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Teaching the Theme of a Story

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Learning to identify and analyze the theme of a story is an important aspect of reading comprehension. This lesson will help you learn some strategies for helping students learn to determine the theme.

What's the Theme?

The theme of a story is often described as the big idea or the major topic that a story is about. Learning to identify the theme is a big part of inference, or comprehension that gets beyond the most literal level. In this lesson, you can follow along with third-grade master teacher Amy, who has thought a lot about the best way to give her students practice defining a theme. Though Amy works on theme primarily with students who can read independently, she also thinks that younger children can learn about themes through read-alouds and guided readings.

Life Lessons and Author's Purpose

Amy often explains to her students that themes offer life lessons. A fiction writer is unlikely to come right out and say, 'I want to teach you how to be honest with your friends,' but honesty might be a theme that arises throughout a story. The theme is the lesson about life that the author is delivering, sometimes very subtly. So Amy sometimes asks her students, 'What do you think the author of this story wants you to learn?' Author's purpose is another way of understanding theme. Amy asks her third graders, 'Why do you think the author bothered writing this?' When her students can answer that, they have often defined the story's theme.

Think of the great books that you have read. Does the author come right out and tell you the theme?
great books

Think-Alouds

Amy often teaches theme by doing something called think-alouds with her students. While reading aloud to them from picture books, she stops and articulates her own thinking. This way, her students can begin to internalize the way a strong reader thinks about the theme. While she reads, she might pause and say, 'Gee, on this page, I really feel like the author was trying to teach me something. I wonder what it was?' By doing think-alouds frequently, Amy helps her students develop strong habits of mind around making inferences.

Write and Recall

Sometimes, Amy finds that reading skills are actually best taught via writing. When a theme comes up in her class, like teasing or taking care of classroom materials, she asks her students to write short stories or even comics around the theme. They share their stories with each other and recall what they did to incorporate the theme into their fiction. This gives them a window into how authors incorporate themes, and then they can better identify themes in their independent reading.

Chats with Characters

Amy encourages her students to have imaginary chats with characters in the books they read. By engaging in pretend dialogue with characters, students get to understand and think about what is in the characters' minds. This brings students closer to the story and the author and helps them think about what underlying messages or themes might be hidden in the book.

Back it Up

Once Amy's students are somewhat adept at finding themes, she teaches them that stories and books can have multiple themes and that arguing for a particular theme must be backed up with evidence from the text. If two students disagree about the theme in a story, she asks them to argue that their theme is the salient one, using at least three direct quotes or other explicit evidence. Often, both students are right, and this exercise gives them excellent practice at proving their points.

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