How to Use Biographies to Teach Theme

Finding the theme may be one of the trickiest concepts to teach in reading! I like to tackle it using a variety of teaching tools and using biographies to teach theme is one of my favorites!

Here are a few tips for teaching theme or the central message using biographies:

1. Use Picture Book Biographies
With upper elementary students, I like to use picture book biographies, instead of chapter books for teaching theme, especially in the beginning. There are several reasons for this:

  • Picture book biographies are usually "quick reads" and can be read in a single setting, which means that multiple biographies may be read over the course of a week.
  • Picture books are less intimidating (and seem like less of a chore) for most students, so buy-in is greater.
  • Picture books are usually very focused, so the theme of a person's life story should be evident.
  • Picture books are often plentiful in classroom or school libraries. If that's not the case with you, you can start a great collection of biographies with bonus points from book orders. You can also ask your school librarian for specific titles, if she/he is open to suggestions.

2. Teach Character Traits Before Teaching Theme
One thing I would really recommend before starting to teach theme with biographies, is to teach character traits first. I usually teach character traits at the beginning of the year, along with other story elements, like setting and plot. This works well, since many of the themes for biographies might also be listed as a person's character trait (like kindness or determination for example).

3. Start by Doing a Biography Read Aloud
Find a biography you really like! Make sure the person has a life story with a strong theme. Read it out loud to your students and ask them questions about the person's life, leading them to the theme. To help students identify the theme, I like to ask them if they could describe the person's life story in one single word, what would that be? 

Since theme is often described as the lesson or message the author wants to share with the reader, you can ask students why they think the author chose to write about this person. What lesson can we learn from this person's life? 

Here are some examples of life themes:
  • Helen Keller - Perseverance, Determination
  • Abraham Lincoln - Honesty, Courage
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. - Courage, Determination, Equality
  • Mother Teresa - Compassion, Caring
  • Thomas Edison - Perseverance, Creativity
  • Harriet Tubman - Courage
  • Jane Goodall - Compassion, Curiosity
  • Levi Strauss - Hard Work
  • Mae Jemison - Courage, Hard Work, Determination
  • Walt Disney - Imagination
4. Have Students Read Biographies in Pairs
This is the next step in the scaffolding process, after the teacher led read aloud. I love to put students in pairs and gather a variety of picture book biographies either in baskets at table groups or placed in the front of the room. Kids choose a biography to read together (great fluency practice) and find the theme.

If you'd like students to show evidence of their learning, you can do this in a few ways. You could walk around and ask them to tell you the theme, kids can record it in their reader's notebooks (if you use these), or they can simply record the picture book biography and its theme on a sticky note or a piece of binder paper. 

I usually don't have them share out with the class until the last day of picture book biography work (after 2 - 3 times depending upon your class and how well they're doing with the theme). That way we can rotate the books without kids already knowing the themes.

5. Independent Reading
Once students are ready to work on their own, I have kids select a picture book biography they haven't read and ask them to read it independently. 

Once they've found the theme, there are several ways you can have kids report the information:

  • Kids can create a theme Gallery Walk. Have kids write the theme of the book artistically or give them time to draw a favorite part of the book and write the theme on this paper (or under the picture if you mount these). Once each child sets up the book and the art with the theme next to it on his/her desk or table, the class walks around the room looking at the theme gallery.
  • Have a whole class book share. Each child shares the book with the class by telling its title and the theme. I also like them to share one example from the biography which was a clue (supporting evidence) to the theme. For example...I read the book Snowflake Bentley and the theme was perseverance. Snowflake Bentley studied thousands of snowflakes over many years, and he never gave up... Do make sure if you're doing a book share to limit the share time to 4 - 5 students at a time. You could do this by having kids share at different times of the day or on different days. That way, kids are more apt to listen attentively to each other.
  • Make a theme timeline! This idea incorporates some social studies skills too! Make sure each child knows the birth year of the biography he/she read. If this is not listed in the story, give them time to do a quick computer check to find the date. 

More on the timeline...Ask the class for the earliest year and the latest year. Use math skills to figure out how to divide this into major year increments. For example, if the earliest year is 1812 and the latest year is 1987...maybe the timeline would start at 1800 and go to 2000. Then have the class help you decide how to split this 10 year increments (no, too many), by 100 years (no, too few) or by 20, 25, or 50 years perhaps.

You can make the timeline on the floor with tape and small papers/sticky notes for the years, or on a long wall if you have one. Kids write the person's name from the biography, the birth year, and the theme of that person's life on a small card. Have a few kids at a time place the biography-theme cards on the timeline. Tell them that it's okay to gently move another person's timeline card if need be to make it work. 

Do take some time to gather around the timeline and to make observations about what you notice. Besides seeing when people were born compared to other people, make sure students notice similar themes. 

6. Keep Practicing Theme
Theme is one of the concepts that takes time for kids to truly master. If you're looking for some materials to reinforce the theme concept, I have created a theme unit for 4th - 5th grades that I love to use. It has lots of passages, theme posters, graphic organizers, and a set of 32 task cards.

Here are a few theme and central message games too:

Digital Reading Unit for Google Slides (4th or 5th grades)

Theme Game  (Match the theme on the cactus to its passage on a pot)

Themes in Drama and Poetry Game (Board game with task cards)

Central Message: Find the Moral Game (Tic-tac-toe game with 32 task cards)

If you'd like more ideas about teaching theme, here are some other blog posts you might like:

Teaching Themes in Literature

Activities to Teach Theme

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