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Teaching Theme in Upper Elementary

5+ new ideas for teaching theme in upper elementary. Use these suggestions for activities, scaffolding, projects, and review to give your students a firm foundation for identifying theme in literature.

We teach our students lessons every day, but when it comes to teaching them to FIND the lesson (or theme) when they are reading, our students often struggle to see past the main idea

Although theme can be interpreted as a single, central idea, here at Fun in 5th Grade we define theme as the lesson or message we can learn from reading the story. Read the example from our Reviewing Theme Game Show below.

Here are 5+ suggestions for teaching, scaffolding, and reviewing theme in the classroom. 

#1- Teaching Theme (Activity): One Theme, Many Stories

Introduce one theme to the whole class and give the students a few moments to outline a story that teaches that lesson. Then assign students to groups of 3, and ask them to share their story idea.

Once they have shared in their small group, call on a few students to share their story with the class. This storytelling activity shows students that several stories (even with different characters and plots) can have the same theme.

The same lesson can be taught in many ways.

#2- Teaching Theme (Scaffolding Idea): Is it, or isn’t it? or True or False?

This is one of the ideas we use repeatedly in the Theme Game Show. Present students with a story and a given theme, and ask them to decide if this IS or IS NOT the theme of the passage.

You can use the passages found in the Theme Game Show, but you can also reuse passages from other activities and stories you have lying around as well.

Is it or isn’t it, helps build student confidence related to theme because even if they can’t come up with the words themselves, they may still be able to identify it.

#3- Teaching Theme (Activity): Theme Bingo

Use the 25 passages in the Theme Game Show to create Theme Bingo Cards. Create a list of the themes and then input them into a Bingo Card Generator like this one. Create enough cards for the class, and then read the passages out loud. Ask students to quietly cover up the theme they think the passage goes with. When someone has a BINGO, they shout it out!!

Playing in a virtual classroom? The Bingo Card Generator we linked to above will allow you to have people join a virtual game via a link. 

*Just a little FYI: At the time I am writing this, the Bingo Card Generator I’ve linked to allows you to either print or play virtually with up to 30 people for free. If you have more than 30 students, you can pair them up, or you can pay for more seats. 

#4- Teaching Theme (Scaffolding Suggestion): This or That

Although there is one category in the Theme Game Show dedicated to this scaffolding technique, you can use other stories and passages to practice the same thing. 

As a way of helping struggling students, read a passage with them and then provide two different theme options for them to choose from. One of the options is correct, and one is close, but not quite right. Ask students to try to figure out which one is the best answer, AND explain why they think so. 

While learning about and recognizing themes early on, allow students to work with others to pick an answer. Elevate the activity by asking students to not only identify which theme is best for this passage but to write a new passage (or modify the current passage) that fits the other theme better. These student-written passages can then be used by the class at a later date for another theme activity.

#5- Teaching Theme (Class Project): The Character’s Journey (a play)

Similar to #1 but with an actor’s twist. Put students in groups and assign them at least three themes. Each group will create a play where their main character goes on a journey. At each stop on the journey, he/she/they will have an experience that represents one of the group’s chosen themes. This project allows students to work on writing, character development, identifying and writing about theme, and many other skills. 

I suggest using this project as an on-going activity that students work on throughout the quarter. Give them time to write, edit, rehearse, and eventually present their work. Record their presentations to share with their parents and families.

+1 More- Teaching Theme (Review): Theme Game Show

We’ve been discussing the Theme Game Show throughout this post, but this spot is dedicated just to this resource as a review game to play in centers, with small groups, or as a full class. This game is built as an interactive game show complete with scoreboards for up to 6 teams. However, even better than the scoreboards are the 25 passages in the game that can be used in so many different ways including in all of the examples provided above. Play the game as is, or use the passages to help your students learn more about theme!

Let’s wrap this thing up!

We hope you enjoy these activities, and as always, let us know how it goes! Leave us a comment telling us how these activities worked in your classroom or tell us about some of the activities and methods you use with your students to teach theme!

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