Enjoy Teaching Theme with Literature Activities for Kids

Teaching theme is not as hard as you think. Third graders locate the message, lesson, or moral of a story. By fourth grade, students are ready to link key details to determine a theme. This scaffolds seamlessly to fifth grade, when kids start using characters’ responses to challenges to consider theme.

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Ms. Sneed Learns About Teaching Theme in Grades 3 & 4

As a new teacher, Ms. Sneed didn’t really know much about teaching theme. Fortunately, her mentor was willing to help.

“Let’s take a look at Common Core State Standards for students in third and fourth grades,” said Mrs. Brown.

Ms. Sneed studied the paper in front of her as her mentor went over the standards:

  • RL.3.2 (third grade) – Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
  • RL.4.2 (fourth grade) – Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

“Fables, short stories with obvious morals, provide a perfect starting point. At the beginning of fourth grade, I like to introduce theme with this PowerPoint presentation. We start off slowly, just looking for connected details.”

Mrs. Brown clicked through the slides. Meanwhile, Ms. Sneed squinted at the screen, considering how she could convey theme to her students.

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“Since the standards require constructed responses, we work on writing paragraphs as well.” Mrs. Brown continued clicking through the slides.

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Mrs. Brown pulled a paper from her folder. “In the theme unit, kids use this simple template. It helps them organize connected details, find themes, and consider conclusions for their constructed responses.”

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Mrs. Brown Discusses Teaching Theme in Fifth Grade

“Theme evolves in fifth grade,” Mrs. Brown continued. “Students consider how characters respond to challenges to find the central message. Let’s look at the standard:

  • RL.5.2 (fifth grade) – Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.”

Ms. Sneed sighed. It was a lot to take in.

“It’s important to know where your students came from – and where they’re going,” Mrs. Brown stated. She clicked around a bit on her computer and opened another presentation. “In this fifth grade theme unit, students consider how characters respond to challenges.”

To find theme, fifth graders consider characters' responses to adversity.

In "George Washington and the Hatchet," consider George's challenge: his father was angry that he chopped down the cherry tree. Then consider his response: telling the truth. This helps establish the theme of the story.

As she read the text, Ms. Sneed’s mood lightened. “I think I’m getting it,” she exclaimed.

Mrs. Brown nodded. “Fifth graders can use this organizer to pinpoint characters’ challenges and responses. From there, they can find a theme based on one or more characters’ challenges and responses.”

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Teaching Theme with a Story Arc

“After I used these methods for teaching theme for a few years, something dawned on me,” Mrs. Brown said. “My kids used a story arc for writing narratives. But why couldn’t they use it the other way around? Next week, we’ll talk more about using a story arc to summarize and find a theme.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Brown, for everything,” Ms. Sneed said. “When you share these ideas with me, I feel empowered – and I enjoy teaching so much more.” As her mentor gathered her papers, Mrs. Brown remembered another mentor – years ago – who had shared wisdom with her. Her eyes glistened, and a small smile softened her face.

Enjoy Teaching

Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.

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