Activities to Teach Theme

         Teaching theme is not an easy task! Not only do students need to have a strong comprehension of the story's elements (like plot, setting, and characters), but they also have to be able to make inferences to find the author's message, since most themes are not overtly stated by the author.

        So, what are some of my favorite activities for helping kids understand theme? I'll list a number of them here.

1. Make an Anchor Chart
        Anchor charts are a great way to make learning visual and to have a record that kids can refer to when they need a bit of extra support. 

        Theme may be defined in a number of ways. To me, the theme is the author's message or what he/she wants the reader to take away/learn from the story. It is a BIG idea, with a real-world or universal concern and can be applied to anyone. 

        Besides talking about what a theme is, you'll also want to go over what it isn't. For example, some kids confuse the main idea of the story with its theme. To help students understand the difference, it's helpful to use stories that everyone in the class knows, like previous read alouds or classic stories like The Three Little Pigs. You can take each story and discuss the main idea (what the story was mostly about - specific to the story) vs. the theme (the lesson the author wants the reader to know - not specific to the story), to contrast the two ideas.

        The second area of confusion for some kids is that the theme is not specific to the characters in the story. In the book Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, for example. The theme would not be that...A little mouse named Chrysanthemum learned to accept the uniqueness of her name. The theme would be larger than the book and would be something like...It's important to accept oneself. 

        Also, you'll want to explain to your students that often times, a book has multiple themes and there are several answers which work equally well to describe a book's theme. Since theme is very subjective, I tell students that I will accept any answer, as long as they have the text evidence to prove it. 

        For example, in the book, Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, one might argue that the theme is about friendship, another might say family, or even courage, or kindness. Any one of these themes would be right, and counted as such, since they each fit the story and could be supported by text evidence.

2. Use Pixar Shorts to Practice Theme
        Besides the sheer enjoyment which comes from watching these mini-films, your students can learn a lot about reading concepts from these. They're great for ELL students or for struggling readers, and for all readers really since the text complexity piece is removed.

        You can find these clips on YouTube, but you'll want to make sure to preview them first, so you're more familiar with the plot and are able to focus on theme questions. 

Here are some of my favorite Pixar Shorts for teaching theme:
Partly Cloudy

 3. Use Mentor Texts
        Mentor texts are one of my go-to teaching tools as picture books are able to portray examples of just about any reading concept you need to teach. One thing I like to do when using mentor texts for theme, is to vary the types of questions I ask. Rather than always saying What is the theme?, I might ask... What is the deeper meaning of this story? After reading this book, what do you think matters to this author? Which idea from the story do you think might stay with you? What did the author want people to learn from this story?... Once kids answer, you might say, that's the theme!

Some of my current mentor text favorites for theme include the following:
Ish by Peter H. Reynolds
I Wish I Were a Butterfly by James Howe
Journey by Aaron Becker (a wordless book)
Beautiful Oops by Barry Saltzberg
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Pete and Pickles by Berkeley Breathed 

If you're looking for more titles, I have a FREE Mentor Text List for Literature which includes a page on theme which you can download from my TpT store.
4. Use Posters with Themes to Chart Book Themes
        I like to choose 8 - 10 common themes and place posters of them in the classroom. These are included in my Theme unit but you could easily make them yourself if you'd like. After we finish a class novel, a read aloud, or a mentor text as part of a mini-lesson, I like to have the kids discuss the theme of the book. Once we decide on the theme, I place a miniaturized copy of the book's cover (about 3 x 3 inches or so) under the correct theme poster. 

        You can also make the posters more interactive by allowing kids to write titles of books they have recently read on sticky notes, under the posters as well.

5. Use Songs to Practice Finding the Theme
        I love to add music to the classroom whenever possible. Not only does it add instant motivation for some kids, but it is also just good for them in so many ways. There are lots of songs you can use to teach theme, from current pop songs to oldies, rap songs, and country songs. 

        While all of these work well, I especially enjoy using Disney songs. Disney songs are easily recognized for some kids, have catchy, fun tunes, and have lyrics that need no censoring (yay!). You can easily find the lyrics online to project on a smartboard or document projector, and the song clips may be found on YouTube,

        Here are some of my favorite Disney songs which work well for theme:
Hakuna Matata from Lion King
Just Keep Swimming from Finding Dory
Reflection from Mulan
Let it Go from Frozen
Something There from Beauty and the Beast
A Whole New World from Aladdin

6. Introduce Short Texts Using Task Cards
        Using task cards for theme gives your students a great deal of practice in a short period of time, which makes them a perfect way to begin to practice finding the theme using text. I love the fact that students can read multiple task card stories and practice finding the theme 20 - 30 times, in the time it might take to read a story and find the theme once.

        You can do task cards as a center activity, to play Scoot, or as a whole class scavenger hunt. One thing I like to do for the scavenger hunt is to make sure everyone has a partner and to pair stronger readers with struggling readers.

7. Add Some Writing
        After students have worked on theme for a week or two, I like to have students create their own short stories which show a strong theme, without directly stating it. This changes each student's role from a theme finder, to a theme creator and gives students insight into how authors create a situation that allows a theme to unfold.

        When I introduce this project, we refer back to the task cards we just completed, as an example of story length and rich content. In a matter of 2 - 3 paragraphs, students learn that they can include enough information to let our readers know our message.

        After students are finished creating these short stories, it's fun to share them in some way, to give more theme practice. Sometimes I have students meet in small groups to share out, with group members guessing the theme. Other years, I leave a stack on my desk and grab several if we have a few minutes. Either the students or I read the short story out loud, and the class discusses the theme.

8. Move to Passages, Short Stories, and Novels.
        Once we have scaffolded a great foundation for the understanding of theme, there comes a point where kids have to move on to text which is more challenging. I like to use page-long passages which I have created, before using short stories, and ultimately novels.

If you're looking for some ready made materials to help you teach theme, here's a packet I love to use which works well for 4th and 5th Graders. Click here to read more about the Theme unit.

Want some more teaching ideas and activities to teach theme? 
Click here to read Teaching Themes in Literature.

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