Thematic Unit Planning: A How-To Guide

by Kate Payson and Katie Worden

March 1, 2023

When teachers deliver instruction through structured thematic content with carefully chosen vocabulary, students of all ability levels can collaboratively engage in class activities to address necessary language skills. Consistent thematic instruction reduces the cognitive load on students’ working memory, aids in recall, and builds vocabulary and background knowledge. Teachers have a lot on their plates, so rethinking the manner in which they deliver content and skill instruction can feel incredibly daunting. However, once a routine around thematic unit planning is established, many discover that it provides a creative solution for the cohesive integration of everything that drives effective instruction: curriculum frameworks, IEP objectives, departmental scope and sequence, etc. At the same time, it gives teachers the freedom to prioritize what they know will engage their students. When students perceive that the content they’re learning is relevant to their experience, they are more likely to be motivated to engage in the academic tasks attached to it.

So, where do you start? 

Choosing a Theme:

The most successful theme will be related to a topic that both you and your students can become genuinely interested in engaging with for the duration of the unit. If you’re not enthusiastic about the topic, why would your students be? 

When Choosing a Theme, Ask:

  • How are my themes relevant to my students’ lives and perspectives?
  • Does this theme lend itself to essential questions that challenge my students intellectually while remaining high interest?
  • How can I connect new information to prior knowledge while taking into account students’ individual cultural schemas?
  • How can I incorporate technology, various media, and multimodal instruction?

Organization & Planning:

When planning thematic units, it’s important to establish consistent routines and self check-ins to ensure that you are hitting the skillwork and content that you designed the unit to address. Just like our students, teachers need reminders to circle back to key concepts and adhere to the plan when delivering instruction.  

To Support Your Own Executive Function, Ask:

  • How will this thematic unit play into my overall plan for the year?
  • How am I scaffolding academic work throughout the unit to push my students to become more independent learners and thinkers?
  • What do I need to do to keep MYSELF organized throughout the unit? How will I anchor my planning?
  • How do I remind myself to circle back and relate lessons back to the theme and/or essential question?

With practice, educators may find that delivering instruction within the framework of a thematic unit is more effective and enjoyable for both students and teachers. This quality instruction provides the content and complexity that students crave, but allows teachers to differentiate pace and volume and build in the explicit and targeted skill practice that students need.



Jennings, T. M., & Haynes, C. W. (2018). From talking to writing: Strategies for supporting narrative and expository writing. Landmark School Outreach Program.

Kate Payson has taken on a variety of roles since starting her career with Landmark in 2008. She currently works as an Outreach lead faculty member, guiding educators in developing best practices to support students with LBLD. Prior to this she served as Assistant Head of the Expressive Language Program at Landmark High School, designing, teaching and supervising writing, oral expression and social communication classes. Kate partnered with faculty from both campuses to coordinate professional development opportunities through Landmark’s Inreach Program from 2012-2020, and gained experience in her early years at the high school as the EL Program’s Lead Teacher, a full time teacher of Language Arts and Pragmatics/Social Communication, and a 1:1 tutor. Kate earned her master’s degree in special education at Simmons University, and holds a bachelor’s degree from Colby College with a major in English and a minor in art.

Katie Worden is an Outreach lead faculty member, after many rewarding years spent teaching students at Landmark High School. From 2015-2022, Katie was the Director of the Expressive Language Program, prioritizing supportive teacher training. She has taught 1:1 tutorials as well as classes in Language Arts, Oral Expression, and Social Communication. During her time at Landmark, she also worked closely with a caseload of students and their families as an Academic Advisor. Beyond the high school level, Katie has taught courses for the Summer Institute, Landmark Outreach Online, and Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education. Prior to joining Landmark in 2009, she graduated from Holy Cross with a bachelor’s degree in English. She then earned her master’s degree in special education from Simmons College.

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