I have seen many speech and language activities labeled as “themed” therapy activities just by the mere coincidence that they may sport graphics or clip art associated with a particular theme or holiday. However, simply pasting an associated picture on a stimulus card while asking a student to perform a generic speech or language task is the not the same thing as participating in a themed activity. Until I learned from my educator colleagues what it truly meant to teach via themes, I made this same mistake, too. Regular and special educators are taught to understand the importance of themes and how they relate to child development and learning. However, at least based on my own personal experience, newly graduated speech-language pathologists lack the instruction needed to fully understand what thematic teaching is really all about.
I see myself as an educator first and foremost. Therefore, I learned many valuable things about education through colleagues and by reading educational research and textbooks. This particular topic has been no exception. Marjorie Kostelnik, Anne Soderman and Alice Phipps Whiren, spend an entire chapter explaining what thematic units really are and how they can effectively be used within the academic environment in their book titled, Best Practices in Early Childhood Education. The following information is adapted from this source.
What is a theme and why would we use them in speech interventions? A theme can be defined as the creation of various meaningful activities planned around a central topic or idea. The activities are then integrated into all aspects of the curriculum (i.e. language arts, reading, math, science, social studies, etc.). Thematic instruction has been researched and observed to help children learn about concepts (i.e. ideas about objects and events in a child’s world) and facilitates in connecting various concepts together cognitively. In SLP lingo, this means thematic instruction helps to teach our children about categories. Through first-hand experience and additional learning activities, our students are improving their semantic mapping/networking skills thus improving receptive and expressive vocabulary, understanding and using synonyms and antonyms, word retrieval skills, story comprehension and story retelling skills, answering “WH” questions, as well as improving their ability to make inferences and predictions, thus resulting in improvements in overall language skills.
How do we create effective thematic lessons for our speech sessions? According to Kostelnik, et al., there are five necessary components to creating an effective theme:
- Relevance: The theme must be relevant to your student’s real-life experiences and timely in that themes should be targeted based on your students’ current interests. For example, a field trip to the pumpkin patch may be planned in the fall. Creating a theme-centered around fall harvest/fruits and vegetables, around this time would be an appropriate time to maximize your students’ interest in learning about this topic.
- Hands on activities: Concepts whose informational content can be accessed through hands on activities are appropriate for students 3-8 years of age. These activities can be offered via exploratory activities, guided discovery, problem-solving activities, group discussions, cooperative learning, demonstrations or direct instruction. I think as SLPs we tend to be very good with demonstrations and direct instruction (i.e. speech/language activities, what I like to call “drill and kill” activities) as well as guided discovery (particularly in book reading when asking student’s to infer or make predictions), however we miss opportunities for students to use self-talk to problem solve or use cooperative learning to have a discussion with peers. These are important executive function and social skills that should be trained at an early age so as to generalize to other environments as our students mature. If, during our group therapy sessions, we step out of the equation as facilitators, will our students educate each other on the necessary skills for continued development (e.g. teaching each other to self-monitor speech production or how to use appropriate social skills in real-time, or even help each other use correct grammar in sentence formulation)? We must create opportunities for our students to use what they learn independently to help themselves and their peers.
- Diversity and balance across the curriculum: Many of you might be reading this and think, well this doesn’t apply to me because I teach speech and language skills. However, the truth is, you are already doing this! Through your planning of speech therapy activities you are incorporating science (e.g. matching pictures of clothing to correct seasons, mixing red and blue paint to make purple, etc.), social studies (e.g. discussing community helpers and matching up the helpers to the objects/tools they use), math (e.g. counting and sorting animals into correct categories), and language arts (e.g. recalling details of a story or retelling a story in correct sequence). Therefore, the use of “academic” or “curriculum-based” materials in the upper elementary grades, middle school and high school is, more than likely, what most of you have been doing for years!
- Primary and secondary sources of information must be available: When planning a theme, thought must be given to the primary and secondary sources of information. Primary sources of information are seen as what the child already knows (background knowledge) or can determine via concrete information present. Secondary sources of information are sources that provide students with additional information they had not known nor can determine via concrete information present. For example, when focusing on “farm animals” as a theme, a child may already know that a pig says “oink” and can see from a picture that it has four legs. This is known as primary information. An example of secondary information would be using books, pictures or other additional resources or materials to explain the role of pigs on a farm or the types of pigs and where they live. So in a nutshell, a good theme uses the background knowledge your students already have and builds on that by providing additional new information. Doesn’t this sound a lot like reading comprehension strategies (background knowledge, pre-teaching vocabulary, introducing new information, recalling information, etc.)?
- Potential for projects/“discovery learning”: A good theme must lend itself to discovery learning. Discovery learning simply means you present your students with opportunities to problem solve and/or reason information not factually presented to them. These projects are child-centered and/or child directed. This piece is very important in planning themes because as you introduce information to your students you want to follow their lead and listen to the questions they have about the information presented. Then you want to create a “project” that addresses the student’s questions or concerns. For example, if when discussing farm animals a child asks have you (as the SLP) ever been to a farm? Your student is expressing the interest to learn more about others personal experiences about farms. So you guide a “project” where your student asks the other students in your therapy group (language practice in formulating appropriate questions) or classroom if providing in class therapy, and you graph their responses. Now you’ve just incorporated math (graphing, counting, adding, concepts of more/less) into a “project” your student directed and by the end your student has problem solved a way to survey his/her peers to find out more information about themselves.
I can hear the collective frustrated sigh from many of you out there reading this. “I have my students for 30 minutes, two days a week. How am I supposed to use thematic units to teach them what they need to learn in that time?” The first thing I would suggest to do is to start small. Focus on the use of thematic teaching for a small portion of your language delayed students. Listen to what they are interested about learning and begin to create activities based around those topics. Remember you need to know what your students already know (primary source) so you can provide appropriate expansion materials/activities (secondary source). Then compare your results. See how the use of themes aid in learning and language development for this group as compared to the therapy groups for which you do not provide thematic lessons.
Another important key to successful themes is the stay flexible. Follow your students’ lead. Remain on one theme only as long as your students’ interest in the topic lasts. This means, you don’t have to perform five or six thematic activities within your two therapy sessions a week. You can take as long or short a time as needed. You might even take two sessions to participate in one activity. I used to work with a colleague who used two or three sessions of repeated book reading as part of thematic teaching and it was amazing to see the improvements in numerous linguistic skills of her students after these sessions. It just depends on your students’ current level of skills and interest.
So the next time International Pirate Day rolls around on the calendar throw out those multi-step direction cards that have nothing remotely related to learning about pirates. Rather, spend a week or two reading pirate stories while increasing the use and understanding of pirate-associated vocabulary (e.g. treasure, map, spyglass/telescope, etc.), and pirate lingo (e.g. “Shiver me timbers!” “Matey” and “Land ho!”), recalling details and or retelling the stories read (language arts), discussing famous historical pirates and from where they originated (history, geography), creating a “treasure hunt” for your students to cooperatively complete (following directions with pirate lingo, problem solving and reasoning, use of appropriate social skills), and spend time creating a pretend play scenario about pirates (hands-on, expansion activity) using all the information your students’ learned throughout your therapy sessions. I promise you that your students will have just as much fun learning from you as you will have teaching them.
Maria Del Duca, M.S. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist in southern, Arizona. She owns a private practice, Communication Station: Speech Therapy, PLLC, and has a speech and language blog under the same name. Maria received her master’s degree from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. She has been practicing as an ASHA certified member since 2003 and is an affiliate of Special Interest Group 16, School-Based Issues. She has experience in various settings such as private practice, hospital and school environments and has practiced speech pathology in NJ, MD, KS and now AZ. Maria has a passion for early childhood, autism spectrum disorders, rare syndromes, and childhood Apraxia of speech. For more information, visit her blog or find her on Facebook.