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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Writing About Theme

What is theme? Is it a lesson, a concept, a message, or an idea? Is theme owned by the author or the reader? Can a literary work have more than one theme? Can a theme have more than one word?

Since I teach fourth grade, I try to keep it simple. We begin with "The Three Little Pigs." At this early stage in the game, I tell my students that theme is a message from the author, but not all readers will receive the same message. Any theme, however, must supported by at least three connected details. Here are some possibilities for "The Three Little Pigs."

Connected Details
  • The first two pigs didn't spend much time making their houses.
  • The third pig carried heavy bricks and carefully stacked them into a solid house.
  • The wolf blew down the first and second pigs' homes, but the third pig's house was unharmed.
Theme: Taking your time to do something right pays off.

Connected Details
  • The wolf was mean to the little pigs.
  • He blew down two pigs' houses.
  • At the third house, the wolf went down the chimney and got burned by the hot water in the pot.
Theme: If you are mean to others, you will be punished in the end.

Connected Details
  • The first pig doesn't protect himself well with his house of straw.
  • The second pig doesn't protect himself well with his house of sticks.
  • The third pig protects himself well with his house of brick.
Theme: Protection

The third theme uses a single word. This allows me to talk to my students about the fact that some teachers will want a one-word theme. In fact, each of the other themes can be translated to one word. "Taking your time to do something right pays off" could be translated to "industry." And "retribution" could be used instead of "If you are mean to others, you will be punished in the end." For nine- and ten-year old students, however, the longer phrases make more sense.

In my mind, the theme of the Common Core State Standards for Reading: Literature is "constructed response." (Just a little CCSS humor.) Therefore, I believe students should know how to determine and defend themes. Here's an example:

I ask my students to state the theme as the topic sentence, write the supporting evidence as detail sentences, use linking/order words to connect thoughts, mention/cite the text, and conclude with a personal insight. 

After "The Three Little Pigs," my students practice finding themes in simple fables and fairy tales. Here's a freebie for you. It features an Indian fairy tale entitled "How Sun, Moon, and Wind Went Out to Dinner." Simply click on one of the images to grab it for your classroom.

I hope these ideas and resources help you teach theme in your classroom!