Teaching the Literary Term Theme

Teaching the literary term theme? Theme is more than the message in the story. It is a truth about life, humankind.

Teaching the literary term theme? Read on for some teaching ideas to implement with any novel or short story.

My children are watching Disney’s “Frozen” as often as I will allow them. I watched “Beauty and the Beast” constantly when I was younger, so I realize the comfort of watching a movie numerous times. They probably don’t realize they are learning the literary term theme. How can we teachers connect the idea of theme to our students’ prior knowledge?

Most children’s stories contain a theme, which means older students have heard plenty of themes in their lives! When we read a complex story like A Raisin in the Sun or The Great Gatsby, students shy away from articulating the theme. Why?

As I reflect on my scaffolding process for helping students identify and understand themes, I realize that I complete five activities. If you’d like these activities in a quick PDF, click on the picture to gain access.

These literature activities will help students understand theme and move to literary analysis.

Find “clean” stories.

Since I am thinking about “Frozen” lately, I’ll start this list with clean stories, often from years ago. Older students have “clean” movies and stories from childhood, ones that are classroom appropriate and applicable to literary terms.

Childhood movies and books have themes and using them is a great way to relate the concept to students. What’s worked for me is to have students run through a few stories and name their themes:

  • Junie B. Jones: Be kind to others.
  • “Frozen”: Appearances can be deceiving.
  • Hair Love: Self love matters.
  • “Beauty and the Beast”: Don’t change for other people.
  • The Boxcar Children: Work together.
  • “The Lion King”: Face your problems.

Older students will provide examples of more complex movies, but the entire class may not have seen those. Plus, with ‘younger aged’ movies, students can see that they’ve understood theme from a younger age; they just maybe didn’t realize it. The simplistic themes can give them confidence.

And when they don’t agree with or like these themes, that’s when they realize that they can debate the theme of the advanced novel the class is reading. Additionally, people criticize popular movies. With older students, we teachers can have meaningful discussions about why.

Teaching theme with secondary students can require a few tricks. Here are free ideas to implement into any novel or short story lesson plan.

Brainstorm common themes.

Sometimes students confuse an author’s “subject” with the story’s “theme.” A theme encompasses more of a statement, a human or universal truthiness. Look at common themes— often ones from childhood fables.

Students will remember the themes of don’t talk to strangers, everyone has a bad day, share with friends, and don’t judge others. They’ll probably provide examples of stories that showcase these themes.

Advance their thinking once they see that. What complex themes does their literature today present? Love is difficult/ unfair, war hurts humanity, and true friendship is hard to find.

Explain that they have always read stories with themes.

Provide a visual.

Sometimes students need a concrete object to remember the idea of the literary term theme. This can fit to your personality or classroom community.

The two common visuals I provide are the megaphone and the message in a bottle.

  • The megaphone reminds students that the author will indeed have a theme. I visualize the author holding the megaphone. Then we can relate to the author’s life and look at why the the author would explain that theme.
  • The message in the bottle I rename as “the message in the story.” It is tucked away in the pages (in the bottle), and students must look for it.

Normally, one of these visuals gives an idea for students to remember theme.

Reverse the process.

Ask students to think of a message they have learned in their lives. In other words, if a student’s memoir had a theme, what would it be?

Reversing the concept of a theme sometimes makes finding one in a story a bit easier. When students see that stories create a theme in their lives through the actual events (the plot), the characters’ interactions, and the symbols, they will find it easier to discover the theme in other work.

Plus, students might find that they can’t find a theme because they disagree with the message! Which is fine. . .

Disagree with a theme.

The beauty of literature? Well, there are plenty. But! One part of literature that I love is that I can read an entire story, disagree with the theme, and argue with the message. I can and should form my own ideas about the writing! Plus. I can critique an author’s vehicle for sharing the theme. Would I perhaps be persuaded if the writer had taken a different approach?

When students are not understanding the concept of theme, I check that to see if they simply disagree with the story’s theme.

Applying the literary term theme is vital to understanding the deeper meaning of literature. Students might understand the definition and concept, but they might shy away from analyzing or deconstructing a story’s theme. With these scaffolding ideas, you can reach more students during your discussions.

Do you need quick, ready-to-teach activities for teaching theme? This bundle has a variety of graphic organizers for teaching theme.