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Why Thematic Teaching?

NOTE: Portions of the following essay are taken from Integrated Thematic Teaching, co-authored by Dwayne Douglas Kohn, published by The National Education Association (NEA)

Personally, I couldn't imagine teaching any other way than to do it thematically. I find thematic teaching to be the most efficient and entertaining way to teach children to read and write. Making lesson plans is a breeze since the activities naturally fall into place. Students are more interested and eager to learn. Even parents become more involved in the education process.

I began using thematic units almost 20 years ago. Before I made the change, I taught the way most teachers taught back then. We would read a story one week about a boy and his dog. The following week we would read about a dinosaur. There was no connection from one story to the next. Occasionally, the teacher's edition would suggest a dinosaur activity to go with the dinosaur story or a dog poem to go with the dog story, but that was about it. Nowadays, most commercially-produced reading programs are doing a better job of connecting weekly stories into a general theme. However, they still leave out the reminder of the day: math, social studies, science, art, etc.

I first learned about thematic teaching while I was teaching a fifth grade class in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The classroom that we were sent to observe was using the theme of the Pioneers and the Westward Trail to teach all of their academic areas. The students' desks were transformed into covered wagons and each student kept a journal of everything that they "saw" on their month-long journey. They used math skills to calculate the amount of supplies they would need, how many miles they would need to travel to reach the next outpost, and how much money they had left. The class created many examples of Native American art, listened to period music, and read many stories and books about life out on the prairies.

I could see how teaching around a specific theme made each new skill more meaningful. Rather than teaching new ideas in isolation, each new piece of information became a piece of a thematic puzzle. The students were able to build on prior knowledge and demonstrate understanding of new topics.

The following year I requested a first grade classroom and began to put the theories of thematic teaching into practice. My very first theme was "insects." Because I was a bilingual teacher, we did everything in both languages. I found that teaching English was more meaningful to the students using this process because they were already familiar with the concepts and vocabulary in their native language. Yet another benefit of thematic teaching!

Since we were going to spend all month on one theme, learning new songs, new vocabulary, etc., I decided that at the end of the month we would put on a show! We would make insect costumes and perform plays! We practiced a week before the show, invited the parents, and had a great time! Collecting materials for my various units has become my hobby- some may say it is my obsession. On many weekends you'll find me at yard sales looking for little knick-knacks that I can use in the classroom. Over the years I've found giant stuffed sheep for my farm animal unit, dress up costumes for my unit on careers, a stuffed snake for my wild animal unit, ceramic clowns for my circus unit, and plenty of posters, games, puzzles, books and toys for all of my units. When you walk into my classroom you immediately know what our theme is for that month!

The following are a few of the activities we did for our insect theme:


"The Ants Go Marching," "I'm Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee," "The Eentsy, Weentsy Spider," "Here is the Beehive," and many more, including a variety of songs in Spanish such as "La Cucaracha" and Spanish versions of the previous songs. We made "Bread and Butterflies" by cutting toast diagonally, adding a pickle body, licorice antennae, and decorating with strawberry jelly and colored sprinkles. We drew and painted various bugs, created dioramas and made a giant spiderweb by sitting in a circle and passing a black ball of yarn back and forth, across the circle.


"The Very Hungry Caterpillar," "The Ant and the Grasshopper," "The Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly," and a couple of original plays so that everyone would have at least one major speaking role (I had 34 students at this time). The students were assigned roles, given a script and practiced a couple of times before the big day. We created cloth and felt costumes (see Class Pictures on this website for photos). The classroom was packed with parents on the day of the show!


Newpaper ArticleNewspaper Article: Our Circus

We made an inchworm ruler and measured things in the classroom, matched ladybug spots to learn about symmetry, counted toy spiders, placed plastic flies in groups of ten, counted the legs of a centipede numberline to 100, added and subtracted using bug manipulatives and much more. Examples of word problems with bugs:

  • There are 3 ants. 6 more come. How many ants are there all together?
  • There are 2 spiders. They each have 8 legs. How many legs in all?
  • There were 9 bees in the hive. 5 left to look for flowers. How many bees are left?


Each student created a thematic journal in which we wrote about a different insect each day: comparing and contrasting insects and non-insects, describing our bugs, writing about which bug we'd like to be, etc. We used basic insect vocabulary to create new words. For example, to make rhyming word families:

bug - dug, hug, jug, mug, rug, tug, etc.
bee - fee, free, knee, see, tree, etc. PLUS: me, she, we, etc.
fly - by, my, shy, try, why, etc. PLUS: guy, hi, lie, pie, tie

We used these same words to discuss beginning sounds:

A: ant: apple, ask, at, add, etc.
B: butterfly: book, bad, bounce, baby, etc.
C: caterpillar: cat, catch, can, cone, etc.

and ending sounds:

T: ant: tent, test, want, cat
G: bug: bag, big, rag, etc.

compound words:

dragonfly, anthill, ladybug, butterfly, spiderweb, etc.

We also used our vocabulary word list to practice such skills as: spelling, alphabetizing, blends, antonyms, synonyms, dividing words into syllables, counting number of letters in a word and many others. We used our new vocabulary to create stories on thematic stationery shaped like bugs, which were then colored in, cut out and used to decorate the classroom.


  • Flashcard Match Game: Students match vocabulary word to picture of that insect.
  • Cross the River Game: Students must read flashcards correctly in order to cross the "river" and not fall into the water.

Of course, we read Eric Carle's famous insect books, as well as many others; fiction and non-fiction.


  • Bulletin boards with thematic fabric backing to display insect art and stories
  • Insect Book display featuring fiction and non-fiction titles
  • Insect toys/realia: plastic bugs, models, bug houses
  • Insect posters, flash cards, puzzles, games
  • Insect Zoo: aquariums filled with dirt, plants and insects. Students create labels and information displays.


We learned about 3 parts of an insect: the head, thorax and abdomen. We also learned that those tiny creatures that don't have three body parts and six legs are not insects. Most insects have antennea and wings (even ants have wings: the queens). We compared and contrasted insects and non-insects: ants, bees and flies vs. spiders, worms and snails. We went on various bug hunts around the school and playground in which we observed and caught insects for display in our "insect zoo." We drew and labeled the parts of a typical insect.

Mr. Kohn's Monthly Themes & Vocabulary Words

Beg: Minimum words ALL students must know
Med: Challenge words
High: Super Challenge words!
Sight Words: All must know
Make-a-word: rhyming families

September: The Circus

(Colors, Shapes, Letters & Numbers)
Beg: red, blue, pink, gray
Med: orange, yellow, green
High: white, black, brown, purple
Sight Words: The, is

October: Farm Animals

(Holiday theme: Halloween)
Beg: cat, dog, pig, hen, cow, hog
Med: sheep, barn, farm, bull, frog, duck
High: horse, chicken, turkey, farmer
Sight words: I, can, see, a, my, me, not

cat: bat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat
dog: fog, frog, hog, jog, log
pig: big, dig, fig, wig
hen: den, men, pen, ten
cow: how, now
can: fan, man, pan, ran, tan, van
sheep: beep, cheep, deep, keep, peep, sleep, weep
duck: buck, cluck, luck, suck, truck

November: Fruit & Vegetables

(Holiday theme: Thanksgiving)
Beg: eat, food, corn, apple, orange, banana, tomato, potato
Med: grape, pear, pumpkin, mushroom, cherry, fruit
High: carrot, watermelon, pineapple, strawberry, vegetable
Sight words: like, with, go, no, at, up, if, in, on, we, of, as, or, to, do, did

corn: born, horn, torn
grape: drape, tape
pear: bear, tear
cherry: berry, merry
my: by, fly, try
me: be, he
like: bike, hike, mike, trike
go: no, so

December: Home & Shopping

(Holiday theme: Christmas)
Beg: home, mom, dad, sister, brother
Med: door, window, floor, yard, room, bedroom, bathroom
High: garage, closet, hallway, stairs
Sight words: has, have, he, she, it, her, him, his, you, your

January: OPEN

(Holiday theme: New Year: calendar)
Beg: depends on theme
Med: depends on theme
High: depends on theme
Sight words: this, that, these, those, where, when, what, who, how

February: Transportation

(Holiday theme: Valentine's Day, Presidents)
Beg: car, bike, cab, sub, ship, sled, bus, van, gas, jet, tram
Med: train, horse, taxi, boat, blimp, skates, drive, truck, subway
High: motorcycle, hot air balloon, airplane, submarine
Sight words: down, little, could, would, after, long, come, some, over

car: bar, far, jar, star, tar
bike: hike, like, mike, pike
cab: dab, gab, jab, lab, nab, tab
sub: cub, hub, rub, tub
ship: dip, flip, hip, lip, nip, rip, sip, tip
sled: bed, fed, led, red, wed

March: Careers

(Holiday theme: St. Patrick's Day)
Sight words: just, very, which, many, there, are, time, than

April: Wild Animals

(Holiday theme: Easter)
Beg: cub, lion, fox, fish, owl, snake
Med: tiger, rabbit, bear, zebra
High: elephant, monkey, gorilla, giraffe
Sight words: was, were, about, said, most, find, out, then

fish: dish, wish
snake: bake, cake, fake, lake, make, rake, take, wake
bear: pear, tear, wear

May: Insects

(Holiday theme: Mother's Day)
Beg: bug, fly, moth, bee, ant, worm, spider, snail
Med: butterfly, ladybug, grasshopper, dragonfly
High: wasp, caterpillar, praying mantis, beetle
Sight words: words, first, been, make, made, look, use

June: The Ocean

(Holiday theme: Summer)
Beg: shell, fish, sea, shark, eel, sea star, seal, crab, lobster
Med: sea lion, sea horse, swordfish, sea turtle, stingray
High: dolphin, whale, walrus, octopus
Sight words: review all 100

Integrated Teaching Teaching ideasIntegrated Teaching Teaching ideas
This chart, page 57 in Integrated Thematic Teaching (published by NEA), contains some ideas on where to find materials for your themes.

Integrated Thematic Teaching Top Ten
Integrated Thematic Teaching Top Ten
Ten quick ways to liven up your thematic unit. Taken from page 51 of Integrated Thematic Teaching (written by Dwayne Douglas Kohn, published by the National Education Association - NEA)