How to Teach Theme

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While every story may differ in length or complexity, inside of every story is the theme or a central idea. English language arts teachers have an advantage when they teach fiction if they teach students about the structure found in all stories. A theme runs through the veins of a story no matter how it is presented: novel, short story, poem, picture book. Even the film director Robert Wise noted the importance of theme in movie-making,

"You can't tell any kind of a story without having some kind of a theme, something to say between the lines."

It is between those lines, whether they are printed on the page or spoken on the screen, where students need to look or to listen because the author will not tell readers what the theme or lesson of the story is. Rather, students need to examine a text using their abilities to infer and to make an inference; to do either means to use evidence in support.

How to Teach Theme

To begin, teachers and students must understand that there is no single theme to any piece of literature. The more complex the literature, the more possible themes. Authors do, however, help students infer theme through motif(s) or dominant idea(s) repeated throughout a story. For example, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the “eye” motif is present literally (billboard eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg) and figuratively throughout the novel. While some of these questions may seem obvious ("what is a theme?") it is through the use of evidence to support a response where the critical thinking becomes obvious.

Here are the five critical thinking questions that teachers should use in preparing students to identify theme at any grade level:

  1. What are the key ideas or details?
  2. What is the central message? Cite evidence to prove it.
  3. What is the theme? Cite evidence to prove it. 
  4. What is the topic? Cite evidence to prove it.           
  5. Where does the author prove the intended message?

Examples with Read Alouds (Grades K-6)

Scripted worksheets or blackline masters for literature are not necessary when any one or a combination of these five questions can be used by students to make an inference. For example, here are the questions applied to traditional read-alouds in grades K-2:

  1. What are the key ideas or details? Charlotte's Web
    1. Friendship: Charlotte (spider); Wilbur (pig) unlikely pair; protection
    2. Characters: Fern -Wilbur's owner, Templeton (Rat), geese, horse
    3. Loss: Wilbur's possible slaughter; Charlotte's death
  2. What is the central message? Click, Clack, Moo
    1. Unfair work practices can result in a strike
    2.  Cite evidence to prove it. 
      1. Cows refuse to give milk until they are provided electric blankets
  3. What is the theme? Pigeon Wants to Drive the Bus
    1. Some requests (a pigeon driving a bus) are too ridiculous to allow, no matter how noisy and loud the requests from a frustrated pigeon become.
  4. What is the topic? Wonder
    1. A young boy's deformity can make his peers uncomfortable...until they get to know him. Once they do, they realize that a person cannot be measured by appearance.
  5. Where does the author prove the intended message? Last Stop on Market Street
    1. In walking around an urban setting, CJ's Grandmother tells him, “ Sometimes when you're surrounded by're a better witness for what's beautiful."

Examples with Middle/High School Literature

Here are the same questions applied to traditional middle/high school selections in literature:

  1. What are key ideas or details? John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men: 
  2. Friendship: Lenny (large and slow) George (small and wily); unlikely pair; protection
  3. Animals: mouse, puppy, dog, rabbits
  4. Dreams: home ownership, stardom
  5. What is the central message? Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games Trilogy: 
  6. Strict and inhumane political policies result in revolution
  7.  Cite evidence to prove it. 
    Katniss wins the Hunger Games Competition that requires mortal combat beginning at age 12 for entertainment; her skills lead the rebellion that destroys the inhumane practice.
  8. What is the theme? Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird:
  9. Racism in a community changes the lives of those who live there.
  10. Cite evidence to prove it?   
    A white woman’s accusation of rape against a Black man expose racism in a Southern community that results in death -Tom Robinson, Bob Euwell- and redemption, Boo Radley
  11. What is the topic? The poem Ulysses by Lord Alfred Tennyson: 
    Growing old after a life of adventure is unsettling 
  12. Cite evidence to prove it.
    "How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!"
  13. Where does the author prove the intended message? Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:
  14. “Do with their deaths, bury their parent’s strife…”

Moreover, all five questions of the above meet the Reading Anchor Standard #2 outlined in the Common Core State Standards for all grades:

"Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas."

Common Core Grade Level Questions

In addition to these five anchor questions are other Common Core-aligned question stems that can be posed at each grade level to address an increase in rigor:

  • Grade 6: What does the story suggest about life? What details support this thinking? 
  • Grade 7: Provide an example of how the theme recurs in the text.
  • Grade 8: How does the development of character, setting, and/ or plot contribute to the central theme or idea?
  • Grades 9/10: How can you objectively summarize the text?
  • Grade 11/12: Is one theme/central idea more significant than another? Why?

Each question by grade level also addresses the Reading Literature Anchor Standard 2. Using these questions means that teachers do not need black-line masters, CD-ROMs, or pre-prepared quizzes to prepare students to identify a theme. Repeated exposure to any of these questions on any piece of literature is recommended for any assessment, from classroom tests to the SAT or ACT.

All stories have theme in their DNA. The questions above allow students to recognize that how an author inferred these genetic traits in the most human of artistic endeavors….the story.

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Your Citation
Bennett, Colette. "How to Teach Theme." ThoughtCo, Jan. 11, 2021, Bennett, Colette. (2021, January 11). How to Teach Theme. Retrieved from Bennett, Colette. "How to Teach Theme." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).