I’ve been sitting here, fingers above the keys, wondering if I should call this theme discussion a “debate.” The reason for my hesitation? It’s not a debate for me; in fact, it’s a bit of a pet peeve when my students want to use one word to describe a theme. That’s because for me the answer to the question “is it one word or a statement” is clear: a theme is always a statement.
So does that mean the blog post is over?
No, because there are teachers out there who firmly believe – and teach – that theme can be expressed in a word like love, family, courage, etc. So, I decided to dig into this and explore it a little further…open my mind to the possibility that perhaps I’m wrong.
I started with a poll on Instagram that posed the question. Seventy-eight percent said that theme was a statement, and I had an unusual number of direct messages from teachers who wanted to weigh in with an explanation. The vast majority of them were in the statement camp too – but one quarter of the poll respondents believe that theme can be expressed in a word.
Why is that?
English teachers can’t even agree if it’s a word or a statement
After a quick search on the web, I discovered that no one agrees on there either. Of course we all search until we find the definition that matches what we believe – but that’s not going to help the fact that kids are getting conflicting messages from us.
What I’ve discovered has not changed my mind, but I think I’m beginning to understand why there’s a discrepancy: it depends on the age and level of the kids.
Look at it this way: elementary teachers tell their students not to start sentences with and, but or because, so they don’t write sentence fragments; then, in high school we teach them that those three words are effective transitions to use at the beginning of a sentence. We do this because, by high school, students can discern the difference.
The same goes with theme. An eight year old may not be able to pick out the universal message of a story but can tell the teacher that it’s about love or courage.
We all know that scaffolding skills is a key component of teaching kids, so once they get good at identifying a topic or subject, we need to move them forward to discerning what it is that the author is saying about that topic – and how can it be applied to you and me?
For example, my students can usually pick out that Shakespeare is exploring the idea of ambition in Macbeth. But what is he saying about ambition? Is he suggesting that it’s a good thing because you can use it to gain power? Or, is he showing his audience that ambition without morals will lead to dire consequences? How do we know? And, how can you craft a statement that expresses this theme?
The real problem arises when we skip that all important next step and don’t challenge the students to look for that underlying message. I know from experience that they find it difficult to craft that theme statement – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show them how.
Students remember what they learned first
There is another problem, though, and I’m just going to put this out there. Students have a hard time forgetting what they learned first. It’s so hard to break them of the theme-as-word belief in high school. Would it be better, then, if teachers of the younger grades made sure they were explicit with their language and just used the terms topic and subject and only used theme when speaking of the writer’s message? I have not taught that level, so obviously I don’t know what’s best. I’m just asking the question.
I don’t know if I’ve solved anything here, but I felt compelled to share my two cents, for what they’re worth. I’d love to hear your comments on the matter too! I’d especially love to know this: what is the best age to move kids from finding the topic to finding the message?
If you’re looking for more help with teaching your older kids about theme, you can check out these blog posts:
✅ Teaching Theme When Everyone’s Reading Something Different
A follower suggested this video as well. You may want to use it to teach your kids about theme: