Teaching Theme: Simple Lessons Students Love

Teaching theme in language arts is tricky to do in any grade. It's important for students to understand the concept of a theme so they can develop strong literary analysis skills and connect to the text. Keep reading for simple, engaging lessons to teach theme at any level.

teacher with students practicing simple lesson teacher with students practicing simple lesson

Teach Topic and Main Idea First

Students often get the literary terms main idea, topic and theme mixed up. It's easy to see why, since any of these literary terms could be the answer to the question "What is this text about?" But each one has a different definition. As you explore how to teach theme, make sure that students know what the main idea and topic of a text are before getting into the theme.

  1. Write the terms "Topic" and "Main Idea" on the board.
  2. Read a short and enjoyable story to the class.
  3. When you're done reading, ask what the story was about. (The answer should be one word, like "dogs" or "friendship.")
  4. Put their answers under the "Topic" column.
  5. Now, ask the class to put these topics into sentences to explain more about what the story is about. (For example, "Dogs are good friends.")
  6. Put these answers under the "Main Idea" column.

If your class reads at grade level, consider adding a "Theme" column to the lesson as well, where students can determine what the lesson or moral of the story was. If the class needs more practice, add the "theme" element in a later lesson. Take a look at the video below for more tips on differentiating between topic and theme.

Focus on Universal Themes

There are certain universal themes that appear in nearly every story, no matter the reading level. If your students have read a fairy tale or fable, they've come across many universal themes. In this lesson, start with the theme and end with the story.

  1. List a few universal themes on the board. (For example, good vs. evil, the importance of friendship, coming of age, and so on.)
  2. Split the class into as many groups as you have themes.
  3. Assign one theme per group.
  4. Each group has to come up with as many stories, books or movies as they can think of that fit their theme. (For advanced readers, ask for supporting evidence.)
  5. See which group comes up with the most themes.
  6. Have the groups share what they thought of, and see if other students have ideas to add to the lists.

You can also have an ongoing universal theme bulletin board. Every time students read a story, have them decide which theme best fits what they've read. Gather as much evidence as possible to help them make their decision.

Use Essential Questions

Asking questions about a text is something skilled readers do without even thinking about it. For beginning readers, you need to teach them to ask these questions before they do it naturally on their own. Answering essential questions is an effective way for students to discover the theme of a text as well.

  1. Pass out or introduce a short story to the class.
  2. Model asking essential questions with the title. (For example, in the story The Gift of the Magi, one question might be "What is the gift of the magi?")
  3. Encourage students to write down at least five questions that begin with "What," "Why" and "How" as they read or as you read to them.
  4. When the story is finished, ask for volunteers to share their questions. Write them on the board.
  5. As a class, decide which question is the "essential question." That's the question that determines why the story is important and what it's trying to teach us. (For example, the essential question for The Gift of the Magi might be "Why would someone give up their most loved possession for someone else?")
  6. Write down answers to the story's essential question.
  7. Circle the answer that best fits the story's theme.

You may need to model this process a few times before students get the hang of it. Try requiring five "why" questions for every story they read.

Support a Theme With Concrete Details

It's one thing to be able to find a theme in a story, but it's quite another to be able to support it with evidence. Teach your class how to use concrete detail from the text to support their theme.

  1. Have students prepare a short presentation about something that's important to them.
  2. As each student presents, have the rest of the class take notes about what they say. (If you need to scaffold, instruct the audience to answer two questions: "What is the most important thing," and "How do you know?")
  3. When the student ends their presentation, ask the class to answer the questions. (The answer to "how do you know" can't be "because they said it." It should be something like "because they have great memories with their mom" or "because it reminds them of their friends.")
  4. Explain that they are using concrete details to support the theme of their peers' presentation.

This activity is especially helpful for English learners and others who need practice with speaking and listening. It establishes that theme is not only found in written stories but in spoken word as well.

Find the Theme in Narrative Writing

Some students are better at self-reflection than others. That's why narrative writing and theme analysis can go hand in hand. Try out this lesson the next time you're focusing on either of these skills.

  1. Have students brainstorm a narrative essay on the prompt "Write about a time you learned from a mistake."
  2. Let them write their essay in class or at home for homework.
  3. Place students into pairs, and have them exchange their essays.
  4. The reading students should underline the part of their partner's essay that explains what they learned.
  5. Using the lesson they learned, have the reader students come up with a theme for their partner's essay. (For example, an essay about a student who learned not to ski too fast might have the theme "Learn something slowly before trying to go fast."
  6. Have students exchange papers back.
  7. The writing students now write a fictional story with the same theme from their narrative essay. (For example, the student who wrote the skiing story might now write about a bunny who hopped too high the first time he tried.)

For students who are still working on their writing skills, allow them to write a short paragraph instead of a full essay. They can also choose a story or movie they know with the same theme as their narrative writing rather than write a new fictional story.

Fun Theme Project Ideas

Now that students know what a theme is and how to find it, try out these creative theme project ideas. They'll have so much fun creating their work that they'll forget they're learning!

Write Thematic Statements as Hashtags

Whether or not your students are technologically savvy, they are probably familiar with the term "hashtag." Model how to write a social media post in 140 characters or less, followed by a hashtag to indicate the theme of the post. For example, a post about a character's relationship with her mother might end with "#loveyourfamily" or "#familyisforever."

Represent Theme With Art

Just because literary themes come from literature doesn't mean they need to be written. The artistically inclined students in your class may be able to see theme in a more visual way than write it out in a thematic statement. Let them draw, paint or graphically design an image that matches the theme of their story.

Thematic Soundtracks

A musical theme is the main melody of a composition. Connect the ideas of musical and literary themes with a fun musical project. Have students design a soundtrack for a story or book, and encourage them to explain why each song demonstrates the story's theme.

More Practice With Theme

Kindergartners and high school seniors alike struggle with finding the theme of a story, but it doesn't have to be as hard as it seems. Once you've tried these theme lesson plans, use a helpful theme worksheet to reinforce this important skill. Or for older learners, explain the difference between theme and common motifs that they're likely to see in literature.

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