Teaching themes in literature can often feel like trying to solve a mystery, especially in upper elementary grades. We’ve all been there, standing in front of our class, trying to get our students to see beyond who did what in a story and dive into why it matters. It’s like pulling teeth sometimes to get them to distinguish between the main idea and the theme, which we know are worlds apart! So, how do we crack this code? In today’s post, I’m sharing three strategies for teaching themes that have worked in my classroom.
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Before we begin, let’s clarify what theme is in literature. The theme of a story is either the moral, message, or lesson the author wants the reader to learn from the story. It is unspoken. Students can use inference and details from the text to find the theme.
Start With Familiar Stories When Teaching Theme
One of the most effective ways to introduce the concept of theme is by starting with stories that your students are already familiar with. This could be a popular children’s book, a well-known fairy tale, or even a movie they all love. The familiarity with the plot and characters allows students to focus more on uncovering the underlying message or theme.
For instance, take a classic like “Charlotte’s Web.” Ask your students what they think the story is really about. Is it just about a spider saving a pig, or is there more to it? Guide them to see themes of friendship, loyalty, and the cycle of life. This approach to teaching theme makes the abstract concept of more concrete and relatable.
Create Big Idea Sentences
Sometimes, figuring out the theme can be a bit like a detective trying to solve a mystery. It’s easy to get mixed up between the theme, the main idea, and the lesson the story tries to teach us. To make it simpler, think of the theme as a big idea that the whole story is trying to tell us. It’s not just a lesson like “be honest” or a summary of the story, but a big thought that we can see in many different stories and in our own lives too.
Let’s take “The Tortoise and the Hare” as an example. You might have heard that the lesson is “slow and steady wins the race.” But if we think of the big idea or theme, it could be something like “Keep trying and don’t give up, and you can do great things.” This way, we’re not just talking about the tortoise and the hare but about a big idea that can help us in many situations in life!
Encourage Critical Thinking with Open-Ended Questions
Use open-ended questions when teaching theme that prompt critical thinking and personal connections.
- What do you think is this story’s big lesson or message, and why? – This question helps 4th graders think about the story beyond just the events that happen.
- How do the main characters’ choices show us the story’s big message? – This encourages young students to connect what the characters do and choose with the overall lesson of the story.
- How does where and when the story takes place help tell the story’s message? – This question gets kids to think about the story’s setting and how it might be important for understanding its main idea.
- Can you find any special objects, colors, or figures in the story that help tell its message? What do they mean? – This is a fun way for kids to look for hidden meanings in the story, like symbols, and understand how they add to the story’s message.
- How does the story’s message remind you of something in your own life or something you believe? – This personalizes their understanding, allowing them to relate the theme to their own experiences, which can be really engaging for young students.
Remember, there’s often more than one theme in a story, and different students may connect with different themes. This diversity of interpretation should be celebrated. It shows that your students are thinking critically and making personal connections to the literature.
Teaching theme doesn’t have to be an uphill battle. By starting with familiar stories, using big idea statements, and encouraging open-ended questions, you can demystify this concept for your students. Not only will these strategies help your students grasp the theme more effectively, but they will also foster a love for reading and critical thinking.
Want to read more about teaching theme?
- How to Find the Theme of the Story in 4th Grade
- Teaching Theme in Reading: 3 Tips for 3rd Grade
- Identifying the Theme of a Story: Guided Reading Activities
Grab these Teaching Theme resources:
The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.Robert John Meehan
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