5 Try-It-Today Activities to Help Your Students Tackle Literary Themes
by Catherine Demetros, M.Ed.
Elementary Curriculum Specialist, Lexia Learning
One of the most effective comprehension lessons I ever taught started out like this:
"You’ve probably seen them. You might even own one or two. I’m talking about T-shirts with a message. Those messages? They’re a lot like themes. But unlike T-shirts, writers don’t just tell you the theme, they make you look for it. And here’s why that’s a good thing: Let's say someone tells you it’s important to tell the truth. You might listen, or you might not. But what if someone tells you about a man who lied to everyone all the time and then needed help fighting off a bear but no one believed him, so he died? Well, you might actually understand and remember that message. The story makes a difference. And that, my friends, is why you will never see a T-shirt on your summer reading list."
Your students probably already know that writers don’t just tell them the theme. Readers need to look for themes, and that's not easy. What else isn't easy? Convincing students that identifying themes is worth the effort and can improve their comprehension. These engaging activities can help by giving your students a chance to explore different themes and the techniques authors use to develop those themes.
1. Is It a Theme?
Review the definition of a theme: the author's central message, which could be a lesson, a universal truth, or an insight into how the world works. Then, display two sentences in different colors: Hard work pays off. and Tyrese worked as a lifeguard every day last summer to earn enough to buy a new bike. Read each sentence with students and discuss how they are similar and how they are different.
Point out that knowing the difference between a "mostly about" statement and a theme statement is important. The characters, setting, and plot in a story answer what the story is about, while a theme often answers why the story was written. Students can use "mostly about" information to think about what message the author is trying to send to readers.
2. Putting the "Me" in Theme
Provide your students with a list of common themes, such as this:
Have students select a theme that fits how they see themselves. Then, have them describe examples from their lives that support that theme. For example, a student who tried out four times for the school play before getting a part might choose "Never give up" as the most relevant theme. Encourage your students to share their theme and their reasons for choosing it with the class.
Many students have difficulty understanding that a theme is a message or lesson about life in general. By asking your students to think about a theme that applies to themselves, you are emphasizing the distinction between a specific statement that describes one person or one situation and a theme statement that applies to other people in other situations.
3. Focus on Fables
Provide students with a fable that has a stated moral, and read the text aloud to students but stop before reading the moral. Guide student discussion around characters and what motivates them to identify the central message. Then, finish reading the text to compare the student-generated theme to the stated moral.
This activity encourages your students to think about a text that was written specifically to teach a lesson about life. Even if they have heard a fable before and already know the moral, this activity reiterates the distinction between describing specific events and stating a life lesson or central message.
4. Screen Time Themes
Have your students think about the theme of a favorite movie or television episode. Students should write a brief description of the characters, setting, and plot. Then, discuss student examples and ask students: What part of life is this about? What is the show telling us about this?
Reluctant readers may be more comfortable thinking and talking about the theme of a movie or television episode than the theme of a book. Create a "theme park" bulletin board to record the themes that are discussed; this will provide your students with context for discussing similar themes that can be found in classroom readings.
5. Predicting the Theme
Provide students with a short story. Have them make predictions about the theme based on information found in the first paragraph: the characters, the setting, and the beginning events. Then, have students revise their predictions as they read the rest of the story together. Discuss the elements of the story that led them to revise (or confirm) their predicted theme.
This activity encourages your students to think about the theme of a text without pressure to "get it right the first time." Remind them that authors develop a theme gradually over the course of a story. Everything from characters to setting to plot contributes to the story's central message. Another important point to make with your students is that there is often more than one theme in a story or book.
Your students are on their way to becoming strategic readers, exploring how authors develop themes. What's next? Facilitate discussions that compare themes across texts or multiple themes in a single text, and dive into poetry or drama to expose your students to some of the different techniques that writers use to develop a theme.
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