Cross-Curricular Theme as Practically Useful to Exploit in an English Classroom with Nine-Year-Old Beginners CONTENTS: 1. Young learners of a foreign language. 1.1. The best period to start to learn. 1.2. Characteristics of young learners. 1.3. Choosing the best methods and techniques. 2. Two approaches in education. 2.1. The holistic approach. 2.2. The humanistic approach. 3. Cross-curricular teaching. 3.1. Cross-curricular theme. 3.2. Organising work with cross-curricular theme. 3.2.1. selecting a theme. 3.2.2. Planning. 3.2.3. Identifying a range of appropriate activities. 3.2.4. Collecting materials. 3.2.5. Class management and atmosphere. 3.2.6. Assessment. 3.3. The teacher’s role. 3.4. Values and benefits of cross-curricular teaching. 1. Young learners of a foreign language 1.1. The best age to start learning Today it does not seem really necessary to convince anyone that learning foreign languages is very important. Most parents expect their children to learn a foreign language quickly and think that acquiring a foreign language should not cause a lot of difficulties for them. Hence, the age when children start to learn foreign languages has drastically decreased in recent years. Dźwierzyńska (2002: 4) is in agreement with the common belief that children acquire languages faster and better than adults do. To support this idea she lists such scientists as Ł.S. Wygotski, S.I. Rubinsztein, B. White, G. Bruner, W. Penfield, L. Roberts, and L. Lenneberg, who, in their works, specify the period between 4 and 8 years of age as an optimal age to initiate the process of learning a foreign language. She also says that according to physiologists a 9–10 year-old child can be considered an “expert” in mastering speaking skills. Having analysed scientific research, another author, Brzeziński (1987), points out that a child at about 10 is able to pick up a foreign language to an extent similar to that of native speakers. Finally, Dźwierzyńska (2002: 5) adds that the ability to quickly and efficiently master a foreign language is possible thanks to a well prepared and organised teaching process. 1.2. Characteristics of young learners “Some children develop early, some later. Some children develop gradually, others in leaps and bounds. It is not possible that at the age of five all children can do x, at the age of seven they can all do y, or that at the age of ten they can all do z. But it is possible to point out certain characteristics of young children which you should be aware of and take into account in your teaching” (Scott, Ytreberg 1990: 1). The most important factors concerning this are: children have hardly any inhibitions and are curious and eager to learn, they learn indirectly rather than directly (mainly by e.g. artistic works, taking part in performances, contact with nature), they learn and forget quickly; but on the other hand, they have an exceptional ability to recall a lot of things after a long period of time, they have a limited attention span and can be discouraged by long activities, they systematically develop an ability to work in groups or pairs, they need to be accepted and regarded as members of a group; additionally, they have a desire for individual attention and approval of the teacher (Szpotowicz, Szulc- Kurpaska 2000). Komorowska (2001) is of the opinion that young children need to be exposed to the target language (through stories, fairy tales, poems, songs, video and audio records) and teaching speaking should be limited to typical phrases, simple sentences and imitation of speaking. She, too, emphasises that there is no reason to force children to write regularly and base teaching on written texts. 1.3. Choosing the best method Because of the fact that young learners’ developmental characteristics have a significant influence on the teaching process, teaching methods and techniques should be judiciously and precisely chosen. Komorowska (2001) claims that because teaching young learners is not systematic, methods and techniques are of higher significance than their results. This means that being accustomed to the target language should establish a solid base and motivation for further systematic learning. Thus, choosing the best way of teaching is not an easy matter. Apart from the previously mentioned factors, it definitely should correspond with the whole didactic process on the primary level of education. In Poland this is integrated teaching based on holistic and humanistic pedagogy. In the light of this pedagogy the cross- curricular teaching seems to be practically useful and reasonably efficient. 2. Two approaches in education 2.1. The holistic approach Holistic pedagogy concentrates on a person as a whole and not only on the outer but also the inner conditions that affect this person. Considering all educational processes as inextricably linked with economic, social and cultural reality is the most important assumption of the holistic approach. What is more, this pedagogy places emphasis on the atmosphere in the classroom (which should be friendly and warm) and the relationship between the teacher and learners (which should be characterised by mutual trust) (Szyszko- Bohusz 1989). Thus, very important directives result from the assumptions of holistic pedagogy. First of all, a particular kind of knowledge should be presented in a comprehensible and meaningful context. Secondly, different school subjects should complement and correspond to one another. In addition, teaching methods and techniques should match students’ perceptive abilities (Grondas 1999). And last but not least, Kłębowska (2003: 36) remarks that during the learning process students should make a good use of the previously gained or general knowledge in order to develop a more objective picture of their culture, traditions and ways of thinking. 2.2. The humanistic approach According to Biskup (1990: 119-120), the humanistic approach in teaching emphasises the importance of individual and distinctive characteristics of a human being and the desire for fulfilment. In education it means student-oriented teaching rather than teacher- oriented one. The relation between members of a group is considered as the most important factor which stimulates and creates proper conditions for the teaching process. In a “humanistic classroom” the teacher is not only a supporter and helper but also a learner. The teacher’s main role is to create an atmosphere in which learners feel relaxed and do not have any inhibitions. Finally, learners’ talents (not only linguistic but also those connected with art, music etc.) are exploited during the learning process. 3. Cross-curricular teaching 3.1. Cross-curricular theme Cross-curricular teaching involves a conscious effort to apply knowledge, principles, and values to more than one academic discipline simultaneously. The disciplines may be related to one another through a common theme. The organisational structure of interdisciplinary/cross-curricular teaching is called a theme, thematic union, or unit. It is a framework with goals that specify what students are expected to learn as a result of the experiences and lessons that are part of the theme. Moreover, cross-curricular themes integrate language skills (reading, speaking, listening, viewing, and thinking) with a variety of content areas, such as science, art, music and so on. 3.2. Organising work with cross-curricular theme 3.2.1. Selecting a theme Usually it is the teacher who decides on a particular theme to work with. Nevertheless, whatever the choice, it seems crucial to keep in mind students’ interests and attention spans, the availability of resources and materials, as well as curriculum guidelines. Because thematic teaching is flexible and adaptable, changes can be made in the schedule with little or no disruption. Such teaching can also mean a cooperation between an English teacher and those teaching other subjects. In addition, a particular kind of a coursebook may be helpful. Scott and Ytreberg (1990: 84) remark that “Some textbooks these days are topic based. In other words, the emphasis of the lesson is on a subject, a topic or a theme, and the contents of the book are arranged around these topics”. 3.2.2. Planning Once the theme is determined, the aim is to prepare a good plan. Deciding how long or how many hours should be spent on conducting a series of lessons connected with a particular theme is the first step. The following one relies on developing this theme in the curriculum. To facilitate planning, it may be helpful to decide which potential language points can be generated by a range of cross-curricular tasks. Vale and Feunteun (1995) present two simple and useful ways of making such preparations: 1. Completing the cross-curricular chart (Vale, Feunteun: 141) Curricular area Example activity Example language focus Art and craft Making a spider mobile Parts of the body: A spider has… Making glue and salt webs Colours and shapes Music A tune for a spider rhyme Singing the rhyme Science Close observation of spiders Present Simple: Spiders eat/don’t Sorting mini-creatures by the eat… number of legs Numbers, parts of the body, has/doesn’t have Maths Working with the number 8 Numbers: multiply, add, subtract, divide Geography Habitats, where spiders come Countries, nationalities: comes from from Drama and Moving like spiders Adverbs: slowly, quickly, carefully, movement lightly, heavily Hygiene Diseases spread by mini- Wash your hands, cover the food, creatures etc. 2. Preparing a topic web (Vale, Feunteun: 234) 3.2.3. Identifying a range of appropriate activities Within a cross-curricular theme different school disciplines become the means of developing linguistic skills. Planning a series of lessons that are concentrated on a particular theme and integrate subjects is not an easy task. Harmer (1991: 258) points out that “The two overriding principles behind good lesson planning are variety and flexibility”. Variety is a principle that applies to a series of lessons, especially those with young learners. It was mentioned earlier that they have a limited attention span and can easily be bored. Thus, involving them in a number of different types of activities and, if possible, introducing them to a wider selection of materials means that lessons are entertaining and never monotonous. Nicholls (2003) suggests that the younger learners should be exposed to more varied activities, adding that the time of any activity should not be longer than 5-8 minutes. This variety is also important for another reason. Because learners have different sensory modalities (visual, audible and kinaesthetic), activities should be prepared and chosen in such a way that every student will be able to find his/her way of learning, and will be able to choose the kind of activity or task which suits him/her best (Grondas 1999). The second principle, flexibility, is inextricably linked with the teacher. Harmer (1991: 258) emphasises that it is “the characteristic we would expect from the genuine adaptable teacher”. Preparing and conducting a cross-curricular theme requires adapting activities or tasks according to a situation in the classroom. What was planned can, and sometimes should be changed, when the teacher observes it is necessary. So, it is absolutely true that “Good lesson planning is the art of mixing techniques, activities and materials in such a way that the ideal balance is created for the class” (Harmer 1991: 259). 3.2.4. Collecting materials Collecting materials involves looking for all sorts of written and spoken texts, pictures, flashcards, objects, ideas. Some activities can be based on the textbook or activity book, while others are prepared by the teacher. While making such preparations and collecting materials, the teacher should make sure that he/she has got enough materials for each child or group. It is also very important to have materials needed for a particular lesson grouped in a specially prepared place or part of the classroom. It makes the lesson go smoothly and according to the lesson plan. 3.2.5. Class management and atmosphere The physical surroundings are a factor that has great significance, especially for young learners. According to the principles of desuggestopedic technique of teaching, listed by Larsen-Freeman (2000: 81), a learning course should be conducted “in a classroom which is bright and cheerful”. Scott and Ytreberg (1990: 11) claim that “Young children respond well to surroundings which are pleasant and familiar”. These authors also add that in order to achieve such an advantageous atmosphere it is advisable to put things such as calendars, posters, pupils’ drawings etc. on the walls. The primary school classroom is used for teaching other subjects as well but the teachers should cooperate and a language teacher should try to have an English corner – shelves, a notice board, etc. In such a place the children’s works should be displayed, because it is very important and plays a few roles. Firstly, the language teacher can use them not only during a particular lesson but also during the following ones. Secondly, other teachers may use them as well, especially if they work on the same theme. What is more, “Students can learn from what is present in the environment, even if their attention is not directed to it” (Larsen-Freeman 2000: 78). Scott and Ytreberg (1990) additionally recommend having plants, animals, and any kind of interesting objects which add character to the room. Nevertheless, they emphasise that sufficient space for teaching should be left. The desks in the classroom should be arranged in such a way that conducting different types of activities is possible without any disturbing rearrangement. Among three types of arrangements proposed by the authors mentioned above, one seems to be the most suitable and relevant for the cross-curricular teaching. (See picture below.) Scott and Ytreberg (1990) explain that when a classroom layout is arranged in the manner presented above, it is easy to teach the whole class, as well as organise group or pair work. This arrangement also leaves some space in the middle of the classroom for more general activities, such as playing games, acting out dialogues or chants, or other activities requiring mobility. Additionally, the teacher can be in the front of the classroom when it is necessary, and can be visible for all the students. What is more, the teacher has a quick and easy contact with each pupil. 3.2.6. Assessment Scott and Ytreberg (1990) suggest that even though formal assessment may not be compulsory, it is always useful for the teacher to make regular notes about each child’s progress. Such an opportunity happens when a particular theme is completed. This assessment should be done in the mother tongue and should be connected with the evaluations of lessons that are made not only by the teacher but mainly by learners. It helps to prepare another theme in such a way that is favourable for the children. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the assessment of young learners has also one more crucial role: it can motivate them to learn and to be actively engaged in the learning process. 3.3. The teacher’s role When working with a cross-curricular theme, the teacher’s role should also be considered. Treating each student as an individual, the teacher should adapt teaching methods to students’ abilities while organising the teaching process. Thus, according to Kłębowska (2003: 34-35), the teacher takes the role of a researcher or a learner who collects information about students by observations and discussions. During the teaching process the teacher focuses on practising skills so he/she is not only an organiser, instructor, and counsellor but also an expert. Because of the fact that cross-curricular teaching combines the areas of different disciplines, to be an expert means not only an expert on the English language but also an expert on other school subjects. What is more, teaching young learners requires the teacher to be a participant as well as a partner in all activities. It is fairly necessary to create a friendly and pleasurable atmosphere in the classroom. Apart from this, the teacher controls learners’ behaviour and monitors them in order to help or correct mistakes. 3.4. Values and benefits of teaching by cross-curricular themes Teaching by cross-curricular themes is deeply rooted in the assumptions of the holistic and humanistic approaches in pedagogy. It also harmonises with an integrated teaching approach that is characteristic of the Polish school system in primary education. Its values and benefits include the following: The whole person (mind, body, emotions, and spirit) is involved and nurtured simultaneously. Taking into account different types of learners, it allows students to obtain knowledge in their own individual way. Students tend to view school subjects as connected and interrelated rather than isolated and divided, because subjects areas such as science, art, and music may be studied within the context of a given theme. What is more, teaching children through merged disciplines prepares them better for understanding and applying knowledge. Learners can use knowledge learnt in one context as a knowledge base in other contexts, in and out of school. Additionally, when students view their learning as having personal relevance, they put more effort into their schoolwork and achievement. Methods and techniques that are used during teaching other school subjects on a particular level of education can be used in an effective way (Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000). Students explore a particular theme in a variety of ways and through various sources, which prevents boredom in the classroom. Learning is more effective because it is “facilitated in a cheerful environment” (Larsen-Freeman 2000: 78). BIBLIOGRAPHY: Biskup, D. (1990). Podejście humanistyczne w nauczaniu języków obcych. Języki Obce w Szkole, 2-3, 118-124. Brzeziński, J.(1987). Nauczanie języków obcych dzieci. Warszawa: WSiP. Dźwierzyńska, E. (2002). W poszukiwaniu optymalnego wieku rozpoczynania nauki języka obcego. Języki Obce w Szkole, 4, 3-5. Grondas, M. (1999). Ujęcie holistyczne w edukacji. In A. Dereń and M. Grondas (Eds.). Integracja międzyprzedmiotowa. Warszawa: CODN. Harmer, J. (1991). The practice of English language teaching. London and New York: Longman. Kłębowska, M. (2003) Rola nauczyciela języka obcego w zreformowanej Szkole. Języki Obce w Szkole, 2, 32-39. Komorowska, H. (2001). Metodyka nauczania języków obcych. Warszawa: Fraszka Edukacyjna. Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and principles in language teaching. New York: Oxford UP. Nicholls, K. (2003). Program nauczania języka angielskiego w systemie zintegrowanym. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Szkolne PWN. Scott, W.A., Ytreberg, L.H. (1990). Teaching English to children. New York: Longman Inc. Szpotowicz, M., Szulc- Kurpaska, M. (2000). Język angielski w zintegrowanym nauczaniu początkowym. Warszawa: Oxford UP. Szyszko-Bohusz, A. (1989). Pedagogika holistyczna. Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich. Vale, D., Feunteun, A. (1995). Teaching children English. New York: Cambridge UP.