TEACHING WITH THEMATIC UNITS
By: Carmen Willings
Teaching in thematic units can help a student make connections between and among the topics of instruction that are discussed. Units expand vocabulary, concepts, and skills beyond those which can be experienced incidentally in daily routines or in isolation. The selection of themes should be based on what is happening in the lives of the students and what information will be concrete and meaningful to them. Design units based on student interest, community events, and things that are naturally occurring in the student’s environment. Units should have relevance for the student and the area in which you live. The units should respect and embrace cultural and family differences and traditions. While the goal is to provide a rich array of common experiences, take advantages of special opportunities. Such experiences will be a valuable enrichment to your student’s life and yours.
When determining what units to study, consider field trips or community experiences that would provide the students with hands on, concrete experiences. This could be a community outing, or it could be a simple trip to the parking lot if you are discussing vehicles, or a nature walk to discuss a nature related topic. If it is not possible to go on a field trip, the next best experience is to explore real objects outside of their natural environment. This can be done by bringing real materials into the classroom or by arranging a visit from guest speakers.
With each unit, consider how real activities, objects, places, and people can be incorporated. Make learning experiences as concrete, interactive, and multi-sensory as possible. Do this by using real things, when possible, so the students can use all of their other senses to supplement their loss of vision. When presenting objects to the student, be sure to provide plenty of time and physical guidance to gently explore the object. It is important to provide this guided exploration of real materials, particularly if the student has not had direct contact and interaction with the real item (Do not assume that a student has had experiences even with what you think may be common objects). Once the student has had an opportunity to have a real-life experience with the object, it is acceptable to provide a scale model of the object in order for the student to get an idea of its spatial arrangement and to feel it as a whole. This thoughtful planning will make the learning experiences more relevant and meaningful to the students.
Sometimes it will be necessary to teach units that do not lend themselves well to hands on experiences in the natural environment. These units are necessary in order to help students understand content standards developed by the state. Such topics include outer space, foreign countries, etc. When introducing topics that are unavailable or inaccessible to touch (for example the galaxy or foreign countries), it is acceptable to use a scale model of the object(s).
All students will benefit when the focus of instruction is to build concepts through direct experience and interaction with the environment. Incidental learning is not effective with students with multiple disabilities. Some concepts may be fragmented, as touch and sound may provide only partial understanding without guided exploration and verbal explanations. Use of real objects and experiences during instruction increases tactile, auditory, and visual comprehension for students.
Be sure to plan lessons that challenge each student. Each student must participate at a level they can. Facilitate and guide learning to provide a supportive “scaffold” that enables each child to move to the next level of independent functioning. Learning activities should be developed to accommodate differences in ability and interest. Incorporate task analysis, backward chaining, modeling, motoring, demonstration, use of routines, reinforcement. In order to keep in mind what each student is working on – create charts that display items from each student’s IEP and hang on the wall or cabinet if you have a classroom(remember to not identify the student, but instead use a color, shape or other type of code).
Activities to Introduce Unit
Introduce the unit by presenting pictures and/or materials related to the unit of study. Encourage the student to explore the materials visually and tactually. Encourage the student to either verbally identify the objects or to obtain the requested object. Discuss what the objects are used for. Challenge the student to predict the topic based on the objects presented and discussion. If the student has been prescribed optical devices or has a video magnifier, have the student examine the materials using these devices.
Present the student with pre-printed cards (using a simple, bold font such as Arial and in a large enough font for comfortable viewing, and braille as needed) with vocabulary words related to the unit. Present each word and assist as needed in sounding out the word. When possible pair objects or pictures (e.g. slide show, PowerPoint, photo, etc. if the student has usable vision) with each vocabulary word. Provide a brief verbal description of each word.
Inform the student that the vocabulary words have things in common and can be grouped together. Present a simple web with headings of categories. Have the student read the word and place it in the category where it may belong. If the student has difficulty, encourage them to request help. Sometimes a word could belong in more than one category. When this happens, allow the student to select where they would like it to go, or write the word on two cards and place it in both categories.
During this activity, students may generate words that are not printed on the cards. If the words are related to the topic, write the word on a card and place it in the correct category on the web. If the student thinks of additional categories, encourage them to use those ideas for further study and research.
Literature related to Unit
Select, or encourage the student to select, a book related to the unit. For students working toward visual efficiency, select a picture book and encourage students to scan to locate and identify pictures on the pages. For students who are learning to access digital books, have the student add a book related to the unit to the digital bookshelf. Encourage the student to listen to the book as they follow along in print or braille.
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