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How to Teach Theme in a Middle School Classroom


Teaching theme in middle school seems to stump teachers and rightfully so.  Theme is a concept that requires deep thinking; a skill middle school students are developing but have not yet mastered. So, how can you teach theme in a way that students will understand and retain the information?

First, begin by teaching the difference between topic and theme.

Students are bombarded with the idea that topics are themes.  Everything from "theme" parties to sadly, teachers who misunderstood the difference between the two.  How do you combat this?

I begin with helping students plan a "theme" birthday part.  They have free reign over all aspects of the expenses spared!  Once they have planned every detail from the venue, to the guest attire, to the food, to the decorations, we talk about how this is JUST the beginning of theme and that actually the "theme" of Hawaiian (a party theme for example) is actually a topic.

Check out my FREE party planning lesson plan here. (No email required.)

Then, use Mentor Texts and Pixar/Disney Shorts to teach theme by following this process...

Provide a reading or watching guide that helps students see that all aspects of a story-plot, conflict, characters, setting-contribute to the theme.

Make a list of thematic topics with your students.  Remind them that theme is a universal message an author wants the reader to know about a topic.

Write theme statements using this formula:

The author wants me to know + thematic topic + message

For example: The author wants me to know + family+ is important especially during hard times.

Then, erase the first part of the equation to have a final statement like:

Family is important especially during hard times.

Finally, help your students justify their theme by proving it with text examples.

If the theme is really the theme (a universal message), then most student should be able to justify the theme they've created.  

I do this by putting students into small groups.  They all read/watch the same picture book or movie short.  They follow the same process as the previous reading/watching guide, making a list of topics, and then writing a thematic statement.

*Although they are in groups to read/watch the stories, they must write their thematic statements alone.

They should write their thematic statement at the top of a page.  Then, they will pass their statement to each person in their group.  Each person SHOULD be able to use a specific example from the text about the plot, conflict, character, or setting to justify the thematic statement written.

If they can't, students rewrite their statement to be a true depiction of the message the author is trying to convey.

A few things I've learned...

Students must have strong inferencing skills to succeed at theme.  Since this is an elementary standard, hopefully they have a good base.  If not, practice that before tackling theme!

Many times students write beautiful sentences that include a lesson about a thematic topic, but they aren't always found in the story.  For example, a student might right this beautiful sentence about family: Family is important especially when hard times come... but the true theme about family is, Family can not only be blood relatives, but people who support you through thick and thin.    Young readers learning theme often have a hard time seeing the true message and need teacher assistance starting out.

Be sure to check out the video explanation as well!

While you're here, we'd love to have you in our Facebook group for Middle School Language Arts teachers! Join Us Here!


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