Two Lessons for Teaching Theme
I want students to know how to find theme in any fiction they are reading, and to be aware of the critical devices authors use to tell their story and to give their message. I have found that if I break this down for students, they can begin to formulate a list of several things to look for after a short lesson cycle on theme. My goal is for them to be able to transfer each of these things to any text they read in the future, as they are all very universal.
Readers can think about theme by:
• considering the author’s message throughout the entire book,
• paying close attention to those things that come up over and over in a text,
• knowing that universal themes come up over and over again,
• understanding how various storylines fit together,
• thinking about the way in which the problem in the plot is solved,
• thinking about metaphors and symbols that the author use, and
• supporting thinking about theme with evidence in the text.
I look for books that will help me meet these goals. I look for books with:
I also keep my eye out for books with complex themes. Although I don’t want to use these more complex books early in the lesson cycle, these become my goal -- what I hope kids can make sense of on their own at the end of the cycle. Books such as Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne and The Goblin and the Empty Chair by Mem Fox are texts with a complexity I would save for the end of a cycle.
I want my students to have a variety of ways to dig into a book. I know that not every one of these strategies will work for every book, and I want my students to know that too. Authors tell stories in various ways. It will be up to the reader to determine which of these strategies helps them as they read.
Keeping an End in Mind
Depending on the specific grade level I teach and the standards I am expected to meet, these are starting points. I may spend two or three days on one idea if it seems difficult for students. I may back up if I see what I’ve done is too far of a reach for kids. I may go forward if I notice that kids are grasping ideas about theme more quickly than I had expected.
I find that when I am very intentional and break down the concepts I am teaching, finding books becomes easy. When I know I am looking for epigraphs, I can go through my library to find those books with epigraphs. There is nothing magical about the books on my list, except that they are the ones that are working for me right now. There are many others that would fit the same needs.
In the end, I don’t want kids to be able to spit out the theme that I identify for the book. Instead, I want them to know how to use the clues in the text to determine theme on their own. I want to teach them strategies to empower them to find the theme on anything that they read. If I keep that end in mind, choosing books is much easier. Here are two lessons I might use to begin a cycle on understanding theme.
Lesson 1: Plot Versus Theme
Even if students can tell us the theme of a book, they often get confused by the academic vocabulary of literature. If we want them to be able to participate in conversations about theme, the language is important. When students can see the difference between plot and theme, they can begin to look at how authors use plot to give the reader a message.
Possible Anchor Text
I like to use a wordless picture book for this lesson. These books allow students to tell the story (retelling plot) in their own words and then to talk about plot versus theme. A book that works well because of the easy sequence of events is A Circle of Friends by Giora Carmi. For lessons like this one, I look for books that have a clear, sequential plot -- one that is simple to retell. I don’t want us to spend much time retelling the story since that is not the goal of this lesson.
How I Teach It
We usually begin this lesson by reading the book A Circle of Friends. Because this is a wordless picture book, I share it silently so students would experience it first on their own. Then I ask, “If you were going to put words to this story, how would the story go?” On a chart, we retell the story with words, making sure we have a beginning, middle, and end, and that we capture the important events. I then write “Plot” at the top of this chart paper. I tell the class that what happens in a story is called the plot. But, I tell them, readers read beyond plot. Often in stories, there is a bigger message or theme that the author is trying to tell us through the story, and theme is different from plot. A theme is the big message of the story. I refer to the chart and reread it to them. I remind them that these are the things that happened in the story but that the author had a big message for us through the story that is called the theme. I ask kids what they thought the theme or message might be, and I write those on another chart paper with the heading of ”Theme.”
At this point, I am not worried about whether students completely understand what theme is or whether their theme predictions are correct. I am just going for the idea that there is a difference between plot (what happens) and theme (big message). I am not looking for mastery, as we will be revisiting this idea throughout the cycle. This lesson helps set the stage for those ongoing conversations.
Questions I Might Ask to Start the Conversation
What is the story about? If you were going to tell someone what happened at the beginning, middle, and end, what would you say?
How did you decide what was important enough for the retelling of the plot?
When you think about theme, what do you think the author might be trying to tell us? Why do you think that?
I sometimes introduce this idea with short movie clips instead of a book. I want my students to see that stories are told in many ways and that no matter how they are told, they have many of the same elements.
Continuing to add the word plot to any work with retelling or summary will be important for helping kids see the difference between plot and theme.
I might also include a wall of words we use when we talk about plot and words when we talk about theme. For example and then would go on the plot chart. So would first. This chart would be for them to refer to, and to add to throughout the cycle.
Lesson 2: Stated Versus Implied Themes
Almost all themes are implied. Very seldom will authors come out and tell us the message they are trying to convey through their story. However, reading between the lines is often new for readers in grades 3 - 6. They naturally read for plot until now, and are not accustomed to reading beyond the literal meaning of text. I find it is good to start with a sample of a stated theme.
Possible Anchor Text
One of my favorite books for a lesson like this is Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin. This is a book that is a song, and the end of the book states the moral or theme of the book. I also like to use books that have obvious themes for this lesson. Books such as The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper and Loren Long have clear themes for upper elementary students.
How I Teach It
Reading (or watching via YouTube) the book Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin is a great way to begin this lesson. Kids of all ages love this book, especially when it is shared as a song. At the end of the book, the author tells us the moral of this story. This provides the perfect opportunity to talk about how themes are or are not like morals, and how this theme is an easy one to decipher because the author tells us what it is. After this discussion, I read The Little Engine That Could and discuss with students that most books have implied themes -- themes that the author does not come right out and say. I share the book, asking if anyone has heard this or another version of the story. We then talk about the implied theme, and what information from the text gives clues about the theme.
Questions I Might Ask to Start the Conversation
Yesterday, we talked about theme versus plot. Do you remember what a theme is?
Eric Litwin tells us the theme in Pete the Cat. Can you think of other stories in which the author tells readers the theme?
Usually a theme is implied. Can you think of other books we’ve read in which the theme is implied but you could figure it out?
If necessary, I might use other classic titles with very obvious themes to continue to think about the idea of theme. Books such as The Great Big Enormous Turnip by Alexei Tolstoy have accessible themes. I might share a few of these well-known stories to solidify the idea of implied theme.
Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Franki Sibberson's latest book, The Joy of Planning.