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Teaching Theme

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.

Click Here for Theme Worksheets and Activities

Common Core State Standards Related to Theme

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2 – Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Expand to View All Common Core State Standards Related to Theme
ELA Standards: Literature

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.2 – Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2.2 – Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2 – Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.2 – Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.2 – Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.2 – Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.2 – Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2 – Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2 – Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2 – Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

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Common Core Lesson and Unit Plans
Understanding Common Core State Standards

 

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38 Comments

  1. Morneault

     /  January 29, 2017

    The way you explained and defined theme really helped my students.

    Reply
  2. N. Eren

     /  June 6, 2016

    Hi
    I use your reading comprehension passages in literacy classroom in the UK and I can say they are very useful and effective.

    Reply
  3. Deshina Elizabeth

     /  March 4, 2016

    Am sorry for asking this question because am a student but what is the difference between the main idea and the theme of a passage. It is somehow confusing.

    Reply
    • Main idea pertains more to nonfiction texts, whereas themes are found in works of fiction.

      Reply
    • Mrs. Kessler

       /  April 4, 2016

      Theme has more to do with the message the author is trying to convey. What does the author have to say in his or her writing about a topic? What do you believe the author believes about the topic? That is where you will find theme.

      Main idea (sometimes called central message, central idea) is what the passage or piece of writing is mainly or mostly about. The broad subject of a piece of writing.

      Reply
  4. K. Williams

     /  January 13, 2016

    Thank you for these resources, I have used your website for many years. I think it is critical to point out that theme is NOT 1-2 words. That is topic, according to most state standards and CCSS. Thanks!

    Reply
  5. Geneva Chapman

     /  August 23, 2015

    I appreciate this website tremendously. Working on elementary and middle school curricula development, my nearly forty years of experience teaching elementary, junior high, and special ed high school students, as well as none-degreed adults has taught me to keep learning simple and accessible, regardless of ability. Teaching higher order thinking is always the ultimate goal, but children from low-income neighborhoods often have not been exposed to literature and may have difficulty with the abstractions in the concept of themes. Therefore, for the lesson I’m developing for eighth graders using CCSS, I’m using short videos and written summaries of themes in fables, fairy tales, and other well known stories themes that are obvious to introduce the topic and to prepare eighth grade students to read classic literature with themes in mind. I think we fail children when we either expect too little or too much from them, overwhelmingly them and causing them to fail. I agree with the teaches praising your approach because it provides access to information that is complicated in ways that teachers can communicate and students can understand. I’m an award winning journalist and playwright, and have published over thirty short volumes, including some of my plays and screenplays, a novella, several children books, and two short story collections. However, despite my life-long love of reading and writing and an undergrad degree in English, I find trying to explain the complexity of literary themes to students who often have limited vocabulary and no experience with classical or even current literature daunting. You provide teachers with tools that make it less so. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, reflections, suggestions, and praise.

      It is well-received and I wish you the best.

      Reply
  6. Michelle Hayward

     /  July 3, 2015

    Wow! Great site – really useful. Thank you!!

    Reply
  7. Jessica

     /  November 19, 2014

    This is amazing! It really helped students practice independently. Thank you for sharing!!!

    Reply
  8. Tianna Rhooms

     /  November 12, 2014

    This page was extremely helpful and insightful! thank you!

    Reply
  9. Peter W.

     /  October 30, 2014

    I have noticed that a lot of time in middle-school and sometimes High School English classes, the definition of “Theme” changes, often for reasons similar to the ones described above (i.e., to prepare the students for a test). There is an issue with the Middle School concept of theme (as the author’s message or life lesson), however – it becomes highly problematic when students begin to read texts that don’t have a singular message and were not written to convey a “life lesson.” Books like Beloved or Heart of Darkness or Absalom! Absalom! are simply too complex to be condensed into singular messages, and certainly fall outside the fable-ish territory of “life lessons,” and yet to explore any of those books productively without being able to discuss their themes (they all do have themes, after all) seems nearly impossible to me.
    I think it’s okay to use the definition here, as long as you’re honest with the students about its being a definition that is really only used in lower-secondary English classes. In the outside world, a literary theme is a universal subject around which an author may focus a narrative (or several) to the point of demonstrating an argument, but in my opinion, the most essential component of theme is that multiple authors may take on the same theme and yield entirely different – and possibly contentious – readings. (For example, consider race in the previous three novels).

    Reply
  10. ms.mannce

     /  September 12, 2014

    this really helped me and my students

    Reply
  11. Destini Seals

     /  May 29, 2014

    This is a great website. I needed research for school and this just has my mind blasting with IDEAS ! Thankyou.

    Reply
  12. Judi Van Erden

     /  January 9, 2014

    An important point that is missing from this explanation is that conflict is an important element to examine for evidence of theme. It’s true that students can get fixated on the more elementary literary elements of character and setting. By expanding their focus to conflict, you can direct them to finding evidence of theme and help them make and discuss the inferences necessary for identifying–and defending–theme.

    Reply
  13. Jason Payne

     /  September 26, 2013

    I’m with you on this definition of theme, Mr. Morton. That’s the way I teach it.

    Thanks for all the great resources.

    Reply
  14. Nicole

     /  March 6, 2013

    We appreciate your resources, but unfortunately they are incorrect. Author’s Message and Theme get confused very often. The theme is not the author’s message, but the theme is inferred from the author’s message. For example the author’s message for The Tortoise & The Hare could be “Slow and steady wins the race” and the theme could then be inferred as “Patience.” Check your literary definitions please teachers before presenting this confusion. Themes are universal (can cross culture and time) broad topics stated in 1 to words. When defining theme, I encourage students to think of birthday parties. Birthday parties usually have a theme, which everything gives reference.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your input. This is often a point of contention. As you can see from the Wikipedia page about literary theme, there are two conflicting definitions for theme, one of which you list. I respect your views and encourage you to use my materials anyway they assist you.

      In my personal case, however, I go by the definition of theme as listed in the ISAT glossary. The ISAT is the test that Illinois students are required to take, and as a teacher in Illinois, I design many of my materials to prepare my students for this test. According to the ISAT glossary,

      Theme – Life lesson, meaning, moral, or message about life or human nature that is communicated by a literary work.

      Author’s message – The main idea, theme, or lesson the author wants to communicate to the reader.

      So, since I function under the terminology put in place under our state framework, perhaps my resources aren’t “incorrect,” but rather different from the framework under which you function.

      Thanks for visiting.

      Reply
  15. Ms. N Clark

     /  February 19, 2013

    How do I access the PowerPoint?

    Reply
  16. Bgregoire

     /  January 27, 2013

    Great site – and resources! Can’t wait to use these in my class!

    Reply
  17. suzanne

     /  September 25, 2012

    This is a terrific resource. The powerpoint is simple, clear, and so understandable for my middle school students. Thank you.

    Reply
  18. Rudylen Anino-dela Torre

     /  April 26, 2012

    Thanks for this Mr. Morton! Extracting Theme from a Narrative would be my topic for my class demonstration. This is indeed a BIG HELP! I hope I would be able to give my best in my demonstration so that I would be hired. Blessings! 🙂

    Reply
  19. slong

     /  March 21, 2012

    This is exactly how I teach this lesson, but it gives EXCELLENT examples!! Thanks!!

    Reply
  20. janet hill

     /  March 8, 2012

    really like this website… great worksheets for my sophomore english class!!

    Reply
  21. Thanks for wonderful worksheet covering the subjects that I need. These are the best that I have found!

    Reply
  22. patrick T

     /  February 23, 2012

    This gave me the perspective I needed to revive my students “higher thinking!”
    Thanks, very helpful!

    Reply
  23. Rachel W

     /  February 20, 2012

    Great website!! It really helped my kids with the idea of theme and how it differentiates with main idea! 🙂

    Reply
  24. Teresa S.

     /  January 27, 2012

    Thanks for the website. The power point really helped my lesson today teaching theme.

    Reply
  25. Thenisha Carter

     /  January 9, 2012

    Thank you for your suggestions. This site is VERY helpful. My students enjoyed every passage written on the worksheet. Your resources made the lesson on themes and main ideas interesting. You did a phenomenal job and I hope to see more worksheets and PowerPoints available.

    Reply

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