Using themes in your classroom has so many benefits for both you and your students. One of the biggest impacts it has on students is that it greatly expands their vocabulary. I usually cover a theme for two-week blocks with my class and I embed the theme into all subjects and activities throughout the day. Here is how I build vocabulary with theme units.
Why use theme units
Thematic units are great for helping teachers organize their day and lesson plans. When used to plan for lessons and activities across the day, it immerses students in the vocabulary and concepts. It’s a great way to teach vocabulary. Read Using Thematic Units For Instruction for tips on meeting IEP goals and standards with theme units.
how to target vocabulary
First, start by choosing 5 to 8 core theme words that you want to focus on. You can increase or decrease the number of words you start with depending on the levels & needs of your students. I like to choose some words my students may be familiar with and some they may not.
Next, we read the words together, go over the definitions, talk about function/features/class, and use the words in sentences. This is a great time to assess how much background knowledge students have on the theme or topic and what you need to teach.
As the week goes on, we add more words or switch out some of the easier words for more complex ones to keep the focus on building vocabulary. We expand from writing group sentences to writing paragraphs and stories using the words. They are exposed to these words over and over again (both weeks) because we incorporate the theme into all areas of their day.
build vocabulary in reading
Theme units should easily integrate into reading instruction. In order to teach or build vocabulary, students need to be immersed in the words and concepts.
In activities like ELA groups and writing centers they are working with the theme words, reading them, hearing them, discussing them and writing them. Here are some examples:
- Read and alphabetize the theme vocabulary words. Students can write or move the word wall cards around to put them in order.
- Choose two words to compare and contrast in a discussion or using a Venn diagram. This is a great way to target feature, function, and class, too.
- Have students pick a word and draw it to demonstrate their comprehension of the vocabulary word.
- Pick 1 to 3 words and have students come up with a sentence using all of the words.
- Focus on feature, function & class by having the students describe or give clues about one of the words for someone to guess.
- Switch out the books on your class bookshelf so that the books they are reading and being read go with our theme as well.
Build vocabulary in math
Switch the hands-on materials you use during instruction and centers to fit the theme unit. This keeps the vocabulary & concepts front and center while working on math concepts and skills.
- Use themed clip cards in centers and independent task boxes.
- Incorporate the theme into word problems.
- Use manipulatives that support the theme (example: students use vehicle erasers manipulatives during the transportation unit).
games & activities to teach vocabulary
- Write the room themed activities are a great way to get students up and moving while targeting vocabulary and ELA concepts. Each of my theme units includes 2 different levels of write the room activities.
- Hangman is a fun way to build vocabulary and ELA concepts. You can play the game with a single vocabulary word or a sentence containing the word(s).
- Obstacle courses with the vocabulary words and/or pictures at the end. Depending on the student’s level, I will either give them a clue for which word I want them to find or simply tell them which picture to get and they try to find the correct one and bring it back to me. Obstacle courses are a fun way to build vocabulary, combine movement & learning and meet sensory needs.
build vocabulary in therapies
Students shouldn’t just be using a theme unit in the classroom. Our students need lots of repetition and varied practice in order to learn and generalize. Make sure you share a list of the theme units and vocabulary words you are working on with your students’ therapists. There are many ways to embed the vocabulary into therapy sessions. Here are some ideas from my team:
- In PT, students will throw themed objects into the buckets or targets.
- Our OT will use puzzles, worksheets and manipulatives related to our theme unit to build vocabulary and fine motor skills at the same time.
- Speech therapy is the easiest related service to support and teach vocabulary. Any or all of the examples listed in the ELA section would apply to speech therapy. Your SLP may also choose theme vocabulary to target articulation goals.
Students should be immersed in the vocabulary words and concepts in everything they do throughout their day. Every time a student is exposed to the theme words, they are broadening their understanding of it, so that by the end of the two week period, they have a much deeper knowledge of the theme and all the vocabulary words that go with it.
By embedding the theme into all aspects of the day, we have been able to move past learning simple vocabulary to more complex words and concepts. I have seen tremendous growth in building vocabulary through using themes in my classroom!