In Part 1 of this series on best practices in ESL programs, we looked at the overwhelming research that supports integrated curricula. Today, we will look at two types of integrated curricula: theme-based learning and culture-based curriculum.

Theme-based learning

Theme-based learning is an integral part of an integrated curriculum. The premise behind theme-based learning is that a course or curriculum is designed based upon an overarching theme, and all activities, assignments and assessments are connected to that theme.

JoAnn Crandall writes that, in a theme-based program, "curriculum is developed around selected topics. ... The goal is to assist learners in developing general academic skills through interesting and relevant content."

Theme-based learning comes under the CBI umbrella, and there are a number of advantages to it, not the least of which is deep learning.

According to The College School, "Theme studies enhance the core academics by allowing students to apply and broaden their knowledge through studying special topics in depth." The National Center to Improve Practice, a center funded by the United States Department of Education, asserts:

"Focusing on 'themes' enables teachers to meaningfully link different disciplines so that students will develop 'big' and important ideas. Educational researchers are learning that students are better served when provided opportunities to develop deep knowledge about a few 'big ideas' rather than a superficial knowledge of a broader range of ideas and information. Themes can vary in nature and scope, however, they should be motivating to students and relevant to their lives (NCIP)."

Warburton also appreciates the need for deep learning, "Deep learning is a key strategy by which students extract meaning and understanding from course materials and experiences." Warburton observes that the interconnectedness and interdisciplinary nature of theme-based learning allows for deep learning.

The ESL Literacy Network indicates that teachers and curriculum designers must be circumspect when identifying and choosing themes: "The key to connecting, empowering and transforming learners is the selection of meaningful and relevant thematic units of study."

Chi Cheung Ruby Yang concurs: "To choose themes for a language course, we have to consider their interest potential and appropriateness for students." Brinton, Snow and Wesche note that if students see relevance in the chosen theme, "their motivation is more likely to increase and effective learning can then be promoted."

Crawford-Lange and Lange, writing 30 years ago, echo the myriad research that has come before and since: A curriculum must emphasize meaning and purpose, and "failure to establish meaning may actually inhibit the learning of language as communicative tool."

Culture-based curriculum

American cultures (there are many) are often the theme upon which ESL programs ground their curriculum. Culture and language are inextricable, so combining the two is a natural fit. Jack C. Richards and Willy A. Renandya identify 12 principles of language teaching, one of which is "the language-culture connection"

"Whenever you teach a language, you also teach a complex system of cultural customs, values and ways of thinking, feeling and acting," they write.

In his research article, "Best Practices for Teaching the Whole Adult ESL Learner," David Schwarzer asserts that a holistic ESL curriculum incorporates culture. Not only are skills integrated in a holistic curriculum, but also "class participants learn about the cultures of their peers and their communities, (and) social rules are openly discussed."

Indeed, Schwarzer is in good company in his advocacy of a culture-based curriculum.

In their research study, "Losing Strangeness: Using Culture to Mediate ESL Teaching," Roswell, Sztainbok and Blaney assert that culture is "constantly beneath the surface of ESL teaching and learning."

"We know on a tacit level that culture bubbles up into our work with second language learners, but do we operationalize it in our planning and teaching? The moment of cultural fusion illustrates what it means to “make strange” together: to come together from very different backgrounds, experiences, and understandings of the world yet at the same time, share cultural practices."

The Council of Europe's major curriculum revision, "Guide for the development and implementation of curricula for plurilingual and intercultural education," appreciates the immediate and long-term benefits of including culture in curriculum:

"Plurilingual and intercultural education has two aims: First, it facilities the acquisition of linguistic and intercultural abilities. ... Secondly, it promotes personal development, so that individuals can realize their full potential: This involves encouraging them to respect and accept diversity of languages and cultures in a multilingual and multicultural society, and helping to make them aware of the extent of their own competencies and development potential. Effective learning of one or more languages, awareness of the value of diversity and otherness, and recognition of the utility of any (even partial) competence are necessary for anyone who, as an active member of the community, has to exercise his/her democratic citizenship in a multilingual and multicultural society."

Crawford-Lange and Lange observe, "culture belongs in the classroom." They refer to the findings of Collins and Strasheim, who assert that "culture study enhances the contribution of foreign-language classes to global education and to the total school curriculum."

Having a culture-based curriculum is necessary, because, as Crawford-Lange and Lange note, "foreign-language proficiency does not automatically lead to knowledge of or empathy for global problems. These issues must be attended to directly in the curriculum if they are to be learned."

The University of Virginia, The Hun School of Princeton University, Clark University, Arizona State University, Bloomsburg University, South Dakota State University, Northern Virginia Community College, Brookdale Community College, Morgan State University, The University of Alabama at Huntsville, La Sierra University, the College of DuPage, Northeastern State University, and Governors State University are among the education institutions that have combined their ESL courses with American culture.

In fact, some schools go beyond including culture in their curriculum. Because they recognize the irrevocable connection between language and culture, they have language and culture centers or institutes that house courses in English language and American culture:

  • The University of Virginia's Center for American English and Culture
  • Clark University's American Language and Culture Institute
  • Arizona State University's American English and Culture Program
  • Northern Virginia Community College's American Culture and Language Institute
  • Governors State University's American Language and Culture Institute
  • South Dakota State University's English Language and Culture Institute

James A. Banks, of Johns Hopkins University School of Education, explains the need for incorporating culture into curriculum: "Because of growing ethnic, cultural, racial, language and religious diversity throughout the world, citizenship education needs to be changed in substantial ways to prepare students to function effectively in the 21st century. Citizens in this century need the knowledge, attitudes and skills required to function in their cultural communities and beyond their cultural borders."

Likewise, Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Carolyn Sattin see the urgency in including culture in curriculum:

"The world needs young people who are culturally sophisticated and prepared to work in an international environment. ... But for the most part, schools today are out of sync with the realities of a global world. Psychologist Howard Gardner points out the new tension between the glacial pace of institutional change in schools and the forces of globalization. Because of globalization, 'the ongoing process of intensifying economic, social and cultural exchanges across the planet,' young people the world over need more innovative thinking skills, cultural awareness, higher-order cognitive skills and sophisticated communication and collaboration skills than ever before."

If you are revising your ESL curriculum or are establishing a new program, or if you are a teacher interested in teaching for a best practices program or a student eager to study in a best practices program, it is clearly advisable to consider a curriculum that is theme-based and/or culture-based.