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. You can see how I do it, and use my lessons, by grabbing this resource. You can also get lots of help with teaching students to discover (and support) theme in this one.
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. You can get a free PDF with tips for teaching theme by clicking here.
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?
MORE BLOG POSTS & STRATEGIES FOR TEACHING THEME:
✅ Teaching Theme When Everyone’s Reading Something Different
✅ Teaching the Process of Literary Analysis
✅ Hexagonal Thinking Activities (great for getting students to dive into theme!)
Mrs. Botti says
This is really great article that explores the theme conundrum, and I appreciate your exploration into why it’s happening. I have just assumed, because I don’t like to throw teachers under the bus, that students abbreviate for the sake of being right. If you poll any student, they will use words like prejudice, family, kindness, etc. when reading To Kill a Mockingbird. If we just ask them theme, they’re going to come out with those words. When we ask: what is the message from the author, they will probably give more of a statement. It’s interesting that just the choice of our words in our profession trigger what our kids in the past might have taught them. I will certainly be more clear in what I want from them as sophomores and seniors in high school.
Mrs. Botti says
This is A really great article…
Interesting that I forgot my article when talking about an article! I even proof read what I wrote…
Room 213 says
I totally agree. It's funny how we English teachers (myself included) get lazy with our words when, ironically, we are trying to teach our students to use them well. It does make me crazy, though, when kids can't move beyond what they learned years ago!
We agree on the most important point: which skills to teach! On the vocabulary to describe the concepts, however, I fall on what I believe is the minority side ("theme" as single word), and I explain that to my students. I think it's good for them to know that adults haven't got a hive mind, that words are alive and concepts debatable as long as you have good arguments. Otherwise, our discipline is dead and not worthy of passion!
"Theme," for me, is the topic, what a text is about. "Message" is what the writer has to say about the theme. When you get to the college level, you learn that texts have a lot more to say about their theme than what the writer intended to say ("death of the author," "textual subconscious," and all that). Just like the real world, the best books have a lot of nuances and contradictions to offer, too many to be summarized in one neat sentence; that, to me, is the whole *point* of literature! Otherwise, texts would just be informational. This is why I teach "theme" and "message" as two distinct notions. I warn my students that many teachers call "theme" what I call "message," and I tell them why I do what I do. They are able to get it at the age I teach (6th and 7th).
We teach our middle school theme the same way: love, friendship, and courage are topics, which LEAD to themes as a statement. We found this great video online that we use to help our kids. It makes it very clear for the students: https://youtu.be/9H6GCe7hmmA
Room 213 says
That is a great video. Thanks for sharing!
Room 213 says
"Just like the real world, the best books have a lot of nuances and contradictions to offer, too many to be summarized in one neat sentence." ~ I totally agree. That's why I teach my students to find "a" theme, not "the" one.
I work with special education students. What I have found helps the most with theme is to have the kids come up with ONE word that the story/poem is about. From there, I ask them, "What does the author want us to learn about that topic?" That's what help them get to the statement.
I am an elementary school teacher who teaches theme as a complete statement. In third grade students are exposed to fables which come with ready-made themes. As a 4th and 5th grade teacher, I build on previous understanding. We start with classic short stories, then read classic literature such as The Secret Garden and Call It Courage. My students love that
I believe they can find the deeper meaning….and then they do!
Room 213 says
Yes, they usually rise to our expectations, don't they!!
Mark Steven says
This is extremely well said. Obviously, the problem arises as a result of the ambiguity of the meaning of the word, “theme.” As a high school AP literature teacher, I’ve always used “theme” and “theme topic” to distinguish the two, and you are spot-on in describing the need for high school students to unlearn the idea that a theme can be a word or phrase. The AP college board has solved this dilemma by altogether punting that word “theme” entirely from its tests and replacing it with the phrase “meaning of the work as a whole” in their essay prompts and multiple choice questions. Stubbornly, I don’t want to resort to this, but maybe I should. Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts.
Incidentally, you’ve touched on another issue common with high school students when it comes to composing well-organized, supported arguments. The 5-paragraph essay format does the trick for a beginning writer, but academically-oriented high school students must advance to a more nuanced, sophisticated level of composition by shedding the training wheels and branching out in their writing. In other words, they must unlearn their devotion to taking every essay prompt and crafting their response into a tidy, stale, and exceedingly elementary 5-paragraph composition.. This is often easier said than done, but nonetheless necessary. Thoughts?
Room 213 says
Oh the five paragraph essay. That’s another issue for me and something that students can’t unlearn. I always call it the multi-paragraph essay and tell them that they need to have enough points to support a well thought-out argument. Unfortunately many just can’t shake that pattern that they learned.
Wow, you touched on a really good point here! I am currently putting together a workbook on literary elements for 6th and 7th grade students. When I reached the topic of theme, I also got stuck on the one-word vs. a-full-sentence debate. A quick Google search revealed a variety of heated debates on the subject. The idea that they teach students to come up with one-word answers and then graduate to concrete ideas really resonates with me. I am unsure now whether to include the simplified or higher level definition. However, I do encourage independent thought and I definitely believe that middle school children can come up with a fully developed theme with proper guidance. I’ll certainly be taken this article into consideration.
Thank you for this fresh perspective!
Room 213 says
Hello. You are so welcome. And I agree: middle school students can definitely come up with a fully developed theme. The key is what you added – with proper guidance. It’s so important, with all things, that we model the process with them. All the best!
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I am an elementary school ELL teacher (all grades), and I explain to students that the theme is the message or lesson that the author wants to teach us. I explain that that the theme may be one word (e.g. friendship, love, survival, honesty, etc.) AND that the theme can also be a sentence (e.g. We get better at something if we practice/don’t give up i.e. perseverance). It may not be perfect, but it does make students aware that it’s not just the “theme-as-word” belief that you mention can be a challenge later on.
Room 213 says
Totally! And I don’t think elementary students are too young to learn 🙂 Thanks for all that you do.
Stephanie Snow says
I’m so glad I stumbled across this post. I was just having a conversation with my high-school aged daughter about whether her English teacher wanted them to use a full sentence for the theme of a story. I can see it both ways: theme as a word, or theme as a complete sentence. It’s comforting to find out I’m not the only one who’s a bit unsure here!
Room 213 says
Glad it could help! For me the easy way to explain it is that one word can describe the topic, but the theme is a message so it needs to be stated in a sentence.
I have been teaching grade 6, 7 and 8. We are having a real problem because in elementary school the students were told theme is one word. All of our teachers are trying to break children of this habit and the students are resisting us. They will not stop thinking of theme as one-word. I keep telling them one word is a topic. Sometimes we are required with our state standards to teach them abstract thinking that is ahead of their developmental ability. When teachers teach things the wrong way and use the wrong words, it really confuses the students. They don’t need any additional student-thinking confusion caused by the actual teachers please. Use the correct words from the start! Let me be clear the problem is not just the label, the problem is that the students are not thinking deeper to actually find a message they are supposed to learn. They will just stop at friendship and not think about the lesson to be learned. We need to get our students thinking! If they called it a topic in elementary and we introduced theme as a lesson to be learned in middle school, maybe we could have them more open minded to stretch their thinking.
Runita Jones says
I teach it both ways and tell students they will encounter it both ways. I feel the same about Main Idea. That is also a statement and not what it is mostly about. It’s the main point that the writer is making. Again, I teach it both ways so students are prepared.