Integrated Teaching Units
Article by Tammy R. Benson, Ed.D.
B. Shoemaker defines an integrated curriculum as education that is organized in such a way that it cuts across subject-matter lines, bringing together various aspects of the curriculum into meaningful association to focus upon broad areas of study. It views learning and teaching in a holistic way and reflects the real world, which is interactive. (Shoemaker, 1989) Using an integrated curriculum to teach is a strategy based on the premise that learning is a series of connections. The integrated curriculum can be beneficial to teachers and students, using theme teaching, projects, and units to cover a variety of material and effectively teach many concepts and skills. This approach allows children to learn in a way that is most natural to them. Teachers can create a good deal of their curriculum by building webs made up of themes of interest to the children, with benefits for all. These benefits include more adequate coverage of curriculum, use of natural learning, building on children's interests, teaching skills in meaningful contexts, more flexibility, and an organized planning device (Krogh, 1990).
We know that integrated teaching units work for children and teachers, and we can look for ways to "integrate" new ideas with our already effective teaching units. These integrated units allow us the opportunity to make sure children are learning relevant information and applying that knowledge to real life scenarios.
The Benefits of Thematic Teaching Units
Thematic teaching units involve a group of correlated activities that are designed around topics or themes and cross several areas of the curriculum. They provide an environment that fosters and encourages process learning and active involvement of ALL students (Fisher, 1991). They build on students' interests and prior knowledge by focusing on topics relevant to their lives. They help children relate to real-life experiences and build on what they know. Thematic units provide one of the best vehicles for integrating content areas in a way that makes sense to children and helps them make connections to transfer knowledge they learn and apply it in a meaningful way. Thematic units also address the diverse learning styles of the students we serve.
Other benefits of utilizing themes in the early childhood classroom include:
- Learning in-depth factual information
- Becoming physically involved with learning
- Learning process skills
- Learning "how to learn"
- Integrating learning in a holistic way
- Promoting group cohesiveness
- Addressing individual needs
- Motivating children and teachers (Kostelnik, M.J., Soderman, A. K., & Whiren, A. P., 2004)
Creating Thematic Units
Thematic units can be planned around a book theme, an author study, or any topic that has interest for young children. References are readily available in teacher supply stores. Many skills, including the benchmarks for each state, are easily integrated in a theme study. Webbing out ideas in a semantic map is an excellent way to brainstorm activities. It just makes more sense to start with a topic that is motivating to children, and then move to activities and skills. The connections can be made among different subject areas, including math, science, social studies, and literacy as well as art, music, dramatic play, and physical activities. These connections help children in the way they learn best - through meaningful experiences. This also allows for children to learn through their preferred learning modalities. Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences can be easily addressed through the implementation of a thematic unit approach.
Learning centers and hands-on activities are easily implemented through a theme approach. Games and reinforcement activities can be added to appropriate centers. These will jump start children's interest and keep them motivated while they learn important concepts and skills. Portfolios and performance-based assessment compliment the thematic learning units. For example, an ocean portfolio can be created that documents progress the students made during the ocean unit. Scrapbooks about various unit themes can be created to show what skills and concepts were mastered during the units. These make excellent assessment devices for children to share with their families.
Examples of thematic units frequently used in the preschool or early elementary classroom include topics that interest young children such as nursery rhymes, fairy tales, dinosaurs, space travel, vacations, animals, pets, the ocean, camping, and other subjects that motivate the teacher and children to read, write, map, count, problem solve, and think creatively. Book authors and quality children's books also make excellent springboards for creative theme studies. Benchmarks for a particular age level, including skills and concepts, can be taught under the umbrella of an exciting theme topic.
More in-depth projects can be integrated into classroom curriculum to increase involvement and learning on all levels. The Project Approach, brought to us by Lillian Katz and Sylvia Chard (1989), involves children selecting a topic of interest, researching and studying it, and solving problems and dilemmas as they arise. More practice with problem solving and creative thinking will help with all areas of academic and social success. For instance, children may take a field trip to a hospital to kick off a study of the medical field. As they visit, the teacher may list questions or concerns they have. These questions could then guide the teacher in planning and implementing appropriate activities to fan the imagination and curiosity of the children. Specific reading, writing, math, social studies, science and other creative thinking skills could be dispersed throughout the study. Children not only improve their skills, they learn information that they can truly see the need and application for in their own lives, thus becoming lifelong learners.
The integrated teaching curriculum has been around in early childhood education for years. Teachers have long used children's literature, topics of interest, and projects to motivate children and teach them the necessary skills and concepts to be successful in school and life. With all the new emphasis on test scores and isolated skill development, it's important to blend the old with the new rather than completely tossing tried and true methods. Integrated teaching still has a significant place in our early childhood classrooms. Integrated teaching works for teachers and children, and is an excellent medium for bringing children and skills together. We must send children home at the end of the day with increased skill development, but also knowing they learned something meaningful and helpful at school.
- Fisher, B. (1991). Joyful Learning: A Whole Language Kindergarten. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
- Katz, L., & Chard, S. (1989) Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach Scholastic.
- Kostelnik, M.J., Soderman, A.K., & Whiren, A.P. (2004). Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum: Best Practices in Early Childhood Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
- Krogh, S. (1990). The Integrated Early Childhood Curriculum. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Shoemaker, B. "Integrative Education: A Curriculum for the Twenty-First Century." Oregon School Study Council, 33/2 (1989).
About the Author
Tammy R. Benson, Ed.D. is an associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas. Tammy teaches early childhood education and reading classes. Her research interests include play, emergent literacy and assessment.
Published: September 2004