As far as I’m concerned, most roads lead to theme in a middle or high school English classroom. Yes, we teach students about many literary elements, but we do so to help them understand the life lessons that writers want to get across. We also teach them to have a message in their own writing, whether that’s a theme or a thesis. That’s why I spent a lot of time and energy developing strategies for teaching theme.
Despite its importance, students struggle with theme. The end result is that we end up reading all kinds of plot summary rather than careful analysis of a story’s message. So, clearly, our students need lots of practice building the skills and confidence they need to understand and write about theme.
Here are some classroom tested strategies you can try:
Step 1: teach students that theme is a message, not a topic
First of all, if you are a middle or high school teacher, you need to convince your students that a theme is NOT a single word – that’s a topic. Instead, a theme should be in sentence form and be a statement about the overall message of the the text.
However, a topic is a great starting point for understanding theme, which is why teachers in younger grades start with that.
When students get to middle and high school, though, it’s time to get them to think more deeply about the topics in the texts they read to figure out what the author is saying about them. Instead of stating that the theme of the story is “love,” they should be able to discern that, for example, an author is trying to show the reader that loving someone takes sacrifice and effort.
The trouble is finding ways to keep your students engaged as they try to understand and write about theme. Read on and I’ll show you multiple strategies for teaching theme, ones that will build skills while keeping your students’ attention.
Step 2: start with a short story teens will like
A big mistake that some teachers make is starting the process of teaching theme with a story that students can’t get into – or understand. Yes, we might love a certain short story but not all of our middle or high school students get excited about some of the short story authors we use in our classrooms. Or we might start with one where the theme is too subtle or hard to figure out.
Instead, pick a story that students can a) relate to and b) easily understand. The whole point is to teach them the skills they need to analyze the text, and if they don’t get it, they can’t analyze it. You can move them on to more complex texts once they have the skills and confidence to do so.
The following are accessible stories that I’ve had great success with: The Jacket, The Singing Silence, and The Necklace . The first two are my favorites because not only are the themes ones that teens can relate to, but they are also written in a style that they enjoy reading.
Step 3: give a mini-lesson that shows them HOW to figure out theme
Once you have your story, the next step is to model how to discover the theme of a text. The very best way to do this is not by just giving them worksheets, but by modelling the mental steps you would follow to figure out the messages an author is presenting.
I like to use the analogy of doing a jumbo puzzle without the picture on the box to guide you as you go. Without that picture, you go for the corner pieces and the edges to start a frame to fill the rest in. Then, you look for patterns: colors and image that seem to go together.
It’s the same with any text we read: we start collecting the puzzle pieces the writer gives us to try to put together the big picture, the message or theme they are trying to get across to the readers. Some of these are easy, like the corner pieces, but others need to be put together with other clues that we may not see until the end.
In Gary Soto’s “The Jacket,” the title is a pretty clear corner piece, as the jacket plays a key role in the story and the theme. The title of “The Singing Silence” isn’t that clear, even when you see the phrase in the story. However, when you put it together with other puzzle pieces, it helps create the big picture.
The trick is showing students how to identify and then fit together the puzzle of theme. To do so, give your students copies of whatever story you are using, and start by talking about the analogy of the jumbo puzzle, telling them that you are going to show them how to use this strategy with a short story.
Begin by talking about the title and how it might provide a clue. Then, read the first few paragraphs or section with them and talk about your thought process. What things do you note or question? What puzzle pieces might be there?
Then read another section and ask students what they noted – did they see anything that they think is a clue to theme? Have a quick discussion and point out anything they may have missed.
Finally, have students finish the story and discuss what they noted with a partner. Discuss as a class then show them how to put all of the puzzle pieces together. And, then, brainstorm ways to create a single sentence that explains what the author’s message is. Get a ready to use lesson here.
Step 4: provide multiple opportunities to practice understanding theme
Once students have learned and practiced the process of understanding theme, they need multiple opportunities to do it again with other texts. Use the same graphic organizers you used with the first story, so they see that the process is the same regardless of the text they read.
Once students have done this a number of times, the critical thinking that goes into understanding theme becomes a mental habit. When they start to read a new text, their brains will start to collect and organize the puzzle pieces.
Sometimes, they might identify something that isn’t significant for understanding theme. Tell them that’s ok. Part of the process is looking at the elements they identified while reading and deciding which ones really are important. They need to know what is part of the big picture of the author’s message.
Once or twice is not enough when students are learning to understand and write about theme. So, give some of these other strategies for teaching theme a try:
Use learning stations as a strategy for teaching theme
Learning stations, or centers, are an excellent strategy for teaching any skill because they keep students focused and organized – and they give them an opportunity to move.
Students can fill in a graphic organizer that takes them through the process too, but stations slow them down and require them to think about one step at a time. When all of the steps are on one or two sheets, it’s easier to skip over the ones they don’t know. However, when their sole task at a station is to, for example, discuss how conflict helps develop theme, then they need to take a close look at conflict.
I like to do theme stations in groups, so students can work together and share their ideas and theories as they work through each one. I’m always so pleased with the discussions I hear during this process!
Discussing theme when everyone’s reading something different
What if you’re doing independent reading or reader’s workshop? How do students discuss theme with each other?
It might seem like it’s more difficult to teach theme when students aren’t all reading the same book, but it’s really not that hard. Start by teaching them how to understand theme using a short story; then, they can apply what they learn to the text they are reading. (Read about that here)
You can also have students discuss the concept of universal themes. Start with a topic like love, courage, friendship, family, etc. and ask students to brainstorm what their authors are saying about the topic. Then, group students to discuss they ways these themes are similar in each novel. See if they can come up with a thematic statement that can connect all of their books.
I like to use my Universal Theme Placemats to keep students focused during these discussions. They are the perfect way to guide them through the process, and they spark a great deal of conversation and critical thinking.
Illustrating understanding of theme
One very important strategy for teaching theme is giving focused feedback on the students’ ability to identify and discuss author messages.
You can use the traditional literary paragraph or essay to assess student understanding, or you could try one-on-one or group conferences. These allow you the chance to chat with your students about their understanding of the text without having to grade a pile of papers. If you want some help with conferencing, click here.
One of my favorite ways to assess middle and high school students’ understanding of theme is with one-pagers or one-sliders. These provide student with the chance to explore the different ways that writers develop themes in a unique and creative ways. And, in my experience, students really enjoy the creative aspect of these assignments.
These classroom tested strategies for teaching theme in middle and high school really do work. By modelling the process and giving students multiple opportunities to practice, the days of just getting plot summary when you ask for theme may be over!
If you want some resources that are all ready for you to use with your students, check out my Teaching Theme Bundle!
👉🏻 You might also like to explore hexagonal thinking as a way to develop the skills students need to understand theme.