Importance of Thematic Units

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It is so fun to look at all the adorable themes for little learners on Pinterest.  From apples and pumpkins to bugs and flowers, there are so many cute ideas for your students.   But, how can these “cute” thematic unit activities teach students what they need to learn in the classroom?

What is a Thematic Unit?

A thematic unit is a curriculum or lesson plan designed around a specific theme or subject.  Thematic units involve creating a series of integrated lessons for all content areas, reading, writing, math, science, etc. that are supported by the theme being studied.  In a nutshell, you choose a theme (apples) and incorporate it through your day, week or even month of instruction.

Children should be able to experience curriculum across the domains of learning.  We should create units that make connections cognitively, emotional, physically and socially with learners. And provide them with the opportunity to meet the objectives of all domains.

Students should experience learning through all content areas.  Learning should be applied to real-life situations and by doing so we allow our students to see its value.  Some themes may not be a good fit for introducing new skills.  Creating review lessons, centers or activities is an excellent way to incorporate an engaging theme.

Teachers should also consider students’ interests when teaching a thematic unit.  It is easy for teachers to stick to a plan and not waiver.  However, if a student goes on a cruise and learners question how such a big boat can float or how they pack all the food…you might consider creating a theme of instruction to explore the topic.

Why Use a Thematic Unit?

Thematic units can result in a lot of craftivities, colorful centers, thoughtful conversation and fun read alouds.  There are so many reasons why using integrated thematic units can benefit your learners.

  • Helps students engage with the content being taught
  • Allows students to apply content throughout curricula
  • Learners are able to make connections
  • Draws from past experiences and prior knowledge
  • Develops vocabulary and comprehension skills

Where’s the Research?

As an early childhood teacher, one of my goals was to teach my students using best practices in the classroom.  I subscribed to magazines, read articles and books every summer to help plan for the upcoming school year.  As an education blogger, I feel it is my responsibility to have research to back up my ideas.  This is no different.

Susan B. Neuman of New York University addresses the use of content-rich shared reading experiences to build student vocabulary, conceptual development, and content knowledge.

According to Neuman (2016), it is necessary “for educators and researchers to develop more intensive and intentional opportunities for children to integrate their vocabulary and content knowledge.” (p. 655).

The Common Core State Standards Initiative states that “by the end of kindergarten, children are expected to possess the academic language associated with information text and be able to acquire knowledge through these texts” (p. 655).

Using informational texts “could additionally provide preschool children with techniques for better-comprehending information text” (p. 655).

Where do we start?

In the early years of schooling, children learn so much about learning.  Our goal as educators should be teaching them to ask questions, investigate, use their resources, and never stop learning.  We need to light a fire and provide them with the skills they need to learn.

As we plan our lessons, this goal needs to remain at the forefront of our minds.  The way I try to accomplish this goal is to “learn with my students”.  When I plan my read alouds, the questions I will ask, the comments I will make, the activities we will complete, I am also a learner.

This gives my students the opportunity to share their own knowledge and experiences.  It also allows me the chance to model how to learn from everyday tasks, like reading a book, walking outside, or completing an assignment.  I can show them how to never stop learning.

How to Plan a Content-Rich Thematic Unit?

After I plan my year at a glance I focus on the themes I will teach each week.  My first goal is to understand the objective of the week.

For example, my scarecrow unit may seem cute and underwhelming.  But the lessons are focused a moral that is related to a scarecrow themed text.  Each read aloud pairs with a fable to help learners understand the moral and relate it to their own lives.

That leads to my next step, the shared reading texts.  After I have determined my objective I look for texts that will engage students through the read aloud and discussion.  This is honestly the most time-consuming part of the planning process in my opinion.

Choosing a text takes a lot of thought, planning, and experience.  I may think I have the perfect book, but my students may disagree.  Listening to and discussing with them allows me to improve as I teach.

Next up is the activity that goes with our read aloud.  Sometimes we read the book in the morning and complete the activity in the afternoon.  Other times we complete and activity as a whole group or split off into partner groups.  Changing it up keeps my learners on their toes and their brains always working.

Finally, I integrate our theme.  If you look at my thematic units you will see poems, readers, interactive pocket charts, literacy centers, math centers, vocabulary word walls, and more!  These are all a part of how I incorporate our thematic unit through our day and week.

Are Thematic Units for You?

Honestly, there is only one way to find out.  Give them a try and see how your learners respond to them.

You may be a teacher that enjoys focusing on an objective for each content area without mixing them up. Teach how you need to!

You may enjoy having a theme day here and there to engage your learners, but doing units throughout the year is too much.  Teach how you need to!

You may get giddy when someone wants to plan a thematic unit and you can’t wait to #planallthethings. Teach how you need to!

Whatever you do in your classroom I urge you to do what will help you and your students learn and grow to your full potential together…theme or not!

Interested in Trying?

If you are interested in seeing what thematic units have to offer then check out the themes I have.  You might want to give one a shot or grab them all.  See what works for you and check them out by clicking on the MJCS store link below!


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progress monitoring in the early elementary classroom for math, literacy and reading