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Thematic Units

Vanessa Whittaker, Exploring Approaches to Home Education Seminar, Adelaide 2008

What is a thematic unit?

A thematic unit is when we cover a range of curriculum areas with one topic. See an example below of a unit of work, the for which the starting point was the book, 'Brighty of the Grand Canyon' by Marguerite Henry. (I will have other plans at the seminar)

Thematic learning has been called 'project learning' or 'passion learning'. This is a definition I like because it is the children's passion or interest which makes this type of learning work for our children. It enables us to have a starting topic which our children are interested in or passionate about and they then want to find out information, so they will research and find the answers to questions and record their response.

How do you plan a unit?

The following is is what we do at home.

At the end of the year I ask the children to make a list of five topics they want to learn about and I make a list of five things. I write them up on a big piece of paper and then the children prioritise the topics and we plan for the top 10-12 for the following year. This involves the children needing to negotiate and coming to some agreement about the topics and the order.

After the topic is chosen, I sit down to with their plan and see if it works because I may know that one topic would be a good precursor to another. It is then my role as the facilitator of their learning to find the resources for them to use. Sometimes I may start with a fiction book for a literature Unit. For example, last year we began with "Brighty of the Grand Canyon" . This led us onto a study of the animals, as well as comparing donkeys with horses. The children learned of the different animals of the Grand Canyon, about the Grand Canyon, the geology of the area, the environment and the elements which impact the area. We were introduced to Theodore Roosevelt, who later became President of the USA; the children researched his life and learned how to write a biography. We then went on to study the American Indian tribes of the region, which then led us onto study other tribes throughout the USA which in turn led us to study Explorers of the Americas.

Then we make a list of questions for the children. Often we will use graphic organizers , like the KWL or KWHL chart (examples of these provided at the end of these notes) to find out what is already known on a topic and what we would like to learn about a topic; how we will learn or find out information on a topic. We use the internet as well as books. We check to see if there non-fiction books available as well as fiction at the library, and think about what excursions we can could do, if there are DVDs or relevant music we can use. At the end we add the information we learned during the time of the project.

We then decide how the project will be presented. Is it to be in an exercise book, a portfolio, a Lap-book, file folder, a scrapbook or some other format? The portfolio is one of the most common ways we work but we often use lap-books as well. The Lap-book is bright, visually stimulating and it is fun and engaging to open the mini books to read the completed information. It breaks down the topic into small manageable tasks. Each question response is a small book. If a child has difficulties with learning it may be much less intimidating for them. After all they only need to complete a mini book. But the important thing is that information is learned and a response completed.

I record our themes and create the activities with objectives in mind. I have attached an example of the record keeping I complete for the themes we complete. This is the example from the 'Grand Canyon Unit' our children completed last year.

Unit Topic: The Grand Canyon

Purpose: To read the novel, 'Brighty, of the Grand Canyon', as the beginning of a unit to learn about the Grand Canyon .


  • Children will read the books about the Grand Canyon and watch the DVD's to gain information about the Grand Canyon .
  • Children will then use the information found to complete various activities from the BLM, 'Geology' by Kathee Gosnell, part 4. A unit from Teacher Created Resources
  • Children will read through the activity sheets downloaded from " Grand Canyon National Park " education website and complete the activities they can. (some may be returned to at a later date)
  • Children will complete the craft activities relating to animals which are found in and around the Grand Canyon from 'More crafty Rhymes and Activities', by Helen Fletcher.
  • Children will colour in their copy of 'The Grand Canyon National Park Coloring Book', to learn about the people, flora and fauna of the area.
  • Children will learn how to write a biography and then practice by searching for information about Theodore Roosevelt who became President of the USA , and completing the graphic organizer.


  • "Geology", by Kathee Gosnell, Teacher Created Resources, ISBN:978-1-55734-240-9, section 4: 'Brighty of the Grand Canyon' by Marguerite Henry, Scholastic 1967.
  • Novel, 'Brighty of the Grand Canyon' by Marguerite Henry, Aladdin Fiction, © renewed 1981.
  • DVD, 'Brighty of the Grand Canyon' with bonus features ©2003 Stephen Booth Productions + the activity sheet downloads from the CD-rom aspect on the DVD.
  • DVD, 'Rainbow of Stone: A Journey Through Deep Time in the Grand Canyon'.
  • DVD, 'The Grand Canyon Collection'. © 2004, Grand Canyon Association.
  • The Grand Canyon Newspaper, 'A Quick Look' © 2001 Grand Canyon Association.
  • Grand Canyon Stacking Blocks, © 2005, Grand Canyon Association.
  • The Grand Canyon National Park Coloring Book, © 1989, Earth Walk Press.
  • 'An Introduction to the Grand Canyon' by L. Greer price, © 1999, Grand Canyon Association. ISBN 0-938216-68-6.
  • 'Exploring the Grand Canyon' © Lynne Foster, Paperback edition 2005, ISBN 0-938216-33-3.
  • A Kaleidoscope Kids Book, "Geology Rocks' © Cindy Blobaum, 1999. ISBN 1-885593-29-5.
  • 'More Crafty Rhymes & Activities' © Helen Fletcher, 7 th printing 2000 by Holding Educational Aids, ISBN 0949207-16-0.

Web Downloads:

Research - The Grand Canyon

(using 'A Quick Look' information newspaper, © 2001, Grand Canyon Association)

[format the following questions on a page with spaces for the child to write his or her answers.]

  • How many square miles does the Grand Canyon protect?
  • Can you do the math calculation to find out how many square kilometres this equal?
  • What are the names of the three bordering American Indian Tribes?
  • What is the Grand Canyon's deepest point from the rim to the river?
  • How many people visit the Grand Canyon each year?
    Why is the North Rim closed from late October to mid May each year?
  • How old are the oldest rocks found at Grand Canyon ?
  • Are these the oldest rocks in the world?
  • What was John Wesley Powell the first person to do at the Grand Canyon ?
  • How long has the Grand Canyon been protected as a National Park?
  • What geological processes have contributed to the formation of the Grand Canyon ?
  • How many species of birds live in Grand Canyon's different habitats?
  • What is the oldest evidence of humans in the Grand Canyon ?
  • Who did Marguerite Henry write about it in her book?
  • How many acres of land does the National Park Service administer? Who owns this land?
  • What are some of the most important environmental issues which concern the Grand Canyon National Park managers?
  • When is it a good time to visit the Grand Canyon ?

Graphic Organisers

Topic/Lap book Planner: (reproduce and reformat to fit A4 page)


Activity list












(physics, earth sciences, biology, chemistry)



Society &


(history, geography & social sciences)




Art, Design, Technology, Health,




Record answers in the columns to help you plan your unit study.

What we

What we
WANT to know

HOW we
will learn

we have learned







Organise information using these headings.

Topic: ___________________________________________

Record Information required

What do you already know?



What do you want to learn?


Identify the resources that will help you resource your topic.

[not just books]

Gather the relevant information by using headings & taking notes.

[may be useful to create a mind map on a separate sheet of paper]

Sort your notes by planning first draft, then check & edit for final presentation.


How will you present the information for this unit/topic?

[lapbook, mini-book, folds, pictures, writing]

Evaluate the completed unit/topic.
How is it possible to improve the next unit/topic?

Liked -

What was okay? -

What you didn't like -

Can improve by -


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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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