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How to Teach Themes in Literature — A Lesson Plan


The Common Core Standards for literature state that students by fifth grade should be able to identify a story's theme through analysis of its characters and plot. In doing so, students will recognize the author's overall purpose for creating the work. Although this may seem challenging for a 10-year-old, identifying the theme of a piece of literature is essential to truly understanding the story rather than just reading the words on the page.

What Theme Is and Is Not

Many young students mistakenly believe that theme is just another word for plot. Theme and plot, while not identical, are related. For example, the plot of Aesop's well-known "The Tortoise and the Hare" fable revolves around a race between the quick, arrogant hare and the slow, determined tortoise. As the hare takes frequent breaks during the race, sure that he will win, the tortoise continues pushing himself, ultimately claiming victory. The theme pulls aspects of the plot, as well as the characters' actions, to spell out the message the author wants to send the reader: Wasted natural talent is no match for determination. Using a simplified, famous story, teachers can begin to introduce the idea of theme to their fifth-grade students.

Themes in Various Media

Teachers can use familiar media to acquaint students with the idea of thematic thought and translate this notion to novels and poems in the future. All stories, not just literature, have thematic elements that are essential to understanding the underlying message of the story's plot. In the classic "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," a poor boy earns a coveted prize through integrity and honesty, while his counterparts fail the competition in various ways due to their greed. The message: Those who hold themselves to a higher standard will reap the rewards. Students who have a tough time understanding the true notion of theme come away from this movie understanding that message, even though it's not explicitly stated in the story.

Using Idioms

Idioms are sayings that don't mean much when taken literally but convey a deeper meaning when their symbolism is understood. In terms of literature, the literal meaning of an idiom would more likely resemble the plot of a story, while the figurative meaning resembles the theme. The saying "you reap what you sow" conjures the literal image of a farmer working diligently throughout the spring and summer and enjoying a bountiful harvest in the fall. Translating this idea figuratively, students could come up with many different examples, such as a child studying hard every night for a month and earning an A+ on his next test. Giving students an activity in which they illustrate the literal and figurative meanings of well-known idioms helps them differentiate between plot and theme.

Writing for Theme

For students to analyze themes as writers, they must look past the words on the page to what the author is trying to tell them and keep this in mind when writing their own stories. For example, if directed to write about "the best vacation ever," students will frequently write long-winded, plot-driven narratives. But students asked to write about a boring family vacation that turned out to be memorable might focus their attention on the importance of spending time with loved ones. Creating thematically driven narratives demonstrates a student's true comprehension of the purpose of literature.

About the Author

Matt Duczeminski is a before- and after-school tutor and supervisor for the CLASP program in the Cheltenham School District. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz's Master of Science in education (Literacy, B-6), Duczeminski has worked in a variety of suburban areas as a teacher, tutor and recreational leader for the past eight years.

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