This post may contain affiliate links. You pay the same, but I make a small commission. Please, see my full disclosure for further information.
Teaching upper elementary students to determine themes in literature can often make you feel like throwing in the towel. Determining themes requires students to make inferences about what the author wants the reader to learn from the story. And let’s face it – inferring is hard! So, if you are asking yourself how to teach theme to elementary students, keep on reading. I have compiled five simple and effective ideas that will help you with how to teach themes.
Why are themes important?
Learning to determine themes in literature is important because it allows students to understand what they are reading on a much deeper level. It is the author’s why! Authors have a reason for writing their stories, and that reason is often to teach the reader a life lesson.
I approach themes in my classroom by explaining to students that authors make decisions when they are writing stories. One of those decisions is what they want the reader to learn or take away from the reading. That’s the theme!
Why teach theme of a story?
Without identifying themes, students are failing to access the author’s purpose for writing the text. I say themes (plural) because oftentimes there is more than one lesson that we can learn from one story.
When considering how to teach theme to elementary students, we must remember that most of our students are probably not thinking about every aspect of the story and how it applies to their lives. They are children! This is why we must teach themes. We must explicitly show students that stories are meant not only for entertainment but also to teach us valuable life lessons. Will every story they read have a deep, meaningful theme that will change the way they see themselves and the world around them? No! But many students will. And reading without inferring themes is keeping our students at the surface level.
Five ideas on how to teach themes
Now that we have answered the questions, “Why are themes important?” and “Why teach theme of a story?” we can begin discussing simple and effective ideas on how to teach themes in the upper elementary classroom. Simple and effective are important words here! Everything I do in my classroom has to be simple and effective. As teachers, we don’t have a lot of time to waste with fluff.
How to teach themes: Begin with a song
Whenever you are asking yourself how to teach theme to elementary students, look for some songs. Songs are a great way to introduce themes because songs move people! And themes should move us, too. Theme is the part of the story that will stay with us long after we have returned a book to its shelf. It is the heart of the story! And music speaks to the heart, too.
Songs also give us a great opportunity to talk about figurative language, symbolism, and imagery. If you have already covered those skills with your students, this would be a great opportunity to review them. If you haven’t explicitly taught them yet, you can start having conversations about it with your students as you work through each song. After all, they need to understand the song lyrics to be able to infer the theme.
As a dual language teacher, I try my best to look for resources that I can use in either English or Spanish. Plans can change, and a lesson that was planned for an English day can end up being pushed to a Spanish day, and I don’t want to go back to the drawing board. Disney songs are great for that because I know I can find them in both languages. Here are some of the songs I often use in my own classroom.
Reflection by Christina Aguilera/ Mi reflejo by Analy
One of my favorite Disney movies of all time, Mulan is a great story to talk about theme. The main song, “Reflection,” is all about the importance of staying true to yourself. This is a great lesson for students to learn and a great topic of discussion.
I love how this song can springboard us into a conversation about what we can do to be true to ourselves. We can all fall into a pit of self-doubt, but if we can identify with the person looking back in the mirror, we can have the courage to keep going.
You’ve Got a Friend in Me by Randy Newman/ Hay un amigo en mí by Tony Cruz
Who doesn’t love Toy Story? Your students will love learning about themes with this song. The lyrics are very clear, and your students are probably familiar with the story, too. This will make extracting the theme from this song a piece of cake.
I See the Light by Mandy Moore/ Veo en ti la luz by Chayanne and Danna Paola
Another one of my personal favorites, this song from the movie Tangled is perfect for students who are ready to dig deeper. It is filled with figurative language and symbolism. I often save this song to talk about themes in poetry because it has so much depth. However, if you feel like your students are ready for that challenge now, be my guest! They will love every minute of it!
Keep in mind that if they haven’t watched the movie, they may struggle to understand some of the symbolism in the song. Other than that, you got the green light!
If you would like a FREE Powerpoint presentation that includes the lyrics and audio to these three Disney songs in English and Spanish plus student copies, click here.
How to teach themes: Use fables and folktales
In the school of how to teach themes, fables and folktales should be lesson one! One of the main purposes of these stories is to teach life lessons. So when we are talking about themes, they should be at the top of the list. Besides, if you are a fellow bilingual teacher, fables and folktales can often be found in English and Spanish. Double score!
I know this may seem obvious, but I have set through many planning sessions about how to teach themes, and no one would mention fables and folktales. Now, to be clear, I don’t think we should ONLY use fables and folktales when teaching themes. Students need to be able to extract themes from all different types of text, but these stories are a great starting point. Fables and folktales are especially helpful with struggling learners.
Another reason why I like teaching themes using fables and folktales is that we can discuss the different ways themes can be presented. Oftentimes in these stories, the author clearly states the moral of the story at the end. But in other pieces of text, that doesn’t happen very often. I think it is important to make that distinction with students. Themes can be directly stated or implied.
Some of my favorite fables and folktales to teach themes are:
The Boy Who Cried Wolf by Aesop
Such a classic! You can’t go wrong with what is probably the best-known fable by Aesop. With such a clear theme, students will be able to easily identify it and make connections to their own lives.
Need this fable in Spanish? Click here.
The Tortoise and the Hare by Aesop
Another classic that your students have probably heard before. Regardless, this is another great fable to introduce the idea of themes. It is also a great lesson for the classroom. Hello, speed readers, this one is for you!
Here is a link to this fable in Spanish.
I love this folktale because most of my students have never heard it before. The theme of this folktale is not explicitly stated, but students should be able to figure it out pretty easily. The title is also a great giveaway of what the lesson in this story will be.
Click here for the Spanish version.
Cheese for Dinner
This is a fun fable with a great message. I love how the rabbit tricks the coyote to save his own life. The theme of this story can be easily implied, and students can apply the lesson they learn to their own lives as well.
For the Spanish version, click here.
How to teach themes: Talk about common themes in literature
Another great idea on how to teach theme to elementary students is to talk about some of the common themes found in literature. Once students have an understanding of what theme is, they will be able to think about themes that show up in literature again and again.
I like to create an anchor chart of these frequent themes and have it posted somewhere in the classroom. Every time we encounter a new theme, we add it to the anchor chart. By the end of the year, we have a long list of themes we encountered throughout the year.
Another great idea is to have an area in your room where students can write about the themes they encounter on their own. I love graffiti walls (what kid doesn’t like to “write on the wall?”) Train your students to identify the themes of the books they read on their own and add them to the graffiti wall. You will be running out of room in no time!
How to teach themes: Establish the difference between topics and themes
When discussing how to teach theme in literature, it is important to make the distinction between topic and theme. The topic of a story is the big idea of a text – what the story is about in one or two words. The theme of a story is the lesson the author wants us to learn after reading the story – THE MEssage!
Students will often get these two things mixed up. When I first introduce theme to my students, they will often give me topics instead of themes. Identifying the theme requires students to dig deeper and really question the author’s intention when writing the story. What does the author want me to learn as opposed to what is the author writing about.
To make sure my students are not getting topic and themes mixed up, I like to create an anchor chart. We read a story together, and then discuss what the topic is. It is usually easier for students to start with the topic. Then, I challenge the students to think about what the author is trying to teach us with that topic.
How to teach themes: Learn from the characters
My final tip on how to teach themes in the upper elementary classroom is to teach students to learn from the characters. This is such a simple tip, but my students are always blown away when we learn this. For this to work, students must have already learned to analyze characters.
Characters often go through changes throughout a story. These changes are a result of the problem they faced. Teach students to think about how the characters in a story have changed and determine if this change happened because they learned something new – a life lesson. That could be the lesson the author wants us to learn as well.
Sometimes supporting characters teach the main character a lesson. Think about the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” for example. Think about what the other characters teach the boy at the end of the story. The lesson the supporting characters teach the main character is the lesson the author hopes we will learn, too.
There you have it…
Five easy and effective ideas on how to teach themes. Before you go anywhere, don’t forget to grab your FREE resource to help you teach themes using songs mentioned earlier in this blog post. I would love to hear about how these ideas have helped you in your classroom, and as always…
Other blog posts you may find helpful
How to teach inferring – In this blog post, I outline a five-day plan to teach inferring.