Teaching Theme to Middle & High School Students

February 14, 2021

Use these ideas for teaching theme to middle and high school students with any short story, novel, or drama.

While theme is a concept I like to teach early and often each year, students first must have a strong understanding of the other literary elements that play into it. The events in the plot, the conflict that develops, and the actions and reactions of characters all help to reveal the theme of a text. I detailed the many ways I introduce and reinforce theme in this previous blog post and you can find even more ideas below.

Define What Theme Is (And Is Not)
Before beginning to analyze theme in a text, be sure that students have a solid grasp on what a theme is and is not. When you ask students to define theme, their response may really be a definition of main idea, a topic, or a moral (and depending on the source of their online search, the definition they find may not match what you are teaching). This blog post from Secondary English Coffee Shop includes a graphic that clearly defines each term and gives examples of each from "Little Red Riding Hood." You could have students repeat the differentiation of the chart with examples from other fairy tales or well known stories.

Give Students Multiple Opportunities to Process And Practice
Determining the theme of a text definitely requires some high order thinking skills and some students may not "get it" at first. Allow students to review the definition of theme and how to find one with videos like the ones in this blog post from Teaching ELA With Joy Sexton. Sometimes hearing someone else explain it in a slightly different way will help it click for a student. Then practice using stories are familiar with, fairy tales or stories you've previously read as a class, or use short films like the ones made by Pixar. 

Try Out Thematic Triads
When students are trying to craft their theme into a sentence or a thematic statement. I start with a list of "big ideas" like love, hate, honesty, deception, pride, beauty, etc. and have students select as many big ideas as they see connecting to the text we are examining. Then I ask students to share out the most important three ideas present in the text. We make a list as a class, tallying up the times each idea is mentioned. Then I model how we can connect those three big ideas into a sentence, and voila! we have a theme. Students practice coming up with a theme using the top two or three big ideas they selected. Often what they come up with is a variation of what I modeled, which leads to discussion about how there is no one theme statement. This Edutopia article discusses the same strategy.

Use these ideas for teaching theme to middle and high school students with any short story, novel, or drama.

Analyze Using Graphic Organizers
Many components of a story fit into explaining a story's theme. Secondary students might be able to articulate a story's theme, but they can't always explain how characters, the plot structure, a motif (and more!) contribute to the development of that theme. With a variety of literary graphic organizers, a teacher can highlight certain sections and examine details with students. As students flesh out ideas about the story, they'll realize the influence of other components on the story's theme.
*Recommended by Lauralee, Language Arts Classroom

Use these ideas for teaching theme to middle and high school students with any short story, novel, or drama.

Synthesize Literary Elements In A One Pager
When I think about literary elements, it’s hard to imagine teaching them in isolation. Yes, I introduce concepts (setting, plot, theme) separately, but in order for students to truly GET literary elements, they have to be able to analyze how authors use all of them to create dissonance and harmony in a text. I use one pagers to help students practice and apply this idea of extending thinking and seeing the connections between literary elements. With distance learning, I recommend using digital one pagers to chunk the process for students. It’s less overwhelming and allows us more time to provide meaningful feedback. How does setting impact the theme? How does a character’s development help to shape the plot and drive the conflict, which, in turn, develop the theme? Understanding theme is a process of synthesis, and literary one pagers are a perfect vehicle for that type of thinking.
*Recommended by Melissa from Reading and Writing Haven

You can find all of my resources for teaching theme here.

Use these ideas for teaching theme to middle and high school students with any short story, novel, or drama.

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