11 Tips for Teaching About Theme in Language Arts

When fourth-grade students in Becca Morris’s class start listening to R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, she looks forward to the discussion it will inspire, with questions like “What does it mean to be a true friend?” “What’s the role of the bystander in bullying situations?” and “Can we tell what a person is like just by looking at them?”

It is conversations like these that can turn reading a book into a life-changing experience for young learners.

“Studying themes like trust, integrity, and honesty,” says Rachel Claff, editorial director for the Great Books Foundation, “builds thoughtful world citizens and friends, the kinds of thinkers you want to have in your classroom.”

Each time students read, they’re entering into a conversation with the author about what matters, agrees Jeffrey Wilhelm, distinguished professor at Boise State University and author of Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements. At the core of that conversation, however, is comprehension. To fully explore theme, students must understand what they read and then extract ideas from the text.

“You can’t think with ideas unless you understand them,” says Wilhelm.

Of course, the connection between comprehension and theme is obvious to anyone who’s ever led a conversation about
Animal Farm or The Giver, for example. Getting students to go beyond the obvious and use their higher-order thinking can be a challenge. When you get to the other side, however, it’s worth it.

“A good theme brings relevance to a unit,” says Laura Robb, reading specialist and author of Differentiating Reading Instruction.“ It is a rich way of engaging and motivating students.”

Here are 11 tips to helping your students understand theme.

1. Meet Your Students Where They Are

Plan reading and discussion around themes that your students are already grappling with, from “What does it mean to be a good friend?” to “What is heroism?” When you connect your literature themes to character development and what’s going on in students’ lives, your discussions will hopefully resonate deeply with your students. One goal with teaching theme, explains Jodi Libretti a senior development editor at the Great Books Foundation, is to encourage students “not only to think about ways that they can live, but the type of person they want to become.”

2. Start With Concrete Details

Before they can identify and work with the theme of a story, your students need to have a strong grasp of the details: setting, character, plot. When they work with theme, they have to synthesize all that information into an overarching message. Use chart paper to outline the elements of the story or give students a graphic organizer to follow.

3. Teaching Theme Vs. Main Idea

Many students have difficulty differentiating between the main idea and the theme. The theme is the underlying message that the author wants to convey, whereas the main idea is what the story is mostly about. Teach these concepts separately and together. You might practice identifying themes and main ideas using Disney films or the stories your students read last year in order to have a common reference point. After you review it as a class, give students a list of themes and main ideas and challenge them to work in pairs to create matches.

4. Scaffold the Learning

Theme is a difficult concept to grasp. Unlike the concreteness of setting or plot, theme is subtle and subjective. Move from simpler to more complex class assignments to help your students deepen their understanding. Humanities teachers Sara Kaviar and Megan O’Keefe of the Wildwood School in Los Angeles invite their students to work in groups to identify the theme of a fairy tale. Next, they change the ending to the tale in different ways and work together to identify how the new ending affects the theme. Finally, students write their own plots to match a given theme. Watch a video of their theme lesson here.

5. Use Essential Questions

Essential questions are open-ended, thought-provoking, and important in helping students develop their understanding of the theme. Questions like “Why do people behave honestly?” and “What makes a good friend?” are ones that you can return to throughout the year to analyze how students answer.
See how their answers change as you read different authors’ takes on the subject. For more on essential questions, don’t miss this essay: “What Makes a Question Essential?”

6. Ask Story-Specific Questions Too

Specific, targeted questions help focus students on the text. “Asking ‘what is the theme?’ sometimes strands students because it’s too general,” says Claff. On the other hand, questions that are more explicit, like “Where does friendship play an important part in this story?” can be too leading. Instead, ask questions that draw from the text and require evidence to support theme. For example, in Tuck Everlasting, “Should Winnie drink the immortality water?”

7. Approach Theme From Different Directions

Be ready to phrase questions about theme a few different ways because you never know which question will resonate with students. Some questions that will encourage thinking about theme are: “What did the author want us to think about?” “What idea stays with you?” “What will you remember about the story a year from now?”

8. Accept a Range of Answers

Of course, for many texts, there are often multiple themes and more than one way to express them. Be flexible when accepting students’ answers to theme-based questions. Students will often be grappling with concepts they can’t fully own. For example, if a student says the theme of Tuck Everlasting is “Living forever is a bad idea,” you can work with the class to find different ways to express this though. You might say, “Okay, what are some other ways we can say that? Guide students toward the theme, rather than requiring one right answer, which can turn the discussion into a game of “guess the teacher’s thoughts.”

9. Get Away From the Obvious

It’s easy to tease out the theme from some stories (think: Aesop’s The Ant and the Grasshopper). Challenge students with stories that don’t follow a typical pattern. For example, in the Great Books Honesty unit, students read about characters who begin each story by being dishonest. By starting with a character who’s lying, students explore deeper issues of honesty from the start. The careful use of stories, says Claff, opens up issues for students in an interesting, real-world way.

10. Connect Your Discussions to Other Subject Areas

Do you see examples in social studies or current events that connect to your theme? Start a collection or bulletin board around your current literature theme. Students can add examples from pop culture, history, or other reading. Help students connect the theme to their own lives by assigning take-home activities that build personal experiences around each theme. When students study kindness in Great Books, they perform a random act of kindness. And when third-graders study gratitude, they give an anonymous gift so they can experience what it’s like to not receive a thank you.

11. Provide a Range of Reading Options

To engage students at varying reading levels, provide a selection of books on one theme. When Robb teaches about obstacles, she fills her classroom library with biographies so students can read about how different historical figures have overcome challenges in their lives. Even when each student is reading something different, he or she is still engaging with the theme in conferences and writing. One way to introduce choice is to have a read aloud anchor text for all students, with a variety of stories to choose from for independent reading. In conferences, ask students to relate and connect their independent reading to the read aloud

Teaching theme gets at the heart of what we want for students—authentic, meaningful, and memorable experiences with text. Jeff Wilhelm may have put it best: “If you can read for theme, you can participate in a democracy.”

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Post written by Samantha Cleaver. Cleaver has worked as a special education teacher and instructional coach, as well as an education writer and middle grade author. She is passionate about reading and literacy instruction, using technology in education, and connecting educators who are doing great things.

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