Helping Students Understand Theme!

You know every teacher has his/her list..  The list of concepts and skills that we LOVE to teach and those that we LOATH to teach.  Some that I LOATH are measurement in math..  Ugh!  One that I LOVE teaching theme in reading 🙂  I think it’s something that I can connect to so easily, in so many ways.  This why I have fun and enjoy breaking it down for my students.

But, if you’re one who teaches theme, you know that that is definitely not the case for all of your students.  This can be an extremely challenging concept.  Why?  Because it is an abstract one.  The theme isn’t something they can go back to the text and point to.  I’ve put together an entire list of tricks and tips that I know are going to help YOU help your students understand theme even better!

teaching theme

Theme is what I call a ‘juggling’ skill.  Students have to completely understand a wide variety of skills before they can successfully identify the them.  These skills include summarizing, characters, plot, and even making inferences.

When teaching theme, make sure students understand and can define theme.  I always include these pieces of information too:  Theme MUST be inferred.  There can be more than one theme in a text.  And theme isn’t specific to just ONE story.  Allowing students to know this helps them grasp the concept of theme even better!

Theme Tip #1:

Vocabulary needs to be taught first.  It won’t matter how much of the plot or how well they know the characters, if they don’t have the vocabulary of the theme ‘words’, then they won’t have a chance to identify the theme.

Some of the main themes we teach in our building are:  perseverance, cooperation, honesty, responsibility, acceptance, kindness, friendship, greed, and contentment.  There are many more to be added to that list.  But look at those words!  Those are some pretty hefty words teaching themeeven for third graders!

The first thing I do when beginning a unit on theme is teach the students the individual vocabulary words we will be using throughout our unit.  You’ll be surprised at how much foundation and understand they actually have of the words, they just need a word added to their meanings.

So get out the crayons.  One of the best ways I introduce these words is by having them not only write and define them, but also sketch them out.

Teaching Theme Tip #2:

The next piece that is crucial in being able to identify the theme of a fictional text is a clear understanding of the plot.  They have to know the ins and outs of the story, the beginning, the middle and dare I say it – the end!
teaching theme I love having the students use a variety of graphic organizers or flow charts to help with this process.  We do a lot of sketches as well.  For example:  I’ll be doing the first read of the text and then I’ll stop where I think the beginning of the story has ‘ended’.
Using specific mentor texts for teaching theme is one of my favorite ways to do this!  Check out this list of mentor texts to use when teaching theme to help!
 On their paper, the students will visualize and sketch what they truly think is the most important event so far in the story and then write 2-3 sentences about it underneath.
Then the students will pair-share and discuss similarities and differences.  We continue this throughout the entire story.  Then when we get to the discussion about theme, the students have a solid understand and even some ‘notes’ they have taken to refer back to if needed.

Teaching Theme Tip #3:

It’s all about the characters.  They need to understands the characters completely.  The who’s, what’s, when’s, where’s, and why’s.  More so too they need to look for the change in the character.  A lot of times we’ll use a character trait wall to do this.
 Basically I divide my front board into two sections and write beginning and ending above each section.  As we read the students think of character traits to describe the main (or other) characters and add their words to the wall – same for the ending.  Then we analyze what changes we see in the character(s) – which helps us identify the theme!

Looking for some hands on, engaging lessons to get more out of your reading instruction for teaching THEME?  I’ve got a FULL theme unit of lesson plans, reading center, assessments, and more – ready for YOU!

teaching theme

Teaching Theme Tip #4:

Another big tip with theme is making sure to connect it to texts and media that they already know.  I use a lot of movie references in my theme unit.  We watch a lot of clips of old fairytales and fables/folktales, listen to songs, etc.  Disney is even a great place to turn to practice identifying themes from plots of stories they already know!

Teaching Theme Tip #5:

Make connections!  Theme is all about LIFE, the real world, our inner selves.  If students aren’t making strong and deep connections to the text, it will be harder for them to identify the theme.  Find texts that will make those connections and students will understand and feel the theme more quickly!
Want to save these tips for later?  Make sure to pin the image below!
teaching theme
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I’m a wife, a mommy of 3, blogger, and a full time teacher author and presenter. I love to read, shop, and spend time with my family! My hands are always busy, but my heart is so full!

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