Identifying the theme of a story is a higher order skill and requires the reader to make an inference. Consequently, some students have a difficult time identifying themes. Because this skill is frequently evaluated on state reading tests, it is important that your students identify themes with reasonable reliability. I find that properly teaching students how to identify themes goes a long way toward meeting this goal.
1. Properly Define Theme: students need to know that theme is the life lesson of a story or the author’s message.
2. Prepare Students To Infer: students need to understand that in most stories (with the exception of fables), the author will not tell readers what the theme or lesson of the story is. Readers will have to think about what the characters did wrong or right and what they can learn from the character’s experience.
3. Teach Students To Extract The “Big Idea”: One common mistake that students make when attempting to identify the theme is that they get hung up on the characters or events in the story. They cannot think beyond the small world elements of the story to extract the big world lesson of the theme. I will use the following short story as an example:
Tim hated his old baseball glove. He wanted to play with a new glove, but he didn’t have any money, so he decided to steal it. But when Tim got caught stealing the glove, his parents said he couldn’t play baseball all summer.
A student who understands the concept of theme is likely to give a response like, “The lesson of the story is that if you want something, you should work for it.” A response like this shows that the student is processing the events of the story and extracting a larger idea, one which can be directly applied to someone’s life. A student who doesn’t understand theme will fixate on story level events. For example, “Tim shouldn’t steal.” While this response demonstrates comprehension of the text, it doesn’t show higher order thinking. The student is stuck in the small world of the story and needs to take the mental jump to the big world idea. Teaching students to distinguish between the small world of the story and the big world idea will help them to more accurately express their understanding of story themes.
4. Give Students Practice Identifying Themes: While I encourage you to study and discuss themes in each story that you read as a class, immediately after learning about theme, students need a variety of examples with which they can practice. I have created worksheets and activities where students identify themes in a variety of very short stories. Also, I have uploaded the PowerPoint slide show I used to teach theme to my students this year.
I hope these resources will help your students better understand theme and more consistently identify themes texts.