Strategy 3.2: Organize Instruction Around Themes. Teachers use thematic units to integrate English language skills with academic concepts across the curriculum, allowing students to better synthesize the material presented to them.
The importance of teaching reading and writing across the curriculum is now well established. When they help students perform experiments and write their findings in lab reports, science teachers are also writing and reading teachers. And mathematics teachers teach reading and writing when they ask students to read word problems and explain, in writing, how they solved them. Not surprisingly, recently established standards in the content areas now include communication standards involving writing as well as speaking, as students are unlikely to learn these skills in isolation, devoid of content.
The need to integrate reading and writing into content-area instruction is even greater when students are learning English. Students cannot be prepared for the academic language skills required for content-area classes or assessments without integrating these tasks, texts, and tests into their English-language instruction. Furthermore, students are unlikely to learn academic English unless they are provided with meaningful contexts and content in which to do so (Crandall & Tucker, 1990; Kessler & Hayes, 1989). Using thematic units to complement regular classroom instruction allows learners of English the opportunity to integrate their language skills in a variety of content areas. Studying relevant, meaningful topics increases motivation and enhances learning.
The use of thematic units may be schoolwide (e.g., in middle schools, organized into instructional teams), or the units may be developed by pairs of teachers (e.g., social studies and ESL) for use within a single classroom on any grade level that integrates language and content instruction. Teachers can choose (sometimes with student input) interesting topics or themes around which to build activities that tie in the content to be taught with corresponding language items from the areas of listening, speaking, reading, and writing (Enright & McCloskey, 1988).
As one teacher wrote in a reflective journal, “The approach that seems to be most successful is the approach that gets the most out of a lesson by stretching it across the curriculum.” Thematic instruction helps students to see connections and relate what they are learning in one content area with that of another. Without thematic links, learning can seem fragmented and unrelated, especially for students who are new to U.S. classrooms.
The following steps are helpful in developing a thematic unit:
1. Identify a theme or topic.
2. Identify appropriate texts to use or adapt.
3. Identify needed language, especially new vocabulary.
4. Identify academic concept objectives.
5. Identify critical thinking and study skills objectives.
6. Develop activities that
• Draw on students’ experiences.
• Are relevant to students’ lives.
• Are appropriate for a variety of learning styles.
• Develop learning strategies (thinking and study skills).
In an ideal thematic unit, all ways of learning are addressed: bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, and interpersonal (Gardner, 1993). The ideal unit also uses Gardner’s intrapersonal and natural intelligences to appeal to the learner.
Mr. Garcia recognized that his students’ interest in the Winter Olympic Games could provide a unifying theme for an ESL and social studies unit. He began by asking students what they knew about Japan, webbing their responses and organizing them into categories for further investigation by student groups (e.g., food, homes, sports, government, and families). Students presented their findings and used the information in a writing assignment that mirrored the functional writing test that the state required for high school graduation. In this assignment, students wrote a letter describing what they had learned about Japan to their cousin, who had just won a trip to Nagano to attend the Olympics.
During the two weeks of the Olympics, students added to their knowledge of Japan, filling the original web and keeping a tally of the medals that each country won. They also completed a daily chart of these medals and converted the information to line and bar graphs. They used these graphs and charts to help them learn English comparatives and superlatives, for example, better and best, more than and less than, worse and worst.
Mr. Garcia brought in the daily newspaper for students to use in determining when their favorite sports would be televised. They used that information and the results to report on the events as journalists, completing a 5-W Chart—Who, What, When, Where, and Why (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994) and summarizing the event. As a culminating activity, students worked in cooperative groups to prepare Olympic posters, taking roles such as poster designer and computer title creator. Social studies, mathematics, art, and English-language skills were all integrated into the project, and it was used as a means of preparing for their science fair projects in the spring.
Environmental and social issues provide particularly rich possibilities for thematic instruction. One high school used the rain forest as the focus of instruction for all students for eight weeks. A middle school team focused on endangered species for a similar period. After reading Brother Eagle, Sister Sky (Jeffers, 1991, Dial Books), in which a Native American laments humans’ destruction of the environment, students worked in groups to investigate the status of specific animals, focusing on distribution, habitat, food, speed and mode of travel, interactions with humans, and causes of endangerment. The students used the five themes of geography—location, place, region, movement, and interaction with the environment—as the basis for their investigations.
The middle school students presented their research results in a poster session, similar to what would be required in a science fair. They used latitude and longitude to allow others to locate specific places where the animals live, illustrated and identified specific landforms in the animals’ habitats, and explained why some animals are endangered. As a whole class, students brainstormed ways they might help reverse human destruction of the environment and move animals off the list of endangered species.
Even popcorn can unify concepts and language across the curriculum. Ms. Unger engaged her middle school students in a “Pop, Pop or Flop, Flop” unit that integrated mathematics, science, social studies, and language skills. To raise funds, students decided to sell popcorn. Ms. Unger suggested that they investigate which popcorn would provide the greatest return on investment and designed an experiment to compare various brands of popcorn. Students hypothesized that the most expensive popcorn would produce the fewest unpopped kernels. Each of her five classes tested one brand. They ran six trials for their brand, counting the number of kernels in a cup before popping and comparing that number with the number of unpopped kernels after popping, converting that to a percentage of popped corn, and then averaging the six trials. Each class contributed to a graph that enabled them to identify which popcorn produced the fewest unpopped kernels. To their surprise, the most expensive popcorn was not the best buy.
Other themes for secondary schools to use in integrating content and language instruction include immigration, nutrition, the solar system, the world family, themes from history, global issues, pollution, and peace.