So I did a lot of reflecting from these past few weeks, as I've been teaching theme (yay!) to my 3rd graders on what I did to really help them understand it. I've come up with 5 tips that I think might help you too. :)
1. Vocabulary needs to be taught first. It won't matter how much of the plot or how well they know the characters, if they don't have the vocabulary of the theme 'words', then they won't have a chance to identify the theme. Some of the main themes we teach in our building are: perseverance, cooperation, honesty, responsibility, acceptance, kindness, friendship, greed, and contentment. There are many more to be added to that list. But look at those words! Those are some pretty hefty words even for third graders! The first thing I do when beginning a unit on theme is teach the students the individual vocabulary words we will be using throughout our unit. You'll be surprised at how much foundation and understand they actually have of the words, they just need a word added to their meanings. So get out the crayons. One of the best ways I introduce these words is by having them not only write and define them, but also sketch them out. Click on the photo below to download for FREE!
2. The next piece that is crucial in being able to identify the theme of a fictional text is a clear understanding of the plot. They have to know the ins and outs of the story, the beginning, the middle and dare I say it - the end! :P I love having the students use a variety of graphic organizers or flow charts to help with this process. We do a lot of sketches as well. For example: I'll be doing the first read of the text and then I'll stop where I think the beginning of the story has 'ended'. On their paper, the students will visualize and sketch what they truly think is the most important event so far in the story and then write 2-3 sentences about it underneath. Then the students will pair-share and discuss similarities and differences. We continue this throughout the entire story. Then when we get to the discussion about theme, the students have a solid understand and even some 'notes' they have taken to refer back to if needed.
3. It's all about the characters. They need to understands the characters completely. The who's, what's, when's, where's, and why's. More so too they need to look for the change in the character. A lot of times we'll use a character trait wall to do this. Basically I divide my front board into two sections and write beginning and ending above each section. As we read the students think of character traits to describe the main (or other) characters and add their words to the wall - same for the ending. Then we analyze what changes we see in the character(s) - which helps us identify the theme!
4. Another big tip with theme is making sure to connect it to texts and media that they already know. I use a lot of movie references in my theme unit. We watch a lot of clips of old fairytales and fables/folktales, etc. I have a really fun movie Tic-Tac-Toe game that the kids just LOVE playing!
This packet has the tic-tac-toe game plus three other amazing and hands on games that will just make your kids go crazy for theme! Make it fun, make it engaging, and make it about texts or media they already know - they'll soak it up!
5. My final tip for teaching theme is talk about it with EVERY text you read. The students can't just have these few lessons in a week or two and then not hear about it again. It's like skills like genre, setting, and problem/solution - you talk about it with every story you read, short or long. Have fun with it by keeping track of all of your stories and their themes. Here's a great example from Beth Newingham! (Click to see more)
Hopefully I've given you some tips that maybe you hadn't thought of before. If you have any questions, please let me know! I'd love to hear what you do when teaching theme! Make sure to comment so we can all learn from each other :)