Understanding Theme

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SWBAT identify the differences between plot and theme.

Big Idea

Have trouble determining the difference between plot and theme? This lesson will help!

What is theme?

15 minutes

Class begins with a short discussion addressing the question What is theme?  “A lesson about life.” “A moral.” “Something the author wants us to learn.” And we are off to a good start!

Yet I am aware that this sampling of responses comes only from a few confident students and my goal is for that number to grow. Over time, I developed a PowerPoint presentation titled Understanding Theme Presentation that includes information from a variety of sources and pulls together the most pertinent in relation to the students’ background knowledge. That means it gets tweeked a little each year, so feel free to do the same. As we go through slides 1-3 for this lesson, the students take notes that will be useful to them during this unit of study. The first slide repeats the question, offers a formal definition, and some common themes. Notes on the students' response to the final question appears below. Then we move on to slide 3 to finish up this section of the lesson.

Theme vs Plot

15 minutes

This section of the lesson utilizes slides 4-15 of Understanding Theme. After reading slide 4 and adding to our notes, we move on to the next one and there is no doubt that students are instantly engaged by the inclusion of movie posters in the presentation. Oftentimes, titles do not offer much insight to a movie’s plot, but the statements related to theme will draw in viewers familiar with a particular plot. Who can resist movies about the escapism hinted at in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the suggestion of a struggle for survival in Hunger Games and Spiderman? The next two slides (8 & 9) do not include a statement about theme but it can be inferred by the illustration. For Brave, we pay attention to the look on the girl’s face and the setting. From this, we assume that she is not naturally but brave becomes so by the end of the story. For Hugo, the image of a key suggests that a mystery is unlocked and that it may have something to do with the love of family or romantic love because of the heart at the end of the key. Looking at these posters sets students up to identify the necessity of making inferences about theme. This activity helps students understand two things:

  1. theme is rarely directly stated in a story
  2. a story’s subject/topic and its theme are not the same thing

As students respond to the question on slide 12, it is important that they clearly state the title and describe both the subject/topic of the story and it’s theme. Doing this out loud, gives them valuable practice presenting thoughts and ideas clearly and gives you the opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings.

For the next two slides (13 & 14) have students work with a partner to fill in the topic and theme of each movie. Follow this with a class discussion, once again pointing out the differences between topic and theme by asking students to include specific details.

Wizard of Oz

Topic: A girl goes on an adventure in a magic land.

Possible Themes: Friendship; appreciate what you already have; what you seek is already inside you.

Monsters Inc

Topic: Monsters produce their city’s power by scaring children. It turns out that they are just as afraid of the children they scare as the children are of them. When a little girl gets trapped in the monster’s world, they devise a plan to return her. In the process, they uncover and foil an evil plan that would have changed their world forever.

Theme: overcoming differences; power in the wrong hands is dangerous

The students’ interest in discussing movies and books does not wane and they are eager to answer the question on slide 15: How many stories can you think of that share one of these central themes? At this point, the most important thing is that they can justify their choices and demonstrate understanding of the difference between topic and theme; therefore, I give them wide latitude in the titles and the category in which they place them as long as the explanation makes sense. Here’s some of their choices:



The Fault in Our Stars

Finding Nemo



Robin Hood

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…


Catching Fire

The Matrix


 Circle of Fire

The Hobbit

The Book Thief

Ways to Express Theme

20 minutes

So, now that the students have an understanding of the difference between topic and theme, we talk about the writing process and how authors relate a story’s theme to the audience by reviewing slides 16-19. For each one, the students offer examples. They readily refer to the many stories referred to during this lesson and even continue to come up with new ones. Slide 20 reveals the importance of taking good notes and lets students know that there will be a quiz on this information tomorrow in which they will be asked:

1. What is theme?

2. What is the difference between a subject of literary work and its theme?

3. What are the four ways an author can convey a theme?