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February 18, 2011 Finding The Message: Grasping Themes in Literature By Angela Bunyi
Grades 3–5

    With state testing fast approaching, I have found myself carefully analyzing our benchmark assessments for instructional focus. One of our identified areas to address includes identifying the theme of a passage. Being new to the grade level, I wasn't sure if this went beyond my familiar 3rd grade goal of understanding a fable. After some work and research, I'm ready to share how you can teach theme in the upper grades. This post includes SMART Notebook files (also in PDF form), a project idea, and printable graphic organizers and posters.


    Common Themes Found in Literature

    One way you can help your students decipher the difference between a theme and a summary is to start by simply labeling any charts you create for theme as "THE MEssage." This helps students remember that a theme is a message that you can find and apply to your own life. It can be more complicated than the moral explicitly stated at the end of a fable. Also, a story or novel can have multiple themes woven throughout and go far beyond a word such as "friendship," though identifying a key word is a great first step in identifying a theme. Taking the key word of friendship in the novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, you can develop a theme. Start with the question: "What did the main character, Rufus, learn about friendship?" Exploring this question can help you explore a potential theme. 

    So, what are some common themes that are found in literature? Beth Newingham addressed this in her post, geared for 3rd grade, while I am offering a more complex list of common themes found in literature, from young adult literature through the classics. 


    Beth also provided this "Common Themes in Books" handout.

    Picture 9

    You may also want to use this "12 Common Themes Found in Literature" handout with your class.


    Lesson Ideas

    One way to track themes is to create a T-chart, with one side dedicated to identifying a theme, the other for recording supporting details that "prove it."  

    And which books should you use to demonstrate and discuss themes? I recommend, even in the upper grades, first using picture books.

     Picture Books for Discussing Themes:

    I believe it is also important to help your students understand that themes expand beyond books. Themes can be found all around us. Artists, for example, think carefully about portraying a theme for their audience. There are entire sites dedicated to discussing themes found in movies and music. Try this in your room: Listen to the lyrics of a carefully selected song, such as "Cat's in the Cradle" to discuss theme, or try a familiar movie. Below I have listed a few movies that can get your class started.

    Familiar Movies for Discussing Themes:

    • The Lion King (responsibility)
    • Babe, the 1995 version (redemption)
    • The Emperor's New Groove (humility)
    • Antz (friendship)
    • Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 version (greed)
    • A Little Princess, the 1995 version starring Liesel Matthews, which is lesser known, but well done (the power of imagination)

    Songs for Discussing Themes:

    • "Hero" by Mariah Carey (appreciation)
    • "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" by Green Day (good-byes)
    • "I Hope You Dance" by Lee Ann Womack (sacrifice/societal pressure)
    • "Cat's in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin (family relationships)
    • "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips (overcoming obstacles)


    Discussing Themes Using Novels/Author Studies

    One of the best ways to really dig deep and teach the concept of theme is through a novel study. We are currently wrapping up The Watsons Go to Birmingham1963 in our room. When I was searching for some themes online I was able to find a complete teacher reading guide through Scholastic to support our talks (see pp. 32–39 for theme support). From racism to humor to growing up, this teacher guide includes supporting details to expand the message we take away as a theme.

    Authors that I recommend for investigating common, recurring themes include Kate DiCamillo and Gary Paulsen. Kate DiCamillo, for example, often tackles themes such as redemption and family relations/abandonment. Gary Paulsen strongly demonstrates the struggle of man vs. nature or man vs. societal pressure. If you read Paulsen's autobiography, My Life in Dog Years, it makes sense that he often incorporates these themes into his novels. 

    Picture 5


    Graphic Organizers

    One thing I enjoy doing in our theme lessons is tying in skills taught previously. For example, it helps to think about the characters, setting, and plot before identifying a potential theme. We also use the concept of main idea and supporting details to "prove" our selected theme.

    Picture 7

    Download this Searching for a Theme (PDF) graphic organizer.

    Picture 8

    Download the What's the Big Idea? (PDF) graphic organizer.


    SmartBoard Resources

    Picture 4I am fortunate enough to be working in a school where a SmartBoard can be found in virtually every classroom. Like many teachers, I can't remember life before my board was installed. I have created a SMART Notebook file that supports the teaching of theme through a novel study of The Watsons Go to Birmingham1963. Download the SMART Notebook file "Identifying Theme."

    Picture 3



    So you don't have a SmartBoard in your classroom? I was able to create a supporting PDF slide show as well. It does not have the same interactive elements found on the theme web in the SMART Notebook file, but it has a page gallery on the side that can help you navigate the pages with ease.

    Download the PDF slide show "Identifying Theme."



    Project Idea: Theme-in-a-Bottle


    Looking for an interesting project that showcases this learned skill? Here's one of my favorites, which has students writing letters in a bottle from a character's point of view! 


    • Two-liter plastic soda bottle or some other unbreakable see-through container
    • Construction paper
    • Scissors
    • Markers, crayons, colored pencils
    • Tissue paper
    • Glue


    Photo Credit: travis manley/Istockphoto



    1. Tell students that a character in the text wants to share what he or she has learned as a result of his or her experiences through the course of the story. The character has decided to send a message in a bottle or some other appropriate container. 
    2. Have each student decorate a container with symbols and scenery appropriate to the novel and its theme.
    3. Ask students to write a letter from the character's point of view. This letter should express the main character's feelings about the life lessons he or she has learned. At the beginning of the letter, state the theme they think the text conveyed. In the body of the letter, have students incorporate three points that support their ideas.
    4. Tell students the bottle they create will be given to a student in another class who will judge if they presented three points that connect to their theme.
    5. Tell students to be creative! Be neat! And make sure to write as the character in the novel would.



    Please share your questions and suggestions for teaching theme in your classroom. 

    You can learn more about our classroom by visiting our class site.



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