Saturday, November 17, 2012

What Are Thematic Units?

Thematic Focus - Activities Tab
Thematic Focus - Activities Tab (Photo credit: krossbow)
by Shelly Anton

Thematic units are a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching based on a common theme or topic. Multi-disciplinary simply means, "of or relating to many different subject areas."

The teacher and/or students choose a topic based on their interests and learning goals. Engagement in this decision-making process develops a vested interest. This significantly increases motivation. Research shows that when learners are motivated, achievement increases!

Thematic units allow students to make connections and build more solid schema. Learning becomes purposeful when they can identify a common theme in all content areas, such as math, reading, science, social studies. The content areas are not limited to core areas.

Thematic units are even more powerful when art, physical education, music, technology, etc. are involved. When all content areas focus around a common theme, students gain an awareness of the interrelationships making learning more relevant. In addition, this allows for greater application of essential skills in all areas of life.

The duration of a unit may vary depending on the chosen theme. Some may extend several weeks, and some may last a few short days. Teachers are cautioned not to extend these lesson plans over too long of a period. Allow enough time for deeper levels of understanding but not so long to lose interest and limit time for other explorations.

Many teachers are fearful that themes chosen by children will deter from the common core learning objectives. However, it must be noted that the essential skills may be taught in any learning context.

Here are some examples:

Theme: Penguins
  • Math: Grade level math skills are learned with penguin graphics and manipulatives, such as counting, exploring population, word problems and more.
  • Reading: Penguin stories improve reading strategies to increase comprehension.
  • Language Arts: Vocabulary concepts are increased with penguin related words. English conventions are revealed when writing or speaking about penguins.
  • Science: Utilize comparing and contrasting skills to explore how these creatures differ from other birds.
  • Social Studies: Research and gain map skills to determine where these animals live.
  • Art: Art skills are used to create a habitat.
  • Music: Examine musical pieces from popular penguin movies. Compose original songs.
  • Physical Education: Build and participate in obstacle courses while following movements of this animal.
  • Writing: Students incorporate grade level writing skills while writing fiction or nonfiction stories about the subject.

Theme: Chocolate
  • Math: Candy pieces are used as manipulatives to learn math concepts and skills.
  • Reading: Read about the Cacao tree and use reading strategies for new concepts and comprehension.
  • Language Arts: A reader's theatre is created using English conventions and new vocabulary.Science: Describe the changes of matter that occur when chocolate is processed from the bean to the bar.
  • Social Studies: Research chocolate factories around the world, their location, history, etc. Economic skills may also be addressed.
  • Art: Candy wrappers are used to create an original collage.
  • Music: Explore musical pieces from popular chocolate factory movies.
  • Physical Education: Create games creating movement through a factory.
  • Writing: Poetry skills are enriched through writing activities about the topic.

It is important for teachers to answer the question, "What are thematic units?" This multidisciplinary approach engages students in learning that is based on a common theme in all subject areas. It can have profound effect on student achievement!

If you would like to download and print thematic lesson plans, visit this site: For more teacher resources, visit this blog written by a veteran teacher:

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