Throughout my teaching career, there have not been many constants. Nonetheless, there's one thing I can depend upon to be the same from year to year: the students I greet in each of my classes will have varying levels of ability. I have had classes where reading levels range from 2nd grade to 10th grade. Needless to say, addressing the individual instructional needs of each student in a class of this type is challenging. One of the most effective ways I've found of meeting all my students' needs is by teaching thematically.

Thematic teaching benefits students by:

  • Allowing them to see relationships between concepts and ideas
  • Increasing their interest and engagement in the learning process
  • Making the connection between topics discussed within school and situations in their lives outside of school obvious.

Differentiating instruction within a thematic unit based on reading levels differs from attempting to individualize instruction within a non-thematic unit. When differentiating instruction, I select three texts at various reading levels (easy readability, medium readability, challenging readability). If I weren't teaching thematically, these texts might be completely unrelated, but since I am focusing on a theme, I choose reading material at different levels that are each related to a common idea.

By using related texts, I can easily create essential questions
that are relevant to all three leveled texts within a given thematic unit. Essential questions search for deeper meaning and promote the development of critical thinking skills. Good essential questions:

  • Are open ended and normally do not have a single correct answer
  • Require students to call upon both content knowledge and background knowledge
  • Are thought provoking, meaningful to students, and at times controversial
  • Invite an exploration of ideas and promote collaborative thinking

Utilizing essential questions allows me to rejoin my small leveled groups and have whole class discussions focusing on the same questions. Each group can address those inquiries as they relate to their background knowledge and their particular text.

When selecting themes for your class, remember to keep in mind the ages, experiences, and general interests of your student population. Examples of themes used in my high school classroom are:

  • Adolescent Issues
  • Immigration
  • Identity
  • Technology

Sample Thematic Unit With Differentiated Instruction
Theme: Identity
Grade: 9

1. Introducing the Theme:
I like to introduce new units of study with material that is assessable to all students. For this unit on identity, I chose cartoons
. I projected the following cartoons for the class and we discussed how they relate to the theme of "identity."


Original art available at

2. Reading Assigned Texts
Beginning Readers/ELLs (Grades K-3)
The Paper Bag Princess
Robert Munsch

In this engaging picture book, students are introduced to Elizabeth, a rich and beautiful princess who is about to marry Prince Ronald. Students will quickly learn that Elizabeth is not your ordinary princess. Student perceptions of the dainty Princess Elizabeth will change by the end of the story.

Mid Level Readers (Grades 6-8)
Louisa, Please Come Home
Shirley Jackson
Have you ever felt as if people don’t really know you? Shirley Jackson poses this question in this acclaimed short story. Students will join Louisa on her journey as she decides to run away from home and change her identity.

On Grade Level Readers (9th Grade)
The Cat Who Thought She Was a Dog and the Dog Who Thought He Was a Cat
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Appearances are the last thing on the minds of the characters in this short story, until they see their reflections in a mirror that is. As students read this story, they will be prompted to reflect on how much appearance influences self perception and the perception of others.

3. Asking Essential Questions:

  • What is identity?
  • How does encountering obstacles affect your identity?
  • What role does culture play in shaping a person’s identity?
  • How can reading about the lives of others change our own identity?
  • How does self-perception and how others perceive you define your identity?
  • How does one’s appearance influence their identity?



Note: Essential questions should recur throughout the entire unit and be used to facilitate class discussions. As knowledge on the topic (identity) is attained, student responses to these questions may change. Students should use their own background knowledge as well as the details in their text to address the essential questions.The beauty of this type of instruction is that all students are able to actively participate in class discussions surrounding your essential questions. Though the reading levels of the texts vary, the underlying ideas and issues encountered throughout each text are similar.