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Common core standards

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Teaching strategies

What is theme?

  • Angela Bunyi on Scholastic’s Blog, states that theme is, "THE MEssage." [1]

  • Melissa Oliver, on, has a third grade level definition, “Sometimes the author really wants us to get a strong idea when we read a book. The author really wants us to know what the book is mostly about and he does this by connecting it to a theme. There can be many different themes about books. Think of the theme like the “big idea” of the book.” [2]

  • Bedford Saint Martins has this definition, “Theme is the meaning or concept we are left with after reading a piece of fiction. Theme is an answer to the question, "What did you learn from this?”” [3]

  • Cheri Lucas states; “A theme is an idea or message about life, society, or human nature.” [4]

  • Trent Lorcher states: “Theme is the central idea or message in a literary work. It is not the subject of the work (students often get the two definitions of theme confused). It is a perception about human life.
    • Themes are rarely stated directly. They usually must be inferred.
    • The theme is revealed by the way characters change in a story, conflicts in the story, and statements made by the narrator or characters.
    • Understanding theme involves understanding plot, characters, and setting.” [5]

  • SK Online defines themes as, “a message or point an author is making about some aspect of life through a story.” [6] This site also differentiates between a stated and implied theme. Here is what they say:
    • “With a stated theme ,
      • the narrator will come right out and say what the theme of the story is in a sentence or two within the story,
      • you’ll want to look in the exposition and resolution for generalizations about life stated in a sentence (look for this at the beginning and end of the story – think of it as you would an essay; there you would find the thesis in the introduction and the re-statement of the thesis in the conclusion),
      • if you’ve found several similar or repeated statements, that's a great clue that you have probably found a stated theme, and
      • if you feel you can readily support your finds using details from the story, that's another indication you are on the right track.
    • With an implied theme ,
      • the narrator does not say what the theme is, so
      • it’s the reader’s job to sift through the plot, characterization, setting, symbols, etc. of a work in order to identify what lesson can be learned through the story,
      • no single statement of an implied theme is necessarily correct, though some statements may be less accurate or correct than others,
      • you may have to read the story carefully, and then reread it, take notes, and finally make a conclusion based on details from various aspects and parts of the work being studied to figure out what the theme is, and
      • if the implied theme is well supported, it can be said to be a reasonable statement of theme.” [7]

Questions and organizers to help students figure out theme

  • Chelsea Nillson has a Graphic Organizer for Identifying Theme on Currwiki that is really good. It’s a chart with page numbers, lesson learned, deep statement or advice, recurring idea or pattern, and turning point or important events. At the bottom of the page, it has students link that information into a theme.

  • Angela Bunyi on Scholastic’s Blog has two different graphic organizers for third grade.
    • Theme B has students list the big idea or topic, what characters say or do that demonstrates this, and the theme.
    • Theme A has students list the characters, setting, plot and lesson learned.

  • Balance reading has 20 pages of graphic organizers. Pages one and two are spider organizers that have students put the theme in the middle and supporting information around the sides.

  • Scholastic Theme Graphic Organizer is, minus the typo, slightly more sophisticated. Students list the important events, setting, characters, quotations and explanations and the theme statement.

  • Ohio Department of Education Grade Eight Identifying Theme Unit has several graphic organizers as well as guiding questions.
    • Page nine has a graphic organizer that asks for the big idea or topic, what the characters say or do, and what is important to learn.
    • Page 11 has five good guiding questions to help students find the theme.

  • has a decent set of questions that can be modified for younger students.
    • "Here are some ways to uncover the theme in a story:
    • Check out the title. Sometimes it tells you a lot about the theme.
    • Notice repeating patterns and symbols. Sometimes these lead you to the theme.
    • What allusions are made throughout the story?
    • What are the details and particulars in the story? What greater meaning may they have?
    • Remember that theme, plot, and structure are inseparable, all helping to inform and reflect back on each other. Also, be aware that a theme we determine from a story never completely explains the story. It is simply one of the elements that make up the whole.” [8]

  • Cheri Lucas created questions specifically geared to helping middle school students get at a themes in “The Giver” by Lois Lowrey. The questions could easily be modified however for any book:
    • Needs and Desires: Understand the inner struggles of characters. What are their needs and desires in the beginning, middle, and end? What is Jonas like at the start of the novel, and how or why does he change? What does he want?
    • Conflict: Identify the central conflict. List the protagonist’s friends and enemies. Are there conflicts between characters, between Jonas and his society, or between Jonas and his own self?
    • Motifs: Pay attention to visual cues. Search for symbols or motifs that represent something else. What does the red apple signify in Jonas’ colorless world? What does the music that Jonas hears at the end suggest?
    • Subtext: Examine dialogue and action between characters. Does Jonas say or do things he doesn’t want to say or do?
    • Titles: Study the book’s title, as well as the titles of chapters, for clues about the author’s message.
    • Personal Experience: Compare the protagonist’s journey to your own experiences. Do you know how Jonas feels when he is happy or sad? Do you agree with what he says or does? If you were in his position, would you act differently?” [9]

  • Stephanie Lavarias asks these questions:
    • ”What happened?
      • Take a few moments to write down the the main literary elements: plot, characterization, etc. What were the conflicts in the work? What was the most important moment in the work? Does the author resolve the conflict? How did the work end?
    • What is the subject?
      • If you were to tell a friend what the work of literature was "about," how would you describe it? What is the topic?
    • What about the protagonist (the main character)?
      • How does he/she change? Does the protagonist affect other characters? How does this character relate to others?
    • All of these lead to what the theme of the story may be.
      • What is the lesson, moral, or message that the author feels that you should learn by reading this story. What is trying to teach you about LIFE?” [10]

  • SK Online recommends these steps:
    • "Step 1 : Read the story through entirely, and enjoy it for what you get out of it personally. Why? Well, it's less work and more fun then, for one. Also, it is easier to find a THEME when you have clues as to what it might be, so being familiar with the story will help.
    • Step 2 : Ask yourself the question: "What point or observation about life is the author trying to make through the various details of this work?" Write down several possibilities. If you find that one of your possibilities is very similar to something that was said in the story, then it is a stated theme. If the lesson about life is not as obvious, then it is an implied theme.
    • Step 3 : If you have determined that the theme is an implied theme, then you’ll need to review details from various parts of the story to see if the details are more consistent with one of your possibilities than with another. Revise the wording of your top choice so that it accurately reflects what a majority of your potential proof will support.
    • Caution : Authors are going to be bringing to your attention things that may not be obvious. Therefore, it is unlikely that a common saying will be an accurate expression of a theme, so if you find yourself writing something such as, "It is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all," or "A stitch in time saves nine," then you are probably not being accurate (reasonable enough) in your conclusion. If that is the case, review the content and adjust the theme statement to more accurately reflect what the content will support.
    • Step 4 : Now make the final big step in preparing to write about the theme. Closely scrutinize the text, looking for any details that strongly support your conclusion about the THEME. And whether you are writing about a stated or implied theme, the evidence to support your claim will include what characters say and do, symbols, details of the setting, etc. Your specific support should include details from the entire work. This way you can show that there is little, if anything, that is contrary to your conclusion, thus making it a reasonable conclusion.” [11]

  • has a 10th grade level lesson plan for finding themes in Julius Caesar. The site uses a chart with guiding questions that have a different way at getting at themes.
    • "Characterization
      • Key traits
      • Goals
      • Change
    • Setting
      • Time
      • Place
      • Mood
    • Events (conflicts)
      • Conflict
      • Climax
      • Falling action and resolution
      • What do the work’s falling action and resolution say about the subject matter of the play?
    • Tone
      • What is the author's tone, or attitude, toward the subject as revealed by the author's word choice and other details?
    • Irony” [12]

    • ”Summarize the plot by writing a one-sentence description for the exposition, the conflict, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the resolution.
    • Identify the subject of the work.
    • Identify the insight or truth that was learned about the subject.
      • How did the protagonist change?
      • What lesson did the protagonist learn from the resolution of the conflict?
    • State how the plot presents the primary insight or truth about the subject.
    • Write one or more generalized, declarative sentences that state what was learned and how it was learned. “[13]

Lists of common subjects and themes

Themes are what the author is trying to tell you about the subject of the book. Some students might get stuck at the figuring out the subject stage, so here are some resources to help.

  • Homework Tips Theme List is a list of a hundred different subjects for middle school and above. Subjects include “the evils of racism” and “disillusionment.”

Some teachers also might find it helpful to have a list of themes for students to choose from.

Role playing

  • Treasures at MacMillanmh Theme Theater is a quick overview of a theatrical way to teach theme. Students are reminded of what theme is and then broken into groups. Each group has to come up with a short skit that features a character transformation. In addition, each group has to come up with a theme for their skit.

Fairy tales

  • Treasures Macmillanmh Identify Theme is a quick overview of a lesson on theme in fairy tales. The lesson begins by discussing the theme of “Cinderella” as a class. Then the discussion continues on to other fairy tales like “The Frog Prince.” Here are some of the guiding question the site recommends:
    • ”What is the hero or heroine like at the beginning of the story?
    • What is this person like at the end?
    • How is the transition made?
    • What can you learn from this?” [15]


  • UMass Aesop Fables is an amazing resource for fables. UMass Amherst has put a wide variety of fables on-line, most in cartoon formats. The site is incredibly accessible for younger students.
  • Aesop’s Fables has just the text of a variety of his fables.
  • MIT Aesop’s Fables is also just the text of the fables, but this time presented as one long document instead of a variety of shorter ones.


  • Read Write Think Analyzing Symbolism Plot Theme unit plan teaches high school students theme through the painting, “Death and the Miser.” Unit resources include links to view the painting, lesson plans, an interactive on the painting, handouts on theme, and ways to link the painting to literature. Pretty awesome.

Movies and Comics

  • Learning To Give Spiderman Lesson is an interesting one. The lesson has students watch the movie and read the comic to try to find themes. Then, the students are supposed to figure out why Spiderman gives. There is definitely an agenda here—but since the agenda is generosity it’s not so scary.

Classroom activities

Cyber activities

Theme ela.JPG
| Study Zone Test Prep Fourth Grade ELA has students read a story and after each section decide if that section was giving the plot, theme or setting. A little baby smiles when they are right and pouts when they get the answer wrong.

iPad apps

Free worksheets

  • EReadingworksheets Theme Worksheets is a two page, five story worksheet. After each brief story the student is asked, “What’s the theme?” and, “What happens in the story that leads you to believe this?” Words in the stories include “vigorously” but most words are easier.

At home

Helpful links

  • Theme PowerPoint has an 11 slide show on theme. It begins with an explanation of theme, walks students through an example and then has three slides of stories for the students to practice on. No bells and whistles but a really good concise definition and application of theme. Words in the stories include “laugh” and “defend”. The slide show should be fine for upper elementary and middle school.

  • Slide Share Finding the Theme of A Text is a shorter slide show aimed at upper elementary to middle school students. It goes through what a theme is and has several step by step models of how to find a theme of a passage or poem.

Product reviews

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