story in English; there was no intent to match up word-for-word meaning. No consideration of hi-frequncy structures, or repetitions. On the contrary it was about having the kids practice communicative chunks (output) from the text. To my recollection, there was no discussion of which words to focus on or leave out.
    But now she has been publicly and repeatedly challenged BY THE RESEARCH. So while she still does conferences and workshops on implementing thematic units, she is using phrases like CI in her presentations. She still doesn’t have all the parts straight because she believes that practicing speaking leads to acquisition.
    She recently acknowledged on the Nandu (Center for Applied Linguistics’) elem teacher list serv my objections/cautions about teaching a Spanish unit on the Butterfly Life Cycle/migration. Answering a query about materials for said unit, I responded (diplomatically) that such thematic direction was misguided, low frequency, un-compelling. Long story short she asked to contact me privately to quote my response in an upcoming article she’s writing….
    I think she honestly believes that there is an arsenal/toolbox of strategies/methods/activities that lead to proficiency/competence/fluency. She doesn’t have/know/acknowledge the details, but more and more articulate T/CI teachers are posting their successes with T/CI strategies in the forums where HC reads, and she is reading and responding to our posts.
    One frequent thematic unit-loving teacher post-er is collecting info on US elem WL programs (for a a book?) and has asked for widespread teacher feedback on their programs/successes/concerns.
    If you teach grades 1-6, PLEASE RESPOND to her with details about your experience. Her name is Victoria Gilbert:

    “Nandu. Together You Will Spin A Web
    I am working on a chapter on Elementary School Foreign Language Education in America. I would like to include stories that show what a “Day in the Life of…” various teachers is like. I am hoping to get stories from Rural, suburban and urban teachers of world languages in grades K-6. If you teach those levels and would consider sharing a brief description of a typical day, I would love to consider including you. I can change any identifying details if you prefer to remain anonymous.

    Please contact me OFF-LIST at and share details of your life as a WL teacher according to the outline below. You can certainly add more, but I need these details so that some comparison is possible across different situations. Thank you!

    Day’s start time
    Number of classes a day (on average)
    How many minutes for each class?
    Number of students
    Separate teaching room or push-in?
    any prep periods? How long?
    Lunch or restroom breaks?
    Materials supplied by school? Typical budget you determine how to spend
    Supervisors or Mentors?
    Sense of support from parents/ community?
    Curricula self developed or purchased? Or a hybrid?
    Philosophy or favorite approach for language learning
    Major concerns you have about the field?
    Major concerns you have about your students?
    Goals you set for yourself

    I look forward to learning about each of your lives as teachers. If anyone prefers to just talk through these via the phone, happy to take notes on this as well. Just let me know.”

    Alisa: Let’s have a presence and voice for all our ground-breaking work.

    1. Thank you Alisa for your -excellent- posts on Nandu, always eloquent, graceful, with integrity and guts. I will send my response to Victoria Gilbert off-list.

      HC will lead a free workshop at Columbia University in NYC subsidized by Startalk specific to Russian, Arabic, Mandarin and Korean teachers about how “to use the target language to provide comprehensible input”. Oy vey!

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