How to Teach Theme to Students
I used to think teaching theme was difficult. Other skills, like story elements, are generally pretty straight forward. Setting, character, and plot–easy peasy. There are tons of resources available, and the concepts are fairly concrete.
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But then you get to theme. Whats theme and how do you teach something that is abstract, subjective, and requires that oh-so-tricky skill: inference? As it turns out, teaching theme didn’t turn out to be as difficult as I thought it would be, especially when it is broken down into steps. And that is a very good thing, because theme runs across multiple grade levels. Here are some ideas about how to get started teaching theme to your students:
Make sure your theme definition is in terms kids can understand.
The central message is the theme of the story. It’s important to clarify what does theme mean to make it easier for students to grasp the concept. That is why I like the message in a bottle graphic as a reminder.
To define the theme of a story, we can say it’s a broad idea that can be applied to life, and in most stories, the theme is not stated.” Instead it must be inferred by the reader. You can download these central message posters as helpful reminders for students about what the theme is.
Contrast Theme with Plot or Main Idea
Kids (and adults) frequently confuse the theme with the plot or the main idea. One way to help your students understand the difference is to contrast the two concepts using stories that your students are already familiar with. For example, in Charlotte’s Web the main idea or a summary of the plot could be: Charlotte saves Wilbur’s life by writing words in her web. However that is not the message of the book. It is not a broad idea, and it can’t be applied to everyday life. Contrast that with the theme statement: Good friends are always there for each other.
Remember that Theme is Subjective
So, what’s the theme present in this story?
Keep in mind that in many stories, there can be more than one theme, or the theme could be interpreted in different ways. For example, in Charlotte’s Web, an alternative theme could be, “Never give up,” since Charlotte works literally to the end of her life to save Wilbur.
Theme vs. Lesson vs. Central Idea
So, what’s the difference between theme and lesson and central idea?
When discussing theme vs lesson, it’s important to note that theme refers to the central idea or message of a story, while a lesson is something specific that can be learned from the story. Both are important components of a well-rounded literary education.
Helping students to distinguish the central idea from the theme is crucial for their comprehension of the story. While the central idea refers to the most important point of the story, the theme is an overarching message or lesson that the author conveys through the narrative.
Ask the Right Questions
What’s the theme we can infer from the character’s actions or what’s the theme present in this story?
The theme comes from the way that the characters – usually the main character – change(s) and grow(s) throughout the story. Looking at how the main character responds in various situations can give you clues to the theme of the story. Questions to ask include:
- How did the characters react to obstacles?
- What important decisions did the characters make?
- How did the characters grow and change over the course of the story?
- What did the characters learn?
Here is a freebie to help your students answer questions to help find the theme and a graphic organizer to help them cite evidence from the text.
Cite Examples from the Story
Ask your students to practice finding the theme of a story by identifying key details that demonstrate the theme. Examples from Charlotte’s Web that demonstrate that good friends are always there for each other include: Charlotte went to the fair with Wilbur even when she was very weak, and Wilbur took care of Charlotte’s babies.
These key details and supporting details often make the theme more obvious.
Lesson Plan THEMES
While creating your lesson plans, you can choose from a variety of lesson plan themes. Check out this blog post about using popular themes to increase student engagement!
Common theme ideas: such as hope, love, friendship, imagination, identify, overcoming challenges, family, growing up, animals, and adventure.
These themes could be based on the central idea of the story or the author’s intended message.
Choose a theme for your lesson and start by finding books that students can use to identify the chosen theme. Your school librarian is a great source for help!
Check out this Minds in Bloom blog post: Using Popular Themes to Increase Student Engagement.
Make Connections to Real Life
The whole point of having a theme in a story is that the author is trying to give the reader something that he or she can apply in life, or at the very least, to make an observation that is thought to be universally true (at least from the author’s point of view). Students will gain deeper understanding of the theme and the story by relating it to their own lives. For example, for the theme, “Good friends are always there for each other” in Charlotte’s Web, students can share stories about times that they helped a friend or were helped.
Connecting to other stories is also important. What other stories have a similar theme? Just off the top of my head, I came up with many of the stories from Winnie the Pooh, Frog and Toad are Friends, and for older students, Holes by Louis Sachar.
As you teach theme, it’s essential to encourage students to share their thoughts and interpretations. This open discussion can lead to a richer understanding of the theme and its connection to real life.
Cultural Stories and Fables
Stories from different cultures are a great way to start your study of theme, because many of these stories have been passed down through the generations for the purpose of teaching an important truth or lesson. Aesop’s Fables are another excellent resource. Try reading the fable without reading the moral at the end to see if your students can infer it on their own.
I created this set of theme task cards for two reasons. First, because I got many requests for it, and second, because when I searched the internet, I did not find many good resources for teaching theme.
Each of these cards features a different story. Students find the theme and can answer either in a multiple choice or in a short answer format. In addition there are two challenge cards that ask students to dig deeper by:
- Identifying the clues in the story that helped them to infer the theme
- Summarizing the story and comparing the summary to the theme
- Comparing the story on the card with a story that has a similar theme
- Relating the theme to their own lives
- Creating a new story with the same theme
Here is an example of two story cards.
For card number 4, students are given three possible answers.
- You should always share everything.
- Selfishness leads to unhappiness.
- Cassie did not share her cookies.
If you prefer a short answer format, there is a student answer sheet provided for that as well. Answer keys are also included.
Theme Definition ELA skill
You can learn more about this product right here.
Using graphic organizers can be an effective tool for students to visualize the connections between story elements and the theme. It allows them to organize their thoughts and analyze the story in a more structured manner.
Theme for Middle School Students
As middle school students dive deeper into the world of literature, they are expected to develop higher-level thinking skills and analyze stories more profoundly. While the strategies for teaching theme to elementary school students can still be useful, it is essential to add more rigor to engage and challenge middle school students.
Here are some ideas on how to teach theme to middle school students while building on the foundation laid in elementary school:
1. Revisit Familiar Strategies:
Start by revisiting the strategies used with elementary school students, such as defining theme, contrasting theme with plot or main idea, and discussing the subjectivity of theme. Encourage students to delve deeper into these concepts and engage in more sophisticated discussions, sharing their thoughts and opinions.
2. Encourage Critical Thinking:
Middle school students need to hone their critical thinking skills to analyze literature effectively. Ask thought-provoking questions that require students to analyze the actions and decisions of characters, as well as the consequences and lessons learned. This practice will help students better understand the theme and how it is interwoven throughout the story.
3. Utilize Graphic Organizers:
Just as with elementary students, middle school students can benefit from using graphic organizers to visualize connections between story elements and themes. However, for middle schoolers, introduce more complex graphic organizers that require deeper analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of the story.
4. Introduce Theme Statements:
Teach middle school students to craft concise and insightful theme statements that capture the essence of the story’s message. This skill will not only help them understand the theme better but also improve their writing and analytical skills.
5. Compare and Contrast Themes Across Texts:
Encourage students to compare and contrast themes in different texts, focusing on similarities and differences. This activity will help middle school students recognize common themes in literature and understand how different authors convey similar messages in unique ways.
6. Analyze Author’s Purpose and Techniques:
Introduce students to the concept of author’s purpose and the various techniques authors use to convey the theme. By analyzing the author’s purpose and techniques, students can gain a deeper understanding of the theme and how it connects to the overall message of the story.
7. Engage in Group Discussions and Debates:
Organize group discussions and debates about the theme, allowing students to express their opinions and defend their interpretations. This practice will encourage middle school students to articulate their thoughts clearly, think critically, and develop their communication skills.
By incorporating these strategies into your lesson plans, you can effectively teach theme to middle school students while adding more rigor to challenge and engage them. This approach will not only help them understand the theme but also equip them with valuable skills that they can apply to their future literary endeavors.
We hope you found our post on “Ideas for Teaching Theme to your 3rd, 4th, and 5th Graders!” helpful. To further support your teaching journey, we have a selection of related resources that you may find beneficial. Check out the following articles for more tips, strategies, and ideas:
- 8 Memory Tips to Use with Your Students
- Planning Close Reading
- 10 Questioning Strategies to Differentiate Instruction
- Comics to Differentiate Instruction
- Activities for Teaching Literary Terms
- 72 creative ways for students to show what they’re learning
- 10 Ideas to Teach Beyond Reading Comprehension
- 70+ Awesome End of the Year Activities
Explore these resources and continue to expand your knowledge and teaching techniques for the benefit of your students. Happy teaching!
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