3 Ways to Teach Theme to Secondary Students

Theme is one of the concepts that is taught often, but students seem to lose rather quickly. It is a difficult concept to grasp and one that requires lots of critical and abstract thinking. But there are ways to lighten this conceptual load and help bridge the gap between student thinking and what we hope they walk away with.

Start with a clear definition.

It is important to understand what you are really asking students to identify when you ask them to identify the theme. Start your lesson by asking students what they remember about theme. Most students will say “nothing” but a few will say “the message,” and this gives you something to build on.

I phrase theme as what I need to learn from the story. What should I, the reader, walk away with? Yes, theme is a message but it is also a lesson. This phrasing helps students identify theme a little easier, in my experience.

Establish Some Rules

After creating a definition of theme with the students, I establish a few “theme rules” that we need to follow. 

  1. Theme should not be a cliche. (I tell students that if it can go on a Hallmark card or a motivational poster, then it is cliche. This is a starting point but then I have them move on from that and expand their thinking.)
  2. Theme should be written in a complex sentence. ( ← Optional: this is something we work on in my classes all year long.)
  3. The theme needs to be universal. (It needs to be able to move from one book, to another, to a movie, to my life, to Jim Bob’s life, etc.)

3 Ways to Teach Theme

Topic to Theme with Pixar Short Films

Every time I reintroduce theme, I start with a Pixar Short Film (or any short film) that I can find on Youtube. They are engaging and help students get involved in the theme development without being overwhelmed.

Before you start watching the short film, begin your mini-lesson by establishing a definition of theme and explaining the rules of theme.

Then watch and enjoy the video!

After you watch, have students think of some topics that they saw in the film. Have students focus on abstract ideas (friendship, betrayal, loyalty, love, family, etc.) and write these on one side of the board.

Choose one of the several topics you established as a class, and ask your students: What can I learn about this topic from the film? My classes usually start with a cliche phrase that we then workshop into a complex and universal sentence. We do this multiple times with multiple topics so that they can see how I transition from one idea to the next. 

If you want to add on a small writing chunk to check for understanding, have students pick the theme from the short film that resonates with them the most. Then have them explain how that theme was presented in the clip. How did the creator help show this theme?

There are several short films that you can use to help students practice this skill several days in a row, or later in the year if they need a refresher. 

Theme Stations

After you have watched a short film and students have had some practice with identifying themes from topics, have them continue this process in Theme Stations. 

As a class, read a short story (1-2 pages is a good length for this activity). Then have students walk around the room looking at different topics you have pulled from the text. Using the short story as their mentor text, have them create a theme based on the topic for the station they are at.

After students have visited each of the topic stations, have them come together for a discussion and debrief of what they found. They can share with their small groups and then the entire class. This provides lots of learning opportunities from the students and gives the kids a chance to share what they know (or are still struggling with) with their peers. 

This can easily be applied to any short story, as long as you identify topics for them to practice writing themes about. The more students practice this process, the better they will become at identifying themes with a topic, and eventually without. 

Constant Independent Practice

After we talk about theme and have practiced with it, I will continue to ask students to identify theme within their reading. Whether they are reading an independent reading book, a short story, or a poem, I ask students to identify the theme and briefly explain how they found it. You can make this an extended response or a simple exit ticket. But it is a skill worth practicing all year long. 

Practice, practice, practice.

Teaching theme can and should be fun! Let me know how you teach theme or if you have tried any of these ideas!

Happy teaching.

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