Before I go any further, teaching theme is HARD…like really hard. Why didn’t anyone teach me a sequence or developmental process for learning and teaching theme. When I first started teaching, I would just dive in. I’d find cool activities that practiced theme. Then, a few weeks later, it would come again in our textbook curriculum. And again. And again. And again. I was just hodge-podging my way through my reading lessons. I wasn’t doing anything to build off of the previous experience to help my students better understand what theme was or how to answer theme related questions.
Think of teaching theme as this huge big umbrella that has many subcategories under it. You can’t just teach this giant, abstract thought called theme. You have to break it down in a way that allows students to grow and progress, just like they would any other academic task. They need to do it one step at a time.
How do you do that, you ask? You teach smaller sub-skills to help your students master identifying the theme of a text and using details from the text to support their answer.
Step One: The Character Learns a Lessons
Before trying to have your students learn these deep life lessons, have them read a book where the character learns a lesson. Ask questions that require them to tell what advice the character might give to someone else. What will the character do next time?
This is a very simple question that will allow your students to begin understanding that there is sometimes more to a story than just reading the words on the page.
Step Two: Universal Themes
I find that my students really struggle to put their lessons or themes into words. Because of that, I like to give them a list of ideas to get them started. I have them think about types of themes that are included in many stories. There are countless books on friendship, bullying, being responsible, and trying your best. Those are all universal themes. They appear in so many books, movies, and short stories.
They also need to think about diving deeper into a universal theme than just sharing a one or two word answer, like friendship or trying your best. Teach them to dive deep and describe the specific lesson that the character learned about friendship or trying your best. For example, “The character learned that if you don’t try your best, you can’t be disappointed by the results.”
Step Three: Main Idea vs. Theme
Students often confuse Main Idea and Theme. In some curriculum, they are taught as the same or similar things. While they are SUPER similar, a book or passage can definitely have BOTH! Both of these terms describe the message that the author is wanting to share with the reader. However, the theme is specific to a lesson that the reader may learn after reading a passage.
Main Idea: The character in this story is disrupting class to hide the fact that he doesn’t understand the work.
Theme: It is ok to ask for help when you need it.
The theme is often an inference that the reader makes, meaning you will be working to transfer from simple lessons that the character might have learned to more general lessons that apply to many people.
I think it is important to understand the difference between these two to help students form answers when they are writing open-ended questions. Is the question asking about a lesson that was to be inferred or did they ask what the entire thing was about?
Step Four: You vs. Author
We infer the theme of a story because of two things–our background knowledge and the inferences we make based on what the author has written.
I think it’s important to help students realize that the author has written specific words to help readers relate, understand, or infer something specific. Using their background knowledge, they can relate or infer the a life lesson that has been shared.
Step Five: Details vs. Evidence
I have some students who are REALLY good at telling me what the theme of the story might be. Yet, when they begin supporting their answers with details from the text, they STRUUUUUUGGLE. When we are thinking about the higher level responses that students will be expected to give, they must be able to find textual evidence.
It takes practice for them to be able to determine if a sentence from the text is a detail or if it is evidence. Many times, they are picking out sentences that are good, but they don’t support what the reader said was the theme.
Question: Should Aubree have studied for her test?
Answer: Yes, Aubree should have studied for her test.
Evidence: When Aubree went to take her test, she had NO IDEA how to spell any of the words.
Evidence: She panicked, but it was too late!
Detail: When her mom brought her dinner, she packed up her backpack.
See how that detail has NOTHING to do with proving that she should have studied? That is what your students do. Or at least, that’s what mine often do. Help your students sort between details and evidence. Not all details from the text are helpful when you are supporting your answer.
Step Six: Multiple Themes in One Text
I love when you read a book aloud and students are sharing MANY themes about so many different topics. This is beautiful and shows the varying levels of thought and background knowledge of your students. Find a text that has so many themes and have your students practice finding them!
I like to use Post-It Notes and have my kids write their theme on a Post-It each time we discover a potential theme. They want to fill Post-Its, and I like that they see how many themes were hidden in the story. They can also see different perspectives from their classmates.
Step Seven: One Text with Multiple Themes
This is always the end goal. It’s also the difficult thing for students to do independently. But as a teacher, it is so much fun to teach and opens the door to so many fun activities and discussions. Find books that have similar or related universal themes. It’s such a great way to allow your students to compare and contrast, cite evidence from multiple sources, and see how pieces of literature support one another.
If you are like me, I need help finding mentor texts and knowing what questions to ask my students. As I researched and trial and error-ed this sequence, I kept track in a Google Doc file with the books that I liked for each skill and the types of questions that worked well to help my students see each of the following steps above.
In this Teaching Theme: Week-By-Week FREEBIE, I prettied up my Google Doc so you could print it and keep it in your lesson plan book. Grab a few mentor texts that I’ve listed or add a few of your favorites where they fit.
If you are interested in more mentor texts and how you can use them to teach a variety of reading skills, be sure to check out my mentor texts by the month blog posts. Click HERE for links to each month.