A thematic approach to teaching and learning
What is a thematic approach?
This is a way of teaching and learning, whereby many areas of the curriculum are connected together and integrated within a theme.
It allows learning to be more natural and less fragmented than the way, where a school day is time divided into different subject areas and whereby children practice exercises frequently related to nothing other than what the teacher thinks up, as he or she writes them on the chalk board.
It allows literacy to grow progressively, with vocabulary linked and with spelling and sentence writing being frequently, yet smoothly, reinforced.
It guides connected ideas to follow on easily.
It is, after all, how we, as adults, learn new things. Don’t we start at a point of interest and branch out from it like ripples from a stone thrown in the water?
The result of working the thematic approach way is that often children:
will have fun,
will be more actively involved,
will develop learning skills more quickly, as each one is connected to and reinforced by the other,
will be more confident and better motivated,
will present fewer discipline problems.
The result of working the thematic approach way is that often teachers:
will find teaching more fun,
will find teaching less hard work….
………but will still find teaching exhausting!
(Sorry, I have not yet found out how to overcome the exhausting bit, so can give no tips here!
But I can wish you all, good luck!)
Choosing your theme
Your theme might be:
straight from your National Curriculum Guidelines or,
about a special occasion or local festivity or,
around a story book or a set book area of study or,
an interest that just happens to have taken over the children’s or your imagination at the moment.
For example: Grade K National Curriculum Language Arts, first weeks of school.
Theme: Celebrations (as starting school should feel like a celebration.)
This teacher started with the theme of birthdays.The children will help her decide on some labels.
Grade K theme, Celebrations
You just allow the idea into your head and start to let it grow in the way a teacher can look at an empty cornflakes box and ask “How many different ways can I use it in the classroom?”
You need to think:
Which areas of grammar can I glean from the theme? (Punctuation, sentence construction, speech marks etc.)
Which areas of spoken and written vocabulary can I work on for spellings within this theme?
Which different genres can I get the children to write in, using this theme as the starting point..like letter writing, imaginative writing, recorded writing, play writing, how to writing, poetry writing, reported writing etc?
Which other curriculum areas can be easily and naturally connected to this theme?
How can I make this theme have a visual impact on my classroom?
How can the pupils and I present the work so that everyone feels they want to say “Wow”?
How can we let others know about the work we are doing. like parents, other teachers, other children..(School Assembly, inviting another class to visit, doing a play etc)
A simple example of starting and developing a theme is of a Pre K class of 12 children, where there were limited opportunities for imaginative or creative play. I suggested making a home corner by swiveling a book case so it made a right angle to the classroom wall and adding two old plastic easels where the paper supports no longer existed and were now spaces! These spaces became the house “windows”. The children made plant pots and flowers for the “window boxes” (the old paint pot trays). They helped draw and colour a third window to stick on the wall. We worked out how many curtains we would need for our three windows and I made six simple curtains on which they did sponge prints. They incorporated sorting skills when we found some plastic fruits and vegetables and they each made a paper plate which we stuck on a painting of shelves and they talked about how many of the 12 plates would go on each shelf if we had 3 shelves.
Then we made a book about all this using low reading age score words in simple sentences. The book was put in the book nook and individual children could be found spending a long time “reading” the pages of the book called “Our little house”.
Click here for more on using “Our little house” as a thematic approach
“How long should the theme last before I drop it?” ask many teachers.
The answer from me is
“As long as it is useful in the learning situation! Don’t stop before you have given time to thinking out all its possibilities. And on the other hand, don’t make it last so long that it is becoming stale. Like anything you use in the classroom, you have to be aware of the interest level of the children and take this as your yardstick.”
Presenting a theme
Setting up the environment of the classroom
Organise the classroom to set up a central display, perhaps a model or a large wall display, so there is space around your theme area for the children to sit close to it during talking and listening time. It is easier for them to imagine the events going on if they can see the setting, (and why should the teacher always have the best view?) Then the fun starts!
Setting up the model
This could be “Bottle Village”, or a space station, a shop, an underwater scene, a restaurant, a home corner.
Cover the wall or display area with anything you have available that can be used as a background.
Be imaginative and creative about how you build up the display using boxes, coloured paper, fabric.
Think 3 dimensionally. Displays are more exciting if they are not placed flat and squarely onto a wall. Think about this when displaying sheets of paper with written work on too.They don’t have to be set flat on the wall, but can be waved with a space under the “wave”.
Clearly, and using lettering appropriate to the child’s reading ability, label the main things on the display. Later, a child can collect up the labels and put them back in the correct place. With good quality labeling, the children can refer to the labels or go and collect and return them when they are writing and want to be sure of a spelling.
(Or provide each child with a thumb indexed word book, an exercise book in which they collect the words they want to use.This way they feel grown up, independent and need only ask once for each word.)
Once the display is ready
Invite the children to sit around the display and discuss it. Allow them to invite children from other classes to come in and see it.
Give ample time thinking and talking; both are important facets before the start of writing.
Talk about what they see in the display, what it is about, how it makes them feel, what they might add to it.
If it is a place, talk about the sounds, the smells, the way being there would make them feel.
Encourage adjectives and adverbs from younger children, similes and metaphors from older ones.
Please note….The children should feel familiar with the display and should not feel it’s a “Don’t touch” place.
Explaining the theme
Have the children around you and near to the model as you explain the theme. Get them to practice carefully moving from their seats to the theme area, so that a calm atmosphere is created and maintained. Once there, they need to be in the best possible position that will encourage them to give you their full attention and not be distracted.
An important point for creating this is that there needs to be lots of two way eye contact. If they can see you looking at them and giving them your attention, they are more inclined to look at you and give you theirs. (Also they need to have opportunities during their school day, to be in different parts of the classroom and moving to the display area is one opportunity to put this into practice. They need to see the room from different aspects. Well, would you want to sit in the same place all day and everyday?)
Be brave and use different voices for the different characters who might speak. Put lots of expression in your voice and try to make sure the children are visualising as you go.
Point as you go, to the various things on the display.
Children like to look as well as to listen and the two activities aid the memory and concentration process.
When you are not reading the book, leave it in a place where the children can readily pick it up to read themselves. (They must promise not to tell the ending to others if they get that far in the story).
Never hide a book you are reading away in a drawer for another time. By doing that you are missing out on an ideal opportunity to encourage someone to read, and we never want to do that!
The best thing is to prop the book on a stand, (maybe made from an old wire coat hanger), and keep this on the actual display to temp anyone to have a read.
Make the whole thing fun.
Thinking about Writing
Visual memory promotes independent writing and good quality displays promote visual memory.
Once writing has started, allow children to leave their seats to go to the display for words.
They can copy the word they need, but they should, when ready, be encouraged to go and look,“write the word in their brain” and return to their work, remembering the word shape.They can always go back again and check.This is important. It encourages visual memory and improved spelling.
The children need vocabulary word lists (a word wall) to refer to when they are writing.A word wall will make the children more independent, less frustrated and more constant in the focus on the theme of their writing. A line of children lining up at the teacher’s desk for words is time wasting for both you and them and it is distracting for the others who are trying to work.
Leave some wall or shelf space nearby for labeled additional displays that enhance the theme and that then becomes a gallery for the children’s work to be displayed and celebrated.
Putting pencil to paper……
Remember, always pre-empt this with lots of looking, thinking, talking and discussing.
As E.M. Forster said,
“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
1. For younger ones
Get them to draw a picture and write a sentence about it. The youngest ones will need you to write the words so that they can copy your writing. Offer a variety of ideas for the drawing, but do not impose your own. After all, how do you know what they are thinking of drawing?
Do not be the teacher who asked a child what she was drawing and the child said “God”
The teacher inappropriately said, “But no one knows what God looks like!”
The child answered ,”They will in a minute!”
Cloze cards This is usually a card with a picture on it related to a few sentences, each sentence having a word missing. (Making these is where your Picture Library comes in handy!)
At the bottom of the card, maybe in different colours, is a jumbled list of the missing words.
1.First stage cloze procedure cards, usually have the missing word at the end of each sentence, progressing to later cards with the missing words being in the middle of each sentence and finally to the more difficult cards being with the missing word at the beginning of the sentence.
Cloze work encourages children to take contextual clues, an essential reading skill for all readers.
Cloze also allows the children to work independently.
Make a sequence of cards getting the children to work through this sequence, so ending up with a complete story.
This could be a shortened version of the theme story, or it could be the Christmas story , in which case the teacher can illustrate this set of work cards by using a sequence of Nativity pictures from old Christmas cards.etc. The cards will last for years if each one is protected in a see-through plastic bag whilst the children are working from them.
If the children work on a sheet of exercise paper to do their writing and illustrating, a sheet for each work card, then, the completed pages can be stuck on a long sheet of paper that has been zig zag folded and the final result would be a Christmas Story zig-zag book that will stand up as a display. Children like to take this home for Christmas and the fact that they know this will be special and looked at by visitors, encourages them to make a particularly good job of their work
2. Question cards
For the next stage, progress to question cards, insisting that the answers are given as complete sentences.
If the theme is not a story, try to put a story into it in the way in which you present it.
Remember that when you read to them, you are also being a role model for when they read.
If the theme is story book based, here is an introduction to the theme tips.
Case studies so far:
1) “Our little house” by Pre K… for the youngest children.
2) “Bottle Village ” by Chris Lawrence…for primary and low-attainment secondary pupils.
3) “A Cow called Boy” by C Everard Palmer…for older primary/ early secondary pupils.