Elementary Activities to Teach Themes in Literature

Students can examine the choices of a character in a story to determine the central theme.
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A theme represents an idea or a statement about human nature and experiences that is rarely explicitly stated in works of literature. Instead, students must infer literary themes by reflecting on the plot, characters and setting of a piece. Because the concept of theme can seem abstract to elementary school students, starting with a lesson about familiar tales with obvious morals can help set the educational foundation for literary analysis.

1 Common Themes

A theme is a message or opinion about life that is drawn from a particular topic. According to Scholastic, common elementary literary topics include acceptance, courage, perseverance, cooperation, compassion, honesty, kindness and loyalty. As an activity, teachers can assign each student in a class a different topic and ask the students to create a theme from that topic. For example, for the topic perseverance, a student can write: "Even when you feel like giving up, keep trying because eventually you will be rewarded for your work."

2 Interpreting Theme

The practice of identifying themes can be accomplished with an exercise in critical thinking and interpretation. Summarizing a text right after reading it can help students identify the main idea by using their memory to repeat what aspects of a text stood out to them. To interpret themes, students can reflect on specific clues provided in the literature, such as characters -- their conflicts, development, motivations, values, choices, actions and dialogue -- plot, setting and symbolism. A worksheet with questions about the protagonist's problems and solutions, for example, can guide students toward an interpretation of the story's themes.

3 Fables

Teachers can use simple fables and well-known fairy tales that have clear morals as a simplified practice for identifying theme. For example, an instructor can divide students into groups and assign each group a fable or fairy tale. Then, each group can discuss the moral of their assigned story and find evidence in the story that leads them to their conclusion. For example, for "The Emperor's New Clothes" by Hans Christian Andersen, students can conclude that the moral of the story is that children are wiser than adults think, or that people should never be too concerned with the opinions of others.

4 Films

Cinema shares a great deal in common with literature and is a useful tool for teaching students about themes. Just like a story or a play, movies feature characters, settings and plots that can be used to interpret a main idea. Therefore, a teacher can show a film to the class and afterward ask the students to determine the central theme or message of the movie. For example, students can watch Disney's "Aladdin" and either write about or discuss the theme behind the main character's mistakes and the lessons he learns. This activity strengthens students' inference skills, which can be used for literature reading comprehension.

Soheila Battaglia is a published and award-winning author and filmmaker. She holds an MA in literary cultures from New York University and a BA in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. She is a college professor of literature and composition.