Teaching Theme: Tips and Resources

Understanding and identifying theme is a higher-order skill that often leaves many students scratching their heads.   In fact, many teachers are struggling along side their students trying to find ways help them understand this challenging concept.  It is no easy task to get students to make text connections and think inferentially, but hopefully these tips, examples, and resources will help you along the way.

Don’t Jump In Too Early

One mistake that many teachers make is jumping into identifying and analyzing the theme too early after reading a text.  Before you ask students, “What is the theme?” they first need to have a solid grasp of the more literal story elements of the text (plot, setting, characters etc.).

Not only that, but identifying and analyzing theme is a skill that requires explicit teaching and practice.  While it can be tempting to want to dive into discussing the deeper meaning or purpose of a reading, that should be reserved for a later date when students have a solid grasp on the text they are reading as well as on the meaning of theme. 

Clearly Define Theme

Before students can analyze theme, they need to have a deep understanding of the meaning of the term.  Ask your students for a definition of theme, and you will probably hear one or more of the following responses:
Teaching theme?  This article will give you lots of tips and resources to help your students understand, locate, and analyze theme in a piece of literature!
While the main idea, topic, and moral do relate in some ways to theme, they are not correct.  Before I define theme for my students, I differentiate between these terms using Little Red Riding Hood as an example:

Teaching theme?  This article will give you lots of tips and resources to help your students understand, locate, and analyze theme in a piece of literature!

I teach my students that the theme is a significant idea/statement that the story is making about society, human nature, or the human condition. Theme focuses on the deeper meaning or message that the reader is meant to consider, and it is often a statement that people can apply to their own lives or world in some way.

Too often I hear people use a one-word topic to label a theme.  For example, someone might say the theme of a text is freedom, power, family, love etc.  Make sure your students know that a theme can never be just one word.  These words are topics that are important to the text, but it does not become a theme until a statement is made about the topic! 

Start Simple and Scaffold 

Start with a simple children’s book or film to help your students practice identifying theme (Disney movies or Dr. Seuss books tend to work well).  Once students are familiar with the plot, use the following scaffolded approach below to help them develop a thematic statement:  

       1.     Have students develop a list of topics that are examined in the reading/film and choose one.  For example, some common topics in literature are family, loyalty, identity, ambition, guilt, fear, power, sacrifice, love, trust, ignorance, freedom etc.

       2.     Have students write a specific sentence about what the author thinks about the topic you chose. (For example, “The author thinks that… power is a corrupting force”).  

      3.     Remove “The author thinks that” from your sentence and rewrite any necessary parts to form a thematic statement! (For example, “Power is a corrupting force”).

Click HERE for a free organizer to help students write a thematic statement using this approach.

After students are familiar with the process with a simple text or film, it will more easily translate when they apply it to a poem short story, novel, or play they are reading in class. 

Prove It To Me

Have students put their thematic statement to the test to make sure that it can be supported with direct evidence from the text. If it can’t be supported, ask them to go back and start the process of identifying another theme. 

Practice Makes Perfect

Here are a couple fun activities to help students practice writing thematic statements:

Thematic Journals 

Have 10-15 small booklets with universal theme topics written on the front of each (Courage, Fear, Friendship, Family, Power, Innocence, Justice, Love, Loyalty, Revenge, Pride, Beauty, Fate, Freedom, Prejudice etc.).  If students are reading an independent novel that relates to one of the topics in someway, have them respond with a journal about how the theme of their novel relates to this topic.  I ask students to complete at least 2 entries per semester.  

Teaching theme?  Use thematic journals to help your students discuss and analyze theme with their classmates, even if they aren't reading the same novel!
On the inside cover of each booklet, have the following prompting questions to help students get started:

     1.     What does the author of the novel you are reading think about this topic?
     2.     What message do you think the author wants you to consider about this topic?
     3.     How do you relate personally to the theme of the novel?
     4.     How does the theme of the novel relate to the world or to humanity in general?
     5.     Does the theme of this novel remind you of the theme of something else you have read/watched?

Students can also read what others have written before them and discuss how their reading relates. 

Hashtag the Theme

Have students differentiate between topic and theme by having them write a thematic statement in the form of a social media post (140 characters or less) with a relevant topic hashtag.  This looks great on display in your classroom and allows students to see a variety of examples of how a topic can turn into a thematic statement. Download this free activity/display HERE.

Have students practice writing thematic statements with this FREE bulletin board display called "Hashtag The Theme"

There Is No Right Answer
Take a bit of the pressure off your students by telling them that there is no right answer when it comes to identifying theme.  Interpretation is based on the readers’ prior experiences and knowledge. As long as their thematic statement can be supported by evidence, it is correct! 

Want more ideas for teaching theme?  Click below to check out these other ideas from The Secondary English Coffee Shop bloggers.

Main Idea vs Theme from Presto Plans 
Theme Focus Lesson for Any Novel from The SuperHERO Teacher
Discovering Theme Learning Stations from Room 213


Poetry - Fun and Engaging Lesson Ideas for Secondary Students

When I tell my students we’re going to read a poem, start a poetry unit or write poetry there is usually a collective groan from the crowd.  My heart sinks a little and I try to put on a bright face and tell them it is going to be “fun”.  The groan gets a little louder…  Anyone else experience the same thing? Fear not my teacher friends… I promise I can make teaching poetry fun!

First Things First…
I like to gauge my students’ interest in poetry with a quick one-page survey – grab a copy here FREE.  I ask them what poetry means and what they do and do not like about studying poetry. The interest survey acts as an icebreaker and allows students to share their previous experiences with poetry.  Use the survey as a launching pad for a class discussion, have students share with each other, and then use the results to help you plan your lessons.

Can It Really Be “Fun”?
Yes… yes, it can!  Poetry is all about the power of our words, the ability to use words to convey an emotion, to paint a picture in our minds, to provoke thought, to make us laugh, or to make us cry.  Teaching students that their writing carries power is incredible and if you can include creative and humorous lessons… I promise you can make it fun. Don't be afraid to be a little (or a lot) silly, use examples from children's literature, and be willing to have a laugh or two!

Figurative Language
One of my favourite activities to do when we’re learning new figurative language is to have students share their ideas on the whiteboard.  I pass out 3-4 whiteboard markers and ask students to write an example on the board, they then pass the marker on to someone else. I give them 5-10 minutes to add their ideas to the board.  I end up with at least 30 (often more) examples… many of them are so creative and funny we all end up getting a good giggle.  And… it seems no matter how old they are, they still get a kick out of writing on the whiteboard.

Grab a FREE Figurative Language Reference Sheet HERE.   Another fun and engaging way to start a lesson on figurative language is to watch one of the many videos on Youtube that show examples of figurative language in movies and songs.  Check out this fun one HERE!

Write a Rant - Let Out Your Frustrations!
Another fun poetry activity is to have students write about their pet peeves!  Students love to share and brainstorm all of the little things that irritate and annoy them and then using my Pet Peeve Poetry resource write a poem to share their frustrations. Using similes and other figurative language, this activity is an easy introduction to writing their own poem.  This is an activity I look forward to doing every year and I LOVE to read what they come up with!  Their writing is usually hilarious and it's so fun to listen to them share their pet peeves as they work through their ideas.  The 9-page resource includes everything you need to get started right away! This activity is also included in my full Poetry Pack - a bundle of 9 ready-to-use poetry writing activities.

Rewrite Well Known Poems 
I always get hilarious results when I ask students to write their own version of William Carlos Williams’ poem “This Is Just to Say”…. You can link to it HERE.   My students love to admit what they’ve done, why it was wrong, and then the last line that rubs it all in.   We post them on the wall in my classroom and all have a good laugh.  I often have students write 2-3 versions of this type of poem... it is a great way to get out their frustrations and ties in nicely with the Pet Peeve poem mentioned above.

Some More Fun Ideas
Check out this LIST of some humorous poems you can share with your students – many of them written by some well-known poets.  Use them as examples and encourage your students to share their own.

Limericks are another great way to introduce humour into your poetry lessons –  download a FREE Limerick Lesson HERE.

Be sure to check out my best-selling POETRY PACK HERE. It includes nine different poetry writing activities that have always engaged my students.

I hope I have given you some poetic inspiration to mix a little fun into your poetry unit!  Don't be afraid to be silly - even with your seniors!  Sometimes I think we take poetry too seriously and it becomes intimidating for our students.

Be sure to check out more POETRY ACTIVITIES from my 
Secondary English Coffee Shop friends.

Espresso Shot: Why We Became Teachers

Hello fellow coffee drinkers!

For this month's espresso shots, we will be chatting about why we became educators in the first place.  We all have that moment in which we knew education was the path for us, so we'd like to share that moment with you! While you're reading, think about why you became a teacher, too!

Our first Espresso Shot comes from Secondary Sara! Sara says, "I was an all-around nerd... spelling bee, creative writing team, you name it. But in addition to loving all things "school", I always felt that my teachers were rock stars. They were incredibly smart, kind people who went the extra mile for us, and I wanted to be just like them. The more I watched them, and the more I learned in my degree programs, the more I wanted to carry on their passion for English. My goal now is to model that love for the written word and empower students to love and master it too."
-Secondary Sara

The next Espresso Shot comes from Jackie of Room 213! Jackie says, "I come from a long line of teachers, so you could say it's in my genes. I played school as a kid and always loved learning, but in my teens I was convinced I would never be a teacher. I took journalism in my first year of university and to make money, I did lots of tutoring. When the university year was over, I did some substitute teaching in my mother's school. I soon realized that these activities were more than just jobs: I loved working with others and coming up with interesting ways to help them learn. It's been a passion for me ever since and I've never once doubted that it was the perfect job for me." -Jackie

Next up is Stacey Lloyd!  Here's what she has to say: "As with many incredible teachers, I have always known that I was destined for the world of education. I knew when I was 5, playing ‘school’ with my sisters. I knew at 10, when I tried to grade my mother’s shopping list. I knew at 12, when I always wanted to stand on a stage and be the center of attention. I took a little detour in my teens and tried to deny the teacher in me, claiming that I was meant to be an engineer, but one quick job-shadowing trip to an airplane factory later, and I was back on track to being an educator by the time I was 18. Now, I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. Teaching, with all its challenges and frustrations, invigorates me. I still count it as an absolute privilege that I get paid to do what I love." -Stacey

Brittany from The SuperHERO Teacher remembers: "When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher/coach helped me through a time that had the potential to break me.  She reminded me that I was smart, driven, and creative, and that no matter the circumstances, I should refuse to give up.  From that moment, I knew I had to pay it forward.  I knew that even though I was unsure of the content area I wanted to teach, there was a place for me in the classroom.  I felt a need and desire to make a difference in my students' lives, just like she made a difference in mine.  I've never once regretted my decision to choose education as my career path, and I can happily say that I've lived up to my promise in helping my students through challenging times."  -Brittany

Shey, The Classroom Sparrow explains that "I have always had a creative knack and I felt teaching was one career that I would be able to use my creativity to help students learn. Saying that, when I entered university, I did not exactly know my career path. It was not until a few years in when I realized that I could use my creativity to design and plan lessons that students could not only relate to, but also be engaged in. However, my first form of "teaching" began way back when I was in the later years of elementary until the beginning of high school, where I instructed and taught kids how to skate. This was my first 'real' teaching experience." -Shey

The next Espresso Shot is from Addie Williams.  She explains that,  "Growing up I never thought I would be a teacher! I wanted to be a travel agent, tour guide or park ranger... and it was not until I was almost 30 that I realized that teaching was my true calling. I was lucky to have some unique and incredible jobs (I swam with sharks, climbed volcanoes and adventured at a National Battlefield) before coming to the conclusion that I loved to share my passion for learning with others. Now that I'm a teacher, I couldn't imagine doing anything else and my students love to hear about my crazy adventures before I decided to join the profession." -Addie

Danielle from Nouvelle ELA shares:  "I was the bookish kid, the class librarian in 4th grade, and the one who was in the library during lunch in high school reading Victorian poetry. Gladly a nerd, and feeling no shame! However, I knew that not everyone could understand why I loved it all so much. Every time one of my English teachers gave us any sort of project where we could teach the class anything, I relished in the opportunity to share my passion. Seeing interest and curiosity in my classmates eyes when I retold Beowulf with bongos or connected Harry Potter to mythology made me want to keep sharing every day of my life." -Danielle

Bonnie from Presto Plans adds to the conversation: "The thought of pursuing a career in teaching didn’t cross my mind until my first year of university. I took a summer job working at an English as a second language program that housed students from over 40 different countries. I lived on campus all summer teaching classes, planning events, and working to improve my students’ language skills. It wasn’t long before I realized that this job no longer felt like work. I looked forward to my classes and loved the connection I was making with my students. I immediately joined on to start working for the program part-time during the school year and my passion for teaching only grew with each class I taught. I am so grateful for this experience because it led me to a career that I absolutely love." -Bonnie

Last, but not least, The Daring English Teacher says, "As a small child, I used to spend countless hours during the summer playing school with my younger brother. I created worksheets for him to complete, wrote comprehension questions for movies we viewed together, and even attempted to teach a six-year-old how to write a paragraph. Combining my love for school with a my passion for reading and writing, it isn't surprising to me that I became a high school English teacher. I became a teacher because I loved school (so much that it was one of my favorite games to play), and I wanted to share that love for education, reading, and writing with others." -Christina

Thank you all SO much for reading!  We would love to hear why you chose education as your career path, so be sure to comment!

How To Improve Students' Writing: The Pathway Method

One of the best things about talking to other teachers is the reassurance you find in shared experiences. Like knowing you’re not the only one with a secret stash of wine in their desk––I mean candy. Did I say wine? Weird. I absolutely meant candy. I’m clearly overtired from too much marking, and feeling the effects of too much… candy.

Recently I got an email from a fellow teacher and when I read it, I got that disorienting, time travel vibe. You know, like when you find an old journal in the attic. Instantly, I was transported back to my first year of teaching, but instead of it being a cringey, ohmygosh-I-can’t-believe-I wrote-those-words moment, it was strangely comforting. Because I recognized the words in the letter; I had pulled my hair out over the same exasperating problem.

This was the email:

I’m finding that my students’ writing is HORRENDOUS!  I’ve talked with the other ELA teacher in Jr. High, and for some reason, this group is lacking the fundamental skills of writing. Any advice/suggestions, lesson plans, etc. that you would be willing to help me with, or direct me to, would be greatly appreciated.  I’m pulling my hair out with this group.

(Anyone else relate? I do have a few suggestions I think could be helpful, but I’d also love to hear about your own experiences and any tips and tricks you’ve discovered.)

You see, I think this teacher put her finger on the deeply entrenched, knobbly root of the problem: students lacking the fundamental skills of writing. So I like to get back down to the very basics, before working up to the heady heights of full length essays and narrative discourse.

That’s Genre, Audience, Purpose and Style to you and me: the very first stop on our path. 

Before anything else, students need to know what their goal is. Is it to inform? Entertain? Persuade? Once they know that, they need to identify who they’re writing for and what genre the piece falls under. All this will help them choose the most appropriate style of writing.

Lesson Idea: Get your students to look at examples of formal and informal writing (perhaps articles from Time magazine compared with a Buzzed article) and discuss the differences between them—and the possible reasons for that.

This is what I meant by ‘the basics'. Dial it all the way back and zoom right in for a closeup on the building blocks of writing: words.

I usually spend a good few lessons on this, looking at the impact of well-chosen, precise, descriptive words. I encourage students to play around with verbs, adverbs and adjectives, before experimenting with tone and diction.

Bonus Round: If you’re getting encouraging responses, I’d even dare you to push your students to think about the ways word choice helps to create distinctive narrative voices…

Once your students grasp the possibilities of word choice, it's time to journey down the path a little further and get them to look at how those words link together in sentences.

A really fun way to get students thinking creatively about sentences is to introduce them to the concept of variety. Get them to mix it up! Challenge them to start every sentence a different way. Encourage them to play around with sentence length.

Sneaky Suggestion: Use this opportunity to teach the sometimes tedious topic of grammar in a practical way. Improve fluency by looking at similar sentiments expressed in simple, compound and complex sentences.

The next stop on our path: looking at how sentences structure paragraphs.

At this point, I introduce transition words and discuss how to structure thoughts and develop arguments. For analytical or literary writing, I include lessons on how to write thesis statements, embed quotations, make claims and back up those claims.

Top Tip: Don’t be tempted to journey past this stop too quickly. Let your students focus purely on paragraph writing until they’re really comfortable—and you’re happy with their great paragraphs. Each lesson, or paragraph, get them to focus on just one aspect at a time.

Your students are now perfectly primed to journey all the way down the path and start looking at the big picture: the essay as a whole.

But don’t let them run wild just yet! They are far less likely to lose the thread of their argument if they’re following a well-constructed map, so this is when I get my students to really think about planning. (The same principles apply to narrative writing; just swap argument for plot.)

Visionary Tools: mind mapping, paragraph planning, idea generation, theme identification, pinpointing focus… it all makes it so much easier and less daunting for them when they come to writing their essays.


Why the ‘The Pathway Method’ Works

I’ve seen great results from this ‘pathway method’ and I think it’s because it has three significant benefits for nervous, confused or insecure students:

1.  No more tangles: writing a whole essay or narrative can be intimidating in the extreme. A lot of students are paralyzed because they just don’t know where to start or what is expected from them—or, alternatively, they write themselves in knots. By deconstructing writing into its component parts like this, students can break down a daunting task into more manageable activities.

2.  A confidence boost: by allowing students to journey to the higher tiers of writing only once they’ve mastered the ones below, we can help build their confidence. Which means this is a double benefit! After all, we all know that confident students make eager, enthusiastic, more creative students.

3.  An unshakable core: when students start from a solid skills base, every aspect of their writing is made stronger as a result. An original, imaginative story will lack impact without carefully chosen words or a distinctive voice. A brilliant argument will crumble without a well-supported structure. But writing built on these fundamental skills will stand strong and proud.

In short, no more horrendous writing! No more teachers pulling out their hair. And—most importantly—less reason to delve into that secret stash of candy.

Looking for more resources for teaching writing? Check these out: 

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