Building the Backbone of a Thematic Unit

By Phil Kitchel posted 09-27-2022 06:00 AM


By Brian Williams and Kristen Wawer


Implementing a thematic unit is an effective way to integrate standards, content, and culture into instruction. This type of unit will allow you to organize curriculum around a central theme. Specifically, a thematic unit is a series of lessons and activities that integrate a variety of topics that tie into a main theme (Brodzik et al., 1996). This method of curriculum organization will allow you to discuss important issues, bring together different kinds of materials, and have students work to make connections between course concepts and their own lives (Mitchell & Young, 1997).

Introduction to Implementation

To begin a thematic unit, you have to consider two basic components: creating a central theme and creating essential questions.

It goes without saying that all of this is predicated upon your knowledge of your students’ reading and academic levels so instruction can be tailored to individual needs. Each of these components runs parallel to a backward-design approach. This means that, as you begin to design the unit, you must start with the anticipated learning outcomes and the standards-aligned assessment that will drive the unit.

Create a Central Theme

Your first step in creating a thematic unit is to create the central theme, something that is broad and ties various concepts together. The theme needs to engage students’ readiness and interests. You should also be ready and interested in supporting your students through the analysis of the theme.

Many beginning teachers often confuse themes and topics, but a theme is different from a topic. A theme is something that requires analysis, opinion, and judgement. Topics maintain a surface-level status quo of a curriculum, but don’t encourage deep intellectual dives into ideas that could springboard students into action. An example of a topic that can be turned into a theme is “Change.”

For the purposes of this exploration, one example of a strong theme is “Becoming an Agent of Social Change.” This theme can be explored across time and geography and can empower students to take action on something deeply personal that will better connect them to themselves, their classmates, and their communities. Make sure you generate a strong theme before creating essential questions or choosing texts.

Create Essential Questions

After you determine the theme, create three to five essential questions that will guide the unit. Creating strong essential questions for a thematic unit is different from creating focus questions or standards-aligned questions. Essential questions must be open-ended, debatable, and personally relevant. Students can engage with the questions through a deep analysis of both their lived experiences and the texts they are reading.

Given the theme of “Becoming an Agent of Social Change,” related essential questions could include:

  • What are my roles in my community?
  • What are the issues that affect me and are most important to me?
  • What techniques have others used to effect social change?
  • How can I effect change in my community?

All these questions are compelling to students personally and are answerable through the exploration of various genres. No matter how you decide to organize your unit, you should always stress these essential questions: They are the link between the students in the classroom and their increasingly complex analysis of themselves, their communities, and each other.

Concluding Thoughts

An ability to create a strong thematic unit can be advantageous for you as a beginning teacher. Teaching and learning can be fun and productive the thematic way—integrating a variety of topics into a series of lessons that tie into the main theme! A good start to constructing an effective unit consists of creating a strong theme and essential questions. Thematic units built this way can be a springboard for academic proficiency and student engagement. As a result, students will be prepared to tackle course content, appreciate and celebrate diverse perspectives, and take what they are learning beyond the confines of the classroom. No longer will you struggle to adapt your curriculum to the lives of your students to get them to think deeply about course concepts. Now you have a blueprint to create central themes and essential questions that will further develop your students academically. We hope you’ll be able to successfully infuse content and student interests into the curriculum through this thematic roadmap!

Dr. Williams is an Associate Professor at North Carolina A&T State University in the Department of Educator Preparation. He teaches courses on literacy, classroom management, and assessment. His research interests include content area literacy, teacher preparation, and culturally sustaining pedagogy.

Ms. Wawer is a Multi-Classroom Leader in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools District. She leads English Language Arts teams in the intentional implementation of effective curricula by setting long-term visions and goals, coaching teachers, and working directly with students.


Brodzik, K., Macphee, J., & Shanahan, S. (1996). Materials that make the mark: Using thematic units in the classroom. Language Arts, 73(7), 530–541.

Mitchell, D., & Young, L. (1997). Creating thematic units. The English Journal, 86(5), 80–84.