Ideas for Teaching Theme that Grow with your Students

If you are looking for ideas for teaching theme in upper elementary, consider these strategies that grow with your students. 

“But what does it mean?”

How many times have our students or our own children asked us this all important question? 

I have heard many iterations of this question over the years. 

  • “Why should I care?”
  • “What difference does it make?”
  • “Why is (insert a character) doing that?”

Somehow, you are able to provide an answer, but do you remember when you started learning how to find the answers to these types of questions?

Sometime, a long long time ago, in a classroom probably, you were taught about finding meaning and intent in the stories you were consuming.

How did you learn to look more deeply into the stories?

How did you learn that a person could influence you to act or consider perspectives through their writing? When did you learn that writing was influential?

It was probably right around the time that you learned about theme.

Theme is simply the lesson or moral of the story. Ha! Simple!

The truth is, theme is not simple. It is pretty complicated to try to think like someone else. To put on our detective hats and try to think through the story from the viewpoint and values of the creator.

The identification of theme is complex at best, and teachers often need activities that grow with their students. With that in mind, today we are providing three ideas for teaching theme that will grow with your students.

Level 1 | Theme Digital Jigsaw

At the most basic level, we want students to identify universal themes in what they are reading. These are typically simple, single-word concepts that can be applied generally to many stories (i.e. jealousy, greed, courage, forgiveness, etc.)

In our Reading Skills Lapbook (which provides an overview of all-things reading skills), we have a section dedicated to common themes. You can use these common themes to provide students with multiple choice options as you explore texts. 

If you are looking for something that is already prepped and ready-to-go, this Digital Jigsaw Puzzle allows students to approach a small reading passage with just a few theme options to choose from. This is a great activity for introducing theme as the passages are short and the choices provide some scaffolding. 

Level 2 | Start with the Theme

Another way to more deeply understand how a creator may develop a theme in a text is by working backward. Provide the theme first and then read the text with the intent to identify all the evidence the writer uses to lead us to that particular theme.

In your classroom, this will look like picking a reading passage or book for the class to read. Then providing the student with the text’s theme. Then ask the students to read through the text with the goal of finding as much evidence as possible that points toward the theme. They can highlight, circle, or create a list. 

This activity can be done with a lot of different texts and movies, and students enjoy the challenge of digging into the text to ‘find’ something. 

Option for Advanced Students: To up level this activity, provide students with two possible themes, and ask them to find evidence for both and then decide which is stronger.

Level 3 | Creating Greeting Cards

The more students create with a theme in mind, the more likely they are to recognize the theme in other places. 

In this Greeting Cards Activity, students will create greeting cards that are based on a given theme. 

To begin, present students with a bunch of greeting cards and discuss what a greeting card typically looks like. Then randomly assign each student a theme from the Reading Skills Lapbook, and have them create a greeting card based off of that theme. 

Now, these will not be your typical greeting cards because the themes we are assigning do not align with typical themes that are written about in greeting cards. With themes like courage, cooperation, and acceptance, students will need to get creative, but this is a fun, simple activity for getting students to create something with a theme in mind.

These ideas for teaching theme stair step up Bloom’s Taxonomy and grow with your students as their understanding of theme develops.

The Digital Jigsaw Puzzle allows us to test our students’ understanding. Level 2 (starting with the theme), asks students to apply and analyze their knowledge of how the theme is found in a text, and Level 3 (The Greeting Card Activity) asks students to create based on the theme. 

Any one of these ideas for teaching theme will help your students learn more about this topic, and each activity will grow on the others to give your students a well-rounded experience related to theme. 


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