Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Thematic Teaching

Today I'm welcoming Melanie Speros to the Cozy Learning Cottage to tell us about how she uses themes to collaborate between EL teachers and Gen Ed teachers. 

I teach kindergarten at an elementary school with a high population (75%) of English Language Learners (ELL).  Many of my students are trying to learn the academic content and English at the same time.  I support this simultaneous learning with thematic teaching.  If you are an ESL teacher who provides push-in or pull-out support to students, you may already be working with themes in your language work.  Maybe the general education teachers are working with themes in their own classrooms.  If we coordinate and use the same themes together, our ELL’s subject-area learning can reinforce their language development and vice versa.

Using Themes with Beginning Readers
I realized how useful thematic teaching can be when I was working with my beginning ELLs.  During guided reading, when I would introduce a new text to my students, I would do a detailed book introduction.  We would talk about the pictures and practice using the vocabulary and language of the book, but when it came time to read it, they could not remember the vocabulary. 

One day one of my beginning ELLs was reading a page that said, “I see the boat.”  They stopped at the word boat and didn’t say anything.  After some prompting (with some blank stares and no attempts to read the word), I told them “boat.”  Then, on the next page, it said “I see the train.” But again, my student stopped at the word train.  With a fluent English speaker, prompts such as, “Check the picture” or “Make the beginning sound” would remind students to use all of the information on the page to read the word.  But I realized that prompts like these are useless if you don’t remember the word train.  Even if my student knew to check the picture, if they could not remember that that thing on the page was called a train in English, checking the picture would not help them solve the word.  Even if my student saw the word train and knew the /t/ sound, if they didn’t remember the word train the /t/ would not help them. 

I started teaching guided reading in themes, particularly with my beginning ELLs so that my students could use the same vocabulary across multiple texts.  I have seen amazing progress, lots of confidence, and many smiles as my students now read their books.  Using themes gave them a little extra support to take on the reading work.  It has been so exciting!

Using Themes Throughout the School Day
This got me thinking.  What if they saw that same vocabulary during math time when we were practicing addition story problems?  What if they heard that same vocabulary in our read aloud?  What if that was the vocabulary they were using during our designated ELD time?  I knew that thematic teaching would provide such an important support for my students.   

While vocabulary is only a small piece of ELD, it is the glue that holds it all together.  As an ESL teacher, if your goal is to work on using prepositional phrases, you would probably use sentence frames as a scaffold.  But what if the topic you chose was consistent with the read aloud the students had listened to earlier in the school day, or the same topic in their guided reading book? What if they had been reading books and solving math word problems on this topic all week?  Your ELLs would be hearing and practicing the vocabulary all day long!  Then, when it came time to practice prepositional phrases with your sentence frames, your students would be familiar with the vocabulary, and ready for the new language challenge.

ESL and General Education Teachers Working Together
Thematic teaching does not need to be complicated or elaborate.  Just collaborate on a theme.  Brainstorm vocabulary (nouns, verbs, adjectives) and think about areas where the theme may fit into the curriculum.  Don’t worry about fitting it into every part of your school day.  Here are some ideas for an ocean animal theme:

·       Solve math word problems about ocean animals
·       Use a survey about favorite ocean animals for sharing during Morning Meeting
·       Read aloud books about ocean animals or use ocean-themed books in shared reading
·       Find guided reading books about ocean animals for small group instruction
·       Use ocean animal examples in word study or word work (e.g. Correct grammar errors in sentences about ocean animals)
·       Write an informational piece about an ocean animal or write a story with ocean animal characters
·       Do an ocean animal art project
·       Sing songs about ocean animals

What are some themes you have used with your students?  When or how have you integrated it into the school day?

Melanie Speros is a kindergarten teacher in Southern California.  She believes in the importance of the home/school connection and using interactive and hands-on learning to maximize student engagement.  You can find her on, Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest, and Periscope.

Periscope: @melanie_speros

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