Finding The Message: Grasping Themes in Literature

December 28, 2015 – 10:28 am

With state testing fast approaching, I have found myself carefully analyzing our benchmark assessments for instructional focus. One of our identified areas to address includes identifying the theme of a passage. Being new to the grade level, I wasn't sure if this went beyond my familiar 3rd grade goal of understanding a fable. After some work and research, I'm ready to share how you can teach theme in the upper grades. This post includes SMART Notebook files (also in PDF form), a project idea, and printable graphic organizers and posters.

Common Themes Found in Literature

One way you can help your students decipher the difference between a theme and a summary is to start by simply labeling any charts you create for theme as "THE MEssage." This helps students remember that a theme is a message that you can find and apply to your own life. It can be more complicated than the moral explicitly stated at the end of a fable.Picture 9 Also, a story or novel can have multiple themes woven throughout and go far beyond a word such as "friendship, " though identifying a key word is a great first step in identifying a theme. Taking the key word of friendship in the novel you can develop a theme. Start with the question: "What did the main character, Rufus, learn about friendship?" Exploring this question can help you explore a potential theme.

?Picture 5 Beth Newingham addressed this in her post, geared for 3rd grade, while I am offering a more complex list of common themes found in literature, from young adult literature through the classics.

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Lesson Ideas

One way to track themes is to create a T-chart, with one side dedicated to identifying a theme, the other for recording supporting details that "prove it."

And which books should you use to demonstrate and discuss themes? I recommend, even in the upper grades, first using picture books.

Picture Books for Discussing Themes:

I believe it is also important to help your students understand that themes expand beyond books. Themes can be found all around us. Artists, for example, think carefully about portraying a theme for their audience. There are entire sites dedicated to discussing themes found in movies and music. Try this in your room: Listen to the lyrics of a carefully selected song, such as "Cat's in the Cradle" to discuss theme, or try a familiar movie. Below I have listed a few movies that can get your class started.

Picture 7 Picture 4


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  • avatar What are the universal themes in literature?
    • The universal themes are: love conquers, coming of age, identity, good v evil power, (perils of) triumph of adversity.