Thematic Units for ELL Students

Instructor: Linda Winfree

Linda has taught English at grades 6-12 and holds graduate degrees in curriculum and teacher leadership.

In this lesson, you'll explore how implementing thematic units can help your ELL students build both content knowledge and progress through the language domains of reading, speaking, listening, and writing.

Thematic Units for ELL Students

Teaching English language learners (ELLs) can be challenging. You want to ensure that all of your students can master the content, but you worry about the language barrier. At the same time, you want to help your ELL students build their language skills and grasp of English. It's easy to become overwhelmed in this situation, but thematic units can offer your ELL students an opportunity to both acquire content knowledge and develop new language skills.


A thematic unit is simply a set of lessons centered on a common theme and that incorporates multiple content areas. In some schools, they are known as interdisciplinary units. At the elementary level, you may implement an entire thematic unit in your classroom if you teach all subject areas. At the middle and high school levels, you'll collaborate with your grade-level colleagues to incorporate a thematic unit into all of the classes.

Sample Thematic Unit

For example, Cara, Lauren, Andi, and Bonnie are part of an English as a second language (ESL) middle school team. All of the district's ELL students funnel into their school, so they serve multiple ELLs each year. Their annual thematic units include designing and marketing sunglasses, devising a business plan for an ice cream company, and delving into the Holocaust. Each teacher contributes to the unit, through which their ELL students receive practice with the language domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Language Integration

Let's take a closer look at our ESL middle school team's thematic plan on building an ice cream company and how each subject area integrates the language domains.

In this unit, Lauren and Bonnie, who teach English language arts (ELA) and social studies, introduce students to background reading and research on the components of a business plan. Bonnie also discusses a city in their state with a strong tourism draw. In math, Cara teaches graphing, while Andi uses the process of making ice cream to demonstrate changes in matter during science. Ultimately, students create their hypothetical business plans, present their proposals, and conduct a science experiment that results in homemade ice cream.

Along the way, ELL students gain content knowledge in geography, math, science, and economics. This is just one example of how thematic units can help ELL students build a knowledge base relevant to a variety of subjects.

Use of Texts

In ELA and social studies, ELL students engage in background reading with a variety of texts differentiated according to their reading abilities in English. While reading, they practice identifying key words and ideas.

To reinforce both reading and writing skills, Lauren asks her ELL students to write short summaries of the background texts in English. These include responses to any confusing or interesting ideas found in the texts. In other units, such as the middle school team's study of the Holocaust, students also read poems or short stories connected to the theme. Again, they also write about these texts in English.

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