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5 Tips for Planning Cross-Curricular Activities for Elementary Students

December 11, 2020 No Comments
Tips for planning cross-curricular lessons and activities with 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students

If there’s one thing teachers don’t have enough of, it’s time! Time to teach all the standards, the content, the skills… I often felt like my pacing guide was my enemy, so I had to find ways to teach smarter, not harder. Enter cross-curricular activities!

Cross-curricular lessons are all about teaching more than one subject area at a time. This could look like introducing math vocabulary during a nonfiction reading lesson, solving science-themed word problems, or studying history through famous paintings.

Why Try Cross-Curricular Activities?

  • engaging for students
  • reinforce learning by exposing students to content and skills in multiple areas
  • help students make connections
  • serve as spiral review
  • save instructional time because you can teach two things at once

It can seem complicated, but you can definitely make it work without a lot of work. Let’s dig into a few tips for getting started using cross-curricular activities in elementary school.

Keep the Planning Simple

You do NOT have to plan 3-week-long thematic units that incorporate every single subject area – especially if you’re just starting out with cross-curricular teaching. Plus, focusing on an activity that just links two areas is a great way to make sure kids aren’t getting overwhelmed with too much content at once.

If you take it one subject and one unit at a time, it’s easier to identify places where you can bridge standards and skills. Even one cross-curricular activity in a unit is a great start! I generally look at my pacing calendar for the next few weeks and come up with a list of a couple of places where I see possible cross-curricular connections.

For example, 5th graders in Virginia need to identify nonfiction text structures. Here’s an easy place to bring in some science or social studies. Below is a Virginia Studies text structures sorting activity that helps students review Virginia’s geography. 2-in-1!

Reading is an easy place to work in science and social studies content. One cross-curricular activity that works nicely is this text structures sort where students read paragraphs related to Virginia Studies.

Combine Reading and Content

One of the easiest ways to go cross-curricular is to combine reading instruction with other subject areas. For example, I always give students informational texts about content I’ve taught (or am about to teach) in other subjects. That way they’re getting the content while practicing whatever reading skill I’m teaching. I love this strategy to both introduce new material and to reinforce or review material I’ve already taught.

Pairing content areas and reading can happen in more than just a nonfiction unit. Literary nonfiction, poetry, functional text, and research skills also work well.

Nonfiction skills like fact and opinion are so much more engaging when you weave in science content!

Another option is to bring reading into other subjects like math and social studies. For example, I use Longfellow’s poem to teach students about Paul Revere’s ride. They get practice with visualizing, sensory words, and context clues while learning about Revere’s contributions during the American Revolution.

There are tons of picture books and chapter books to teach science, social studies, health, and math!

Write About Content

Chances are your students are probably doing a good amount of writing when you’re teaching other subjects, but if you want to go more in-depth, cross-curricular research projects are another great choice. I love doing at least one science and one social studies research project each year. For example, students can research a famous individual from the American Revolution and create a biographical artifact to represent him or her. Or they might study an environmental issue and create a media message to inform the community about negative human impact.

Some other writing units you can match with other subjects and with specials are informational text or “expert writing,” paragraph writing, persuasive writing, historical narratives, poetry, and media messages.

Find Cross-curricular Links with Math

Math is another easy place to bring in some cross-curricular activities that don’t take too much planning. One of my favorite strategies is to write themed questions or word problems. Kids find it super engaging and I know they’re getting spiral review of the content I’ve taught.

These math task cards weave in content from the Virginia Studies curriculum so you can teach two subjects at once!

Data and graphing are another area that I like to link with other subjects, and it helps reinforce how we use data outside of math. You can create graphs that match your content, like below, to use during math class, or you can have students graph content they learn about.

Data and graphing units are a great place to integrate what you're teaching in science, geography, and history!

Collaborate with Specialists to Plan Cross-curricular Activities

While it can be hard to coordinate times to collaborate with specials teachers, it’s worth it to pair up with the P.E., Music, and Art teachers at your school to brainstorm some interdisciplinary lessons. Here are a few quick ideas:

  • review math facts during a PE game
  • practice unit vocabulary by writing a song with the music teacher
  • study the architecture or artwork of a particular culture or time period in art class
  • research and listen to music from another country or century in music class
  • research inventors and inventions during a STEM class

It does take some planning, but chances are that specialists will be open to finding new ways to engage students while also supporting your curriculum!

If you’re a classroom teacher who is compartmentalized, you can also work with your grade level team to plan some cross-curricular lessons.

Cross-curricular activities can definitely help you teach smarter, not harder, especially if you keep it simple! Let me know if you have any questions getting started with cross-curricular resources in your classroom!

Planning cross-curricular activities for elementary students doesn't have to be complicated! Let's walk through some easy ways to get started!

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