A prominent List has recently featured a discussion on the pitfalls of navigating the morass of family relationships in the Family Unit, given students who come from all sorts of broken or dysfunctional homes. With the Cleavers and the Bradys no longer sending their perfectly-socialized kids to public schools (it seems) this is a legitimate issue. The “Family Unit” opens up a two-week-long vista of constant questions about family members, requests to draw one’s family members and write a paragraph about them, requests to bring in family photos to share — etc. etc. All these are put forth by well-meaning teachers who only want to “make the language meaningful to the student” to “increase engagement”.

Problem is, we don’t know whose buttons are where, and which kid has lost which family member, or has other issues involving one or the other. It’s true that we cannot anticipate every topic that will make another person uncomfortable. But in conversation — you know, when we’re talking WITH someone and looking at them and gauging their reaction and understanding and when the next thing to be said doesn’t depend on the next exercise in the book — we automatically compensate. When we see that someone is going badly wrong, we backtrack, or we take a turn to somewhere else, or lighten the atmosphere with humor to deflect attention, or whatever. There are a thousand and one strategies employed every day by millions of people around the world to take care of “sensitive issues” in conversation.

The problem is, when language is being taught thematically, there’s almost no way to avoid the potholes in the road. What else can you talk about but family, if you’re doing the family unit?

From a pedagogical point of view, what is the advantage?

The “family sensitivity problem” is a strong argument against thematic units, from a practical perspective. None of these issues would be so concentrated or so emphasized if, instead of a thematic unit on “the family”, the required vocabulary was simply presented throughout the course of the year in other contexts.  And, of course, the language teaching philosophy that generally shies away from themed units, by its nature, is CI. CI teaching is not organized around themes, but rather around meaning of a large “clump” of language that is a year’s worth of “new stuff”. There might be one or two related terms that come up as contrast in the course of a conversation or story (“Is it Lindsay Lohan’s uncle or her second cousin once removed that decorates TGI Fridays restaurants”?)  but it would not likely be more than that — certainly no “mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, cousin, grandfather, grandmother…” all at once.

Non-thematic teaching of this material also, weirdly, opens up more possibilities for *meaningful* conversation about those people. What can you say about the family members when they’re all bunched together? Who really cares that Maria’s grandpa is taller than her cousin, or that her mother is older than her father?  Most textbooks tend to concentrate on adjectives or age or similar in these units, so it ends up that everyone is saying pretty much the same things, over and over, about their relatives, usually pointing to a picture or collage as they do so. It is much more memorable to focus on a character who just happens to be someone’s relative, as one of the many characteristics that makes him memorable, and who actually DOES something. The family relationship word will be acquired along with the rest, especially when what happens is created by the class and the class has ownership of that character as part of the class culture.

Just because students don’t memorize a list all at once doesn’t mean they can’t acquire the vocabulary perfectly well (and I believe better — especially, IMO, when a language has what seems to an English speaker a highly complicated system of classifying family members. When the Chinese need to count on their own fingers to figure out the right word to use in many cases, I can’t see where my students should be able to memorize that list at one go and have much use out of it!)

Anyway, besides the names of family members, what (particularly non-noun) vocabulary is REALLY only used in the family, and what vocabulary used in a family unit could not be just as well used elsewhere? I can’t think of any.

IMO thematic units = lots of similar words (potential confusion) and the likelihood of the “we’ve covered that now let’s move on to something else” phenomenon, in which the word for “uncle” isn’t seen again until the review for the final exam.  There is also a very high potential for discomfort (at best) on the part of students who have family issues = high affective filter (at best).

Non-thematic teaching = more spread out (less potential confusion between words that are similar in meaning, more spaced repetition) and constant recycling, but requires more planning or consciousness of word stock on the part of the teacher. Of course, for a CI-based teacher, this kind of recycling is second nature. And the bonus is, there is not this week-long (or two week long) unit that stretches out in front of the student who has just lost a family member or who has other family issues that may never even come up in class.