How to Study Themes in Literature With Struggling Readers

Lisa Spangler

ELA Teacher

Bridgewater Middle School, Winter Garden, Florida

For the past 26 years I have been teaching middle school students, and studying themes in literature has always been such a thorny topic to teach. I believe that theme is one of those nebulous concepts that makes sense when it is discussed in class but then is difficult to apply. Why is this? It is because the students have not been given a concrete foundation for their skills. All students, but especially those who struggle, need strategies and processes that they can immediately apply to their learning and see real progress. To facilitate this growth, I created this three-step plan for teaching theme.

1. Start With Vocabulary

You might be surprised to learn that many students do not know some of the most basic terms used when talking about theme, including the word theme itself.

I like to start with a basic list of words and give students an opportunity to find the definitions. Then, as we review each word, I put up a card on a bulletin board labeled “word wall” with an image that will help the students remember the definition. We refer to these frequently as we read our text. At home, you could make your own word wall with Post‑it Notes on a window or door near where you work.

Before we call our vocabulary study “done,” we also play a few games to try to keep these words fresh in our minds. I make dominoes that have matching images and definitions from our word wall cards that my students use to practice with the words. At home, you could make flashcards for the words with your own fun illustrations!

2. Direct Instruction

It’s important to teach theme as an answer to the question, “What does the author want us to learn from reading this text?” Theme, then, is a statement. I like to use picture books to teach this. For example, one of my favorites is Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Using a book like this makes it much easier to identify the theme, as in this case it is almost explicitly stated that people should make the world a more beautiful place. Being able to easily identify the theme gives my struggling learners a small “win,” which makes them more willing to take on a larger text—like a novel.

“Reading” picture books like Miss Rumphius can be done at home, too, with the help of YouTube. I have used various recordings of books from YouTube in my classroom, and a well-produced reading of the book is probably even better than when I read it!

However, parents can teach theme without the help of YouTube. Bring up your child’s favorite TV show and ask, “What does the author want us to learn from this?” Then discuss it, and explore how what you are discussing could apply to larger groups of people or even society as a whole. Now you’re ready to study the theme in a larger text!

3. Reading With a Purpose

In the Classroom

Before reading the text, it is important to tell students that the purpose of doing so is to determine what the author wants us to learn from reading it. Now ready to tackle a novel, we read together using the professional audio that matches the book. This eliminates some of the extra struggle that comes from students being unable to read with speed and accuracy (fluency skills—measures of the ability to read the words in text effortlessly and efficiently) and allows the reader to focus on the purpose we have for reading—uncovering themes.

After reading a chapter, I like to discuss whether we see any themes emerging. I’ll ask guided questions like, “What did we learn about the main character?” and, “Does that apply to us, too?” I’ll make a list of what applies to us as a possible list of themes. I’ll either write this on the board or on a large piece of paper so we can refer to it easily. At home, you could use index cards or even regular sheets of paper to record this information. You could even turn your fridge into “theme central” where you store all your index cards or papers!

Then, as we read more, we notice that some of the themes on the list are reappearing in subsequent chapters. Those that reappear move from that big list to a list of their own. Once a theme has graduated to its own piece of paper, we collect evidence from the text that supports that theme. Each student keeps a copy in their notebook as well. As students start to become more comfortable with collecting evidence, I gradually release them to do this on their own.

Once we’ve finished the book, we’ll complete a follow-up activity by returning to the larger pieces of paper in a gallery walk so that everyone has a chance to contribute a piece of evidence from their own work. Finally, students complete a project focused on just one theme from the book using all the evidence that they collected and the evidence that their classmates contributed to the poster. Being able to put all of this together shows students that themes develop throughout a book and are not just needles in haystacks.

At Home

Instead of a gallery walk, why not try making a one-pager? In school students share the essence of their learning in one page. I would divide the paper into four sections: one in the middle, one above the middle and two below the middle. In the middle your child should write the theme. Above the theme should be an illustration. Below the theme should be textual evidence supporting that theme in one box and a reflection in the other box. Now you have a powerful visual representation of the theme that was studied!

Following this process ensures that students are set up for success with studying and internalizing messages from various texts. It may also guide them in future independent reading as they strive to not just understand the words they read but come to new understandings about the deeper meanings that are tucked away inside the texts.

About the Author

Lisa teaches students who have unique learning needs at Bridgewater Middle School in Winter Garden, Florida. Her specialty is working to reach all learners in English language arts and she especially enjoys teaching writing. She also loves traveling to new places both physical and virtual to bring back new things to the classroom. She is also a curriculum designer and education blogger.