How to effectively homeschool using the thematic approach to teaching

How to effectively homeschool using the thematic approach to teaching

Thematic approach to teaching…themes….unit studies…thematic units…thematic learning….these terms all refer to the type of teaching and learning where curriculum is organized into one theme for a certain amount of time.  This approach is quite effective, and there are so many benefits of thematic units.  Let’s look at why homeschooling parent might want to use thematic units to teach

Benefits of Thematic Approach to Teaching

  1. Incorporate hands-on activities easily
  2. Collaborative learning
  3. Students can make connections
  4. Includes all types of learning 
  5. Improves comprehension skills
  6. Engages students’ attention more readily
  7. Multi-level, multi-age learning
  8. Take a break from traditional learning
  9. Can use all homeschooling methods (Charlotte Mason, Montessori, Relaxed, etc)

Multidisciplinary Learning

There are several academic labels to the different types of thematic learning.  You don’t need to necessarily know the differences to use thematic learning in your homeschooling.  The most common type of thematic learning is the multidisciplinary learning model. Multidisciplinary learning is organized around the areas of study (for example: math, science, music, drama, etc).   Thematic units, fusion, service learning, learning centers, parallel disciplines are some of the varying kinds.

Literature can be a starting point for a unit study.

Yeah, the themes are cute, but do they work?

The cute little apples and pumpkins and bugs are adorable, but do kids really learn well this way?  Yes!  The benefits of the thematic approach to teaching are numerous.  Themes help keep students engaged in the subject and lessons and naturally lend themselves to fun activities that students love to do.  Also, when you use unit studies to teach, you can easily incorporate all types of learning: visual, auditory, social, kinesthetic, solitary, verbal, logical, and a mixture.  Mixing these different types of learning can keep students interested and absorbed in the topic and can appeal to more than one type of learner.

There’s not a “right” way to do thematic approach to teaching

You can teach thematic units any way you want.   There’s no way to mess this up, mama!  Just pick a way that feels like it will work best for your children.  Let’s look at some common (and not-so-common) ways of doing unit studies:

  1. All learning is planned around one theme.  This means that every subject and every lesson is related to the current theme.  You can even coordinate snacks to go along with the theme!
  2. Most subjects are planned around the current theme.  Some subjects are left out of the theme and taught in a different way.  Usually these subjects are ones like math and grammar. 
  3. A few subjects are taught using the current theme.  Some subjects just lend themselves better to teaching with themes, like literature, science, social studies, music, drama, art, and writing!
  4. One subject is taught using a theme.  Usually these subjects will be science or social studies.

Any of these will help facilitate learning!

There’s no right or wrong way to do unit studies.

How Long Do I Stay on One Theme?

Honestly, there’s no right or wrong answer to this.  Sometimes it depends on the subject of the theme.  If it’s a broad topic, plan on spending a little more time on it.   Unit studies can last anywhere from one week to 9 weeks!  Most common are one and two weeks.  But if you have a very broad topic like Earth Science, you can spend up to 9 weeks on such a big topic.  If you do a longer unit study (more than 2 weeks), I would just limit the theme to one or two subjects to prevent student burn-out on the topic. 

How do I pick a theme?

Picking a theme is the exciting part!  You can even brainstorm with your child to see what he or she would like to learn more about.   Letting your child have ownership in the decision of picking a theme can bring more excitement to the whole unit study.  

Another way to pick themes can be based on your state’s standards. Some states regulate what topics must be covered during the school year.  

A popular way to pick a theme is based on seasonal topics.  Certain topics lend themselves to easily be studied in certain months. For example, pumpkins are a great October theme.  Flowers are perfect for a spring theme when seeds can actually be planted outdoors.  

But my very favorite way to pick a theme is based on literature! Children’s books have been my inspiration for so many thematic units. Picture books just lend themselves perfectly to becoming the base for unit studies. Chapter books for older children can also be the foundation for a creative unit study!

Is the thematic approach to teaching only for younger children?

Nope!  Unit studies are a useful way to teach older children as well.  Science and history topics as well as literature make excellent topics for upper elementary, middle schoolers, and high schoolers.  As they get older, it’s less common to do whole curriculum thematic learning just for the fact that older students have so much pre-determined lessons that must be covered in order to graduate.  But it is still very possible to do some themed lesson plans.

Culmination of a Thematic Unit

Planning a big finish to the end of a unit creates anticipation for everyone involved!  Some ideas for the culmination of a thematic unit are the following:  field trip, a big display of things that were made during the unit, a meal that the children prepare, a celebration, a presentation of what has been learned to family members, a community service project, or a collaborative project.  Depending on the topic and how long spent on it could determine what would be a good activity for the end of the unit study. 

For example, a week-long unit on space could end with a field trip to a planetarium.  No planetarium nearby?  Maybe a night time family backyard outing to look at the stars would be nice or watching a kid-friendly space movie.  If you do a 2-week long unit study of Medieval History, an authentic medieval meal prepared by the kids would be fun and educational.  You don’t have to have a big finish for every single unit.  Just a few would definitely build interest and excitement for your kids!

When you start planning your thematic unit, start with the end in mind.

Is planning unit studies stressful?

Planning a themed unit can be stressful….if you let it.  The beauty of unit studies is that YOU can make it fit YOUR family, your lifestyle, your personality.  If you don’t like messy crafts, then don’t plan for them.  Don’t like group projects?  That’s fine!  Love reading aloud to your children?  Add a bunch of books to your unit study!  Field trips aren’t your thing?  Watch an online field trip!  This is your show!  You know your family….no one else knows your family like you do, right?  There’s no one right way to do unit studies.  

Thematic approach to teaching is just plain fun!

Thematic units are just plain fun!  They are fun to plan and fun to implement. I love seeing the excitement on my children’s faces when they are totally into a topic.  The kids love being involved in the planning process too.  Give them some choices on activities or projects or books, even topics.  They will feel ownership and strive for excellence.  

You won’t know if thematic units are right for your family until you try it.

Is this for me?

You won’t know if the thematic approach to teaching is for you and your family until you try it out!  You won’t mess up your current educational plan by just trying one week of a unit study.  If you are a unit study newbie, I do recommend getting a pre-planned themed unit to use at first.  Later as you find your groove, you can try your hand at planning your own unit.  But planning can be overwhelming until you know what works for your family. Be sure to check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store to look for activities to help you get started!

Where can I find ideas?

Pinterest and Instagram are my go-to destinations for ideas for thematic units!  Go the very top of this page to find links to my Pinterest boards and Instagram feed to find more ideas and to read my blog posts! One of the benefits of thematic units is that there is a plethora of ideas on the internet. You can find ideas on just about any topic you can think of.

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