Make Reading Relevant with Thematic Units

Build reading instruction around cross-curricular topics, essential questions, and project-based learning.

March 21, 2016
Jennifer Auten
Classroom teacher
Montclaire Elementary School
Los Altos, CA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Technology Integration

With a shift toward cross-curricular topics, essential questions, and project-based learning, my second graders are engaged in carefully structured reading themes or units rather than reading a new stand-alone picture book each week.

If you're interested in trying thematic reading units, here's a peek into my unit-design process:

Map out the themes.

Our topics change every two to four weeks and might be tied to a science or social studies unit, relate to students' place in the world, or be self-selected. For younger kids, themes might be animal life cycles, holiday celebrations, or pets. Older kids might focus on a particular event in United States history, aspects of a specific culture, or a general-interest topic such as skateboarding.   

The biggest limitation for younger students is finding materials written at an accessible reading level, but this can be overcome by focusing more on videos and finding books with a "read to me" feature.

Gather resources at a range of reading levels.

Prior to the start of each unit, I gather appropriate resources at a variety of reading levels (I usually group my students into three or four levels) from several free sites. Each unit typically includes a couple Zaption videos for everyone to view and, for each reading level, three to eight books and two to four articles.

The number varies depending on the amount of time we spend on a unit and the quantity of materials I can find. Units for younger students might include more read-aloud content while units for upper elementary or middle school students might focus more heavily on articles or reading parts of nonfiction texts.

Use online resources for added reading features.

In my class some books and articles are read by all students so we can have a common conversation, and others are read by a subset of the class, based on reading level. Some of the books offer a "read to me" feature, so I can assign books to students at a more difficult level than they might be able to access independently.

For elementary school-age students, I recommend looking for ebooks at Epic! -- Unlimited Books for Kids and Zing!, created by Schoolwide. Both offer thousands of free ebooks and make searching by title, author, and topic easy. In addition, both provide reading-level information for many of the ebooks and are accessible on a variety of devices including laptops and iPads.

Epic! is an excellent resource for well-known fiction and nonfiction books, and the books can be read offline. Zing! allows students to take notes and highlight text. I can view the notes and highlights on my teacher dashboard, although I often ask students to take a screenshot of their thoughts and add it to their Seesaw e-portfolios so their parents can also see their thinking.

In addition, ReadWorks is a fantastic repository of fiction and nonfiction articles at different Lexile levels and with varying topics. Teachers can search for passages geared toward specific reading skills such as author's purpose or cause and effect. When I find articles that fit an upcoming theme, I upload them to Actively Learn and add comprehension questions, photos, and any notes that will add to student understanding.

Newsela, Tween Tribune, and Wonderopolis are other websites that offer interesting articles geared toward students, and although the reading levels don't always extend low enough for second graders, they are useful for older students.

Organize the unit materials.

Once I've compiled the resources, I create a Google Drive folder with the unit name. Within the folder I create a Google Doc listing the directions and Zaption links. I also include rubrics for any work students will complete. These documents are used by all students.

In addition, for each reading level I create a Google Doc listing the specific resources (books and articles to be read) for that group. Students can independently access the necessary materials at any time during the unit. My students use iPads, but the websites we use are also available on computers, which makes it convenient for students who are absent to participate no matter which device they have at home. Although I'm in a 1-to-1 classroom, students complete the unit activities with a partner to encourage read-aloud practice, rich discussion, and collaboration.

Build in comprehension activities throughout.

As students read, I include a variety of comprehension activities to hit different reading skills and prevent students from getting bored or losing focus. The Google Doc with directions indicates the specific graphic organizer they are to complete, or sometimes I offer a choice among several graphic organizers.

After reading Epic! books, students complete a graphic organizer in the Tools4Students app. Tools4Students doesn't have a website, but in a classroom without iPads students could complete a graphic organizer on paper. Students share their Zing! highlights and notes with me to show their ability to find key points and evidence.

Students answer comprehension questions in Actively Learn as they read the articles, and I can see their answers on my teacher dashboard. Students also have the ability to view and comment on responses left by their peers in Actively Learn. These three reading resources therefore provide students with different methods of practicing reading-comprehension strategies. Students share all their work with me using the Seesaw eportfolio app.

Begin and end with essential questions.

Each unit begins with the introduction of an essential question. As the year progresses and students get the hang of essential questions, they create additional essential questions for the unit. We brainstorm information they'll need to know to successfully answer my essential question and record what they already know about the topic. Students continue to add to these charts as the unit progresses.

During the themed unit, we continually refer back to our essential questions. Students have time at the end of the unit to create a presentation answering the questions and providing evidence from their reading. They can use any app of their choice, with popular choices being Educreations, My Story, Haiku Deck, Adobe Voice, Pages, and 30Hands. For classrooms with computers or Chromebooks, Google Slides or Explain Everything would be perfect presentation tools.

Students share their presentations with the class so they have an opportunity to learn more about their classmates' thinking and the books they didn't have an opportunity to read.