To Theme or Not to Theme, That is the Question

  • Common Core State Standards
  • 01 September, 2013

Dear Dr. Shanahan,

My colleagues have been debating the use of thematic units in the Common Core. Several of them argue that this practice does not fit a "standards based curriculum." They argue that essential questions and enduring understandings need to be specific to the ELA standards. So, for example, a unit with an essential question for a 3rd grade should look something like this:

Unit Topic:  Ask and Answer Questions

Essential Question: How do readers ask and answers questions from the text? Why is it important to use evidence from the text to support your answer?  

  The other side on this debate argues that there must be a purpose and sense of relevancy for the units. They suggest:

Unit Topic: Questions and Answers

Essential Question:  Should you question the way things work? What makes you believe an answer?

They also argue that connecting the ELA standards to the other content areas adds meaning and relevance. So the above question could be the basis for social studies as well as science.

  What is your take?  How do we ensure that the Common Core standards are rigorous but also relevant?

Shanahan Response 

Good question. This argument is one that I, too, have been watching with a bit of chagrin.

  First, remember the Common Core does not directly insist on any particular approach to the teaching of the CCSS. So, at the end of the day, the choice is yours.

  Second, guidance in the standards or from some of the advice from the creators of the standards can seem contradictory. For example, the standards place a big emphasis on the reading and analysis of multiple texts, including synthesizing information across texts. That sure seems to encourage thematic units. But, then the standards authors write, “Care should also be taken that introducing broad themes and questions in advance of reading does not prompt overly general conversations rather than focusing reading on the specifics, drawing evidence from the text, and gleaning meaning from it." Which takes us in the other direction altogether.

  To me, the biggest change fostered by Common Core is the heavy attention to the text— the standards set specific challenge levels for the texts, provide long lists of exemplary texts to ensure that we select ones with sufficient depth and quality, prescribe proportions of time to be devoted to different kinds of text (e.g., literary, informational), and promote close reading which requires more focused emphasis on the text than in the past.

  Given all of that, I think it is pretty clear that those who want to build units around the standards themselves are as far off as can be. That’s why the E. D. Hirsch’s of the world have embraced the standards—because these standards encourage so much attention to the information in the texts; with these new standards there is some real chance of kids learning about their world. If teachers switch the focus back to the comprehension skills themselves, instead of teaching the skills within the context of the texts, we will be pretty much where we have been. (We surveyed teachers when CCSS came out and found that the majority focused their lessons on the skills and selected books accordingly. We’re watching to see how that shifts over the next couple of years).

  However, the admonition quoted earlier is an important one. Past experience with thematic units tells me that these often lack depth and can overwhelm the specifics of the text. That's one of the reasons that the vast majority of multiple text its in the Common Core emphasize the comparison of two texts, rather than the synthesis of several. A unit on non-themes like “courage” or “penguins” won’t likely provide the intellectual engagement and motivation your colleagues desire, and yet a more thematic approach (“Should you question the way things work?”) often will override the need to closely read a literary text, and will constrain interpretations. Why engage in a close reading if I already know what it means? 

Generally, I think topical units with informational text can work very well, and there are times with literature when it would be worth organizing units around selections from a particular genre or author; those approaches will allow you to keep the emphasis on the content without imposing a separate content on the texts. And, everything that is read does not have to fit into a collection; some texts are so good, they are just worth reading even if they are not in a text set.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Darlene Wagner Jun 19, 2017 10:30 PM


Dr. Shanahan,

Thank you for your thoughtful insights! It will be a real challenge for many teachers to move away from an overemphasis on skill units. Could you provide a few examples of topical units and/or essential questions that would be appropriate?
Thank you!
Darlene Wagner

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To Theme or Not to Theme, That is the Question


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