Sure seems like a crazy winter this year and if you are living in the eastern part of the country you about had enough of it all and perhaps are missing your students. All this weather reminds me of a question I get asked quite often while working with a group of teachers on curriculum design. When is the best time to teach the weather? Should there be a weather unit? Certainly weather vocabulary can be found in most textbooks so there must a reason for teaching it in our classes. Not so fast …
Why are they still wearing shorts?
While the first sign of a snowflake or the pure mentioning of a chance for snow on the local weather forecast gets students excited about the possibility of a snow day, most students probably don’t care much about the weather. Based on what I see them wearing to school during near freezing temperatures, not only do they not care, they may not even know what the weather is going to be like on any given day. So why do so many teachers insist on teaching weather vocabulary and very often during the early stages of a student’s language learning experience? If you are debating this issue with yourself or in your department, try to answer these questions:
- Are students not going be able to communicate if they don’t know weather vocabulary?
- Are students not going to be able to move up the proficiency continuum until they have mastered weather vocabulary?
- What kind of functions/structures are students really learning that will help them later? Are there any useful language chunks in the weather learning scenario?
- Do the assessments often associated with the weather unit (students creating a fake weather report, students acting out a TV weather forecast, etc.) provide students with a realistic motivation to continue learning a second language?
There is a time and a place for everything
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for never ever teaching students how to talk about the weather. In fact there is a perfect time for that. When, you ask? When weather is happening. When exciting weather is happening. When unusual weather is happening. When weather impacts other aspects of life. When weather becomes an issue in a country that speaks the language that students are learning about in their class. Give them a reason to talk about weather. A reason that matters and will cause your students to want to talk about the weather and what it means for their own lives or the lives of others. Then we have something to talk about. Then we can push our students to have authentic conversations that allow them to describe with details, narrate events, find and report information in a way that is truly meaningful communication.
You can blame the weather for everything
Interestingly enough the “when-to-teach-weather-in-our-curriculum” problem translates well to everything else we are hoping students will learn in a language class. The issue of relevancy seems obvious when it comes to weather, however it likely applies to everything that is happening in our classes. Let’s take a look at some more of my pet peeve topics that could benefit from a review in terms of relevancy.
- House and rooms of the house. How many 14-year olds are truly interested in designing floor plans of their dream apartment or are searching for a new apartment in another country? Never mind the fact that when teaching housing in a high-poverty setting, you are setting yourself and your students up for some dangerous reactions. –> Can you think of a context that would allow your students to talk about housing in a more meaningful way?
- Going to a restaurant. While I’ve seen teachers work incredibly hard to develop memorable learning experiences around this topic that may even end up with a visit to a local restaurant, I have to ask: why? Are we preparing our students to become waiters at a tapas restaurant in Barcelona? -> Can you think of a context that would allow your students to talk about food and it’s impact on culture in a more meaningful way?
- Daily routine (which most of the time, really just means morning routine in order to teach reflexives). I may not be a student anymore, but I can’t recall even once in my life telling anyone the minutiae of my morning routine. I think if I were to start telling you what is happening at my house every morning at a party, our conversation would come to a quick end. (Note: I can’t believe I forgot to include this in my original list. Thanks to Jaime Basham for reminding me.)
- School schedules. Our students are in school and more than likely they aren’t very fond of it. I can’t imagine a topic that they would be less interested in in another language that talking about their school life. That being said, there are so many interesting things going on in and around a school that would be worth talking about.
Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be teaching any of these things, and depending on the age of the learners some of them might be more relevant than others, but perhaps we can find new contexts to approach the vocabulary in a more meaningful way. After all, it’s not the vocabulary and the amount of topics that students have been exposed to that will help them increase their proficiency.
The problem isn’t the topic. The topic is the problem.
So, it doesn’t matter if we are talking about weather, rooms of the house, or anything else that we like to teach. Focusing on the topics we teach allows us to focus on the vocabulary we teach. So much of curriculum is based on mountains of vocabulary either in textbooks, units, pacing guides, or vocabulary lists. Learning a language isn’t about knowing the most vocabulary. Learning a language is all about communicating, which means our focus shouldn’t be on WHAT the students are saying but HOW and WHEN they are saying it. That shift in focus, requires us to change our curriculum from being based on topics to being based on contexts (some people call it themes.) Making the shift to creating learning experiences that provide a reason for communicating and a reason for learning, will pay dividends in student motivation. Amazingly enough, when students are provided a meaningful context, their attention level, and hopefully their engagement, goes up. Just like their attention level goes up, the moment the first snow flake appears outside the classroom window.
Image Credit: “Men Leather Shoes in Snow” http://picjumbo.com/men-leather-shoes-in-snow/