Theme is a common message or lesson in a text and can be similar across multiple texts. Teachers of all grade levels and content areas can assist students in determining a common theme to more deeply understand what they read. In this strategy, teachers will begin by providing explicit instruction on theme and connecting this information to students' background knowledge. Teachers then select two texts (fiction or nonfiction) for students to read. Students will identify the conflict, response, and lesson of each text. Then, they will compare these details to develop a common theme. When students analyze two texts and determine a common theme, they will more deeply comprehend what they have read. This process helps students to more actively engage with content and determine overarching concepts across the curriculum.
Teacher Preparation and Planning:
Use formative data to determine what your students already know about theme and what misconceptions they may have. One option would be to make a copy of the quick Theme Google Form Survey in the resource section below.
Assign two Newsela articles that have a common theme or provide choice for students by assigning more than two articles and allowing students to select two articles from the provided choices.
Provide an overview of theme. Use the Anchor Chart in the resource section below to discuss the definition of theme.
Ask students to name their favorite books/movies and discuss the plot briefly. Ask students to identify the conflict, response, and lesson of the book or movie. Then, return back to the definition of theme. Have students brainstorm a possible theme for that book or movie. Repeat this with a second example. Then, ask students to try to come up with a common theme that both examples share. This may be possible or may require students to brainstorm another book or movie that has a common theme to one previously discussed. See video at the top for an example.
Highlight the possibility of multiple themes in one text and the commonality of themes across a variety of texts. For example, both Frozen and Wonder share the theme: "Don't judge a book by its cover," but Wonder also has the theme "Treat others the way you'd like to be treated." Discussing popular books and movies students are interested in helps this conversation to be both meaningful and interesting for students.
Provide each student with a paper or electronic copy of either the Compare the Theme of Two Stories (Fiction) graphic organizer or the Compare the Theme of Two Texts (Nonfiction) graphic organizer, both of which can be found in the resource section below.
Instruct students to read both Newsela texts, annotating the text to enhance understanding. Teachers can instruct students to annotate examples of conflict in red and responses in green. (PRO teachers can see these annotations in real time online. Students without a PRO membership can still highlight text, but teachers cannot view this online.) Then, have students complete the top section of the chart (conflict, response, lesson).
Review the definition of theme as a class and have students review the notes on their graphic organizer.
Give students ample wait time to discover a possible common theme. Then, have students share and discuss the possible theme with a partner. If they have read the same text, they can compare their ideas. If they read different texts, partners can take a few moments to provide an overview of the conflict, response, and lesson of both texts before discussing the common theme.
Instruct students to write and explain the common theme at the bottom of the activity sheet.
Allow students to share what they have written with the whole class, noting the common themes and acknowledging that sometimes more than one theme can be supported by the texts.
Provide closure by referring to the Theme Analysis: After Reading Slides in the resource section below. Ask students to respond the the following questions: Why is identifying a theme important? How will this change the way you think about what you are reading in the future?
Students can answer these questions on an exit ticket that they hand to the teacher on their way out, or this could be a "think, pair, share" activity where students think about their responses, share them with a partner, and then share their responses with the whole class.
Compare the Themes of Two Greek Myths
Compare the Themes of Two Nonfiction Science Articles
Compare the Theme of Two Articles then connect to the novel, The Crossover
Students use the graphic organizers they completed in order to identify the theme as an outline to write a paragraph (or an essay) supporting the common theme they identified in two or more texts.
Provide a checklist of writing expectations (the checklist will vary depending on the grade level and task). There is a sample checklist provided in the resource section below.
Use an anchor chart to show students the expectations for the assignment.
Have students color-code their own writing to check that they have included all of the necessary components.
Red for the topic/concluding sentence
Blue for the text based details and explanations about text #1
Green for text based details and explanation about text #2
Provide individual feedback throughout the writing process.
Conference with each student about their writing once they have finished and identify 2-3 focus correction areas they can improve
Allow students time to edit their writing for these focus correction areas and resubmit
Modeling the strategy, breaking down the steps into smaller increments, allowing additional time for students to practice the skills in groups and explain their thought process, and providing resources to consult as they are completing their independent work will benefit a variety of learners.
More modeling of the process of determining the conflict, response, and lesson and formulating a common theme may be needed for students with disabilities that impact their processing or focus. For students who need this additional support, teachers can begin by reading two additional texts and modeling the process for students. See the Compare the Theme of Two Myths Teacher Example resource below.
Students who struggle with executive functioning, processing disorders, and/or anxiety will benefit from filling out practice graphic organizer like the one included in the resource section below with a teacher or in a group before developing a response on their own. This additional step will help these students (and all students) to break the large task into smaller parts, build confidence, and get comfortable with the process before completing the second task independently.
Provide this example on paper or electronically for students to consult while they determine the common theme of the second set of articles independently.
In order to have students be exposed to diverse, culturally relevant topics select articles from Newsela's "A Mile in Our Shoes" text sets. These articles provide an equitable representation of our culturally diverse society. The lessons of perseverance represented in these texts are a wonderful platform for describing theme.
Select (or create your own) text set for students to use to determine a common theme from A Mile In Our Shoes Text Sets (see resource below).
What overarching themes do you most want students to investigate?
How will discussing these themes help students gain a deeper understanding of your curriculum?
How will analyzing this theme benefit students beyond the classroom?
I have found that it is really important to connect the concept of theme to books and movies students have experienced. I often select books I know all of the students have read and/or movies that all/most students have watched so that we can discuss this common experience and determine a theme (or themes) together.
Having the term "lesson" on the graphic organizer and then coming up with a theme can be a bit redundant. That is intentional. Students are much more comfortable with the term lesson than theme, so making the connection between the two will help students more clearly develop their theme. Students may also include multiple common lessons on the graphic organizer. They'll need to select one of these (or combine a few) to develop their common theme.
Listing the examples of theme that students have provided either on chart paper on the classroom wall or in an electronic resource all students can access is helpful. Students can use this as a resource when they are deciding on a common theme of the texts you have assigned.
While I have created a fiction and nonfiction organizer for this lesson, another fun idea would be for students to discover a common theme across the genres! I've provided a more general organizer below for that purpose.