Theme. It’s probably the one word that terrifies readers and students more than any other.
Which is funny, because it’s pretty easy to spot.
I mean, every time we read a book, we know at the end what big lesson was learned by the protagonist, even if we can’t put it into words.
It’s more a feeling. That’s kinda the point.
But you need to teach your kids how to recognize it and put it into words. Not only is it important for college, but it helps deepen a reader’s understanding of a novel.
Sure, the boys have read many, many books for which we didn’t discuss theme. Even some of our read-alouds didn’t get specific theme treatment. But the thing is, if you look at a story in any depth at all, you touch on the theme whether you mean to or not. It’s cool like that.
Theme can, however, be a hard concept to grasp. It is more subtle than Main Idea and more subjective than Setting. Theme is never directly stated; it must be inferred.
I know. It sounds… terrifying. But it’s really not that hard.
Follow these 4 steps and you’ll have your students recognizing theme in no time. Also, I love ya, so I created a free printable Theme Workbook to help you out. You can pick it up by scrolling down.
4 Simple Steps to Grasping Theme
1. Start with concrete details
After you’ve read a book, don’t jump at your poor kids with the “What is the theme?” question. They will run away screaming. At least in their heads.
Rather, ask them about the concrete details of the book: characters, setting, plot–stuff they can get their teeth in.
Then explain to them that theme is THE MEssage in the story that they can apply to their own lives. I don’t care if it’s corny, it makes sense in little minds, so totally use that when you’re explaining it to them.
Use the graphic organizer to get all that info down where they can look at it. Eventually, they will use it to pull out an overarching message.
Once they’ve got all that down, tell them that Theme is not the same as Main Idea. Main Idea is what the story is mostly about and can usually be written in a single sentence of this structure:
_________ wanted ________________ but_______________________, so ________________________________
Have your students fill in the blanks for that sentence on the Theme vs. Main Idea worksheet. If the story doesn’t fit that sentence, have them summarize it as best they can in the space below it.
Fill out a T-chart labeled Theme vs. Main Idea. Tell your kids the theme is the underlying message the author wants to convey. It can be very different from the main idea.
For instance, the Main Idea of the Hobbit might be:
Bilbo wanted to stay home and have a peaceful life, but Gandalf asked him to accompany the dwarves on a journey, so he went and had many adventures.
But the theme might be:
Even an average person has hidden inner strengths.
Once your students have inferred a theme for the story, have them complete the worksheet by filling it in and answering the questions below the T-Chart.
2. Ask questions
The best way to get at the theme is to ask open-ended (aka Essential) questions. Not those easy concrete questions such as, “What did Bilbo name his sword?” but thought-provoking queries like, “Why would Bilbo give the Arkenstone to Bard?” or “Why did Gandalf choose Bilbo for this journey?”
These questions should draw from the text and require evidence to support the answers.
- How did Bilbo react to obstacles?
- What important decisions did Bilbo make?
- How did Bilbo grow and change as the story progressed?
- What did Bilbo learn?
See how these answers might lead you to the overall message of the story?
3. Approach theme from different angles
Once you’ve asked those story-specific questions that made your kiddos think, you can move on to really looking for theme. But you still don’t just want to ask them what the theme is. Rather, ask them all of these questions and have them record their answers in the workbook:
- How does the story make you feel?
- What did the author want you to think about?
- What idea stays with you?
- What will you remember about the story a year from now?
4. Make connections
The goal in teaching theme is not only to get kids thinking about how they can live but about the kind of person they want to be. Because theme comes from the ways characters change and grow throughout the story, making connections to their own lives will help kids grasp theme even better.
If they can relate something in the story to their own lives, they can then find the message about life the author is trying to convey.
Ask these questions to help them make connections:
- Has something similar happened to you?
- Have you ever felt like the character did when ______________?
- Does ____________________ remind you of anything?
- Have you ever read another story in which _____________________ happened?
- Have you ever heard of anything like that on the news?
Common themes in children’s books
Knowing common themes might make it easier for your kiddos to spot them. Here’s a short list for them to keep in mind, though just because a theme is common doesn’t mean it applies to the novel you’re reading.
Printable Theme Workbook
Download this printable to help you put these lessons into practice.
I mean, doesn’t it seem a little easier now?
That’s totally the theme of this post–Finding Theme Is Easy When You Know What You’re Doing.
Looking for more ways to teach lit to young people? Check out: