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

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