Teaching 4th and 5th grade reading is not easy! The standards begin to get really tricky and the gap between what the students should be able to do in reading and what they can do can be pretty wide. One of the those standards that is tricky is theme. On this post, I will share some tips to help you teach theme to your 4th and 5th graders, including what students should know before you begin instruction, all the theme subskills that really increase the rigor, and specific instructional strategies that you can do when students struggle.
Pre-Requisite Standards Before Teaching Theme
To teach theme, make sure you have taught or the students have a working knowledge of:
• Story Elements… how to identify and describe them
• What a summary of a story is — they don’t have to be perfect at writing detailed ones (summary is honestly a skill we work on all year) but they should understand that a summary retells the important story elements as they relate to that specific story
Theme Skills Students Need to Master
I have been guilty of being too surface level with my instruction of theme in the past. In my first years teaching, I rarely moved beyond a basic instruction of themes and the ability to identify them.
Now, I know better and I can help my students meet the rigor required by making sure I provide instruction beyond the basic understandings.
Here are all the subskills to really teach theme to the rigor most states require:
• What themes are
• How themes are different from summaries
• How to identify a possible theme of a multi-paragraph story (including more variety and advanced themes other than basic ones like Never Give Up)
• How to prove the theme they chose using relevant details from the story and what different (and advanced) details to look for (dialogue, internal monologue, a character’s action or lack of action, a character’s motivation, a character response to a challenge, events and outcomes)
• How to determine multiple themes that a story may have (and how to prove them both or critique which is better developed using details from both)
• The ability to find a common theme that two (or more) stories share
• How to compare and contrast how each story demonstrated the common theme (and maybe even critique which one did it better)
*If a skill above is not required of your students, these are great skills for enrichment and advancing your students.
Tips for Students Who Struggle Understanding Theme
If students struggle understanding and determining a theme, reteach these skills or check these for understanding:
• Understanding a given moral at the end of folktale and how it matches/connects to the story
• Being able to tell a lesson from a story that very obviously teaches a lesson…backing up and reading a few short stories that are obvious will help the students not see a story too literally
• Being able to think about how a story connects to their life or their situation…if they can’t see any type of connection, a theme will probably be difficult for them to generate. Provide direct instruction on the different connections and model it but don’t make it a chore. Don’t make the students laboriously write about connections they make. Keep it engaging or interesting to make struggling readers want to do it…partner talk or conversation, reader’s letters if you have time, a class blog of sorts, etc.
Note: Obviously basic reading comprehension of a story is required…if your students cannot do this they will likely struggle with finding the theme of a grade level text. One way to help with skill instruction is by using a lower lexile. Click here to see passages and texts written for 4th and 5th grade skills but at a 2nd/3rd grade lexile level.
Download a Printable Version
Recommended Theme Resources
If you want to make your theme instruction as easy (but meaningful and rigorous) as possible, I definitely recommend this resource.
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Teaching Theme ActivitiesEverything you need to teach theme-- posters, graphic organizers, texts (short texts, long texts, paired texts), and small group activities, including task cards!
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It includes long texts, shorter length texts, paired texts, task cards, and more all for teaching theme. It is truly a one-stop resource! But a warning: There is too many resources included and you likely want even use them all!
More Theme Blog Posts and Freebies
Teaching Theme – This is a blog post that I wrote several years ago after teaching theme to my students for a week. This year I had student who really struggled even understanding the concept of theme, so definitely check out this post if your students significantly struggle.
Reading Sorts – There’s a free theme reading sort in this free set of reading sorts. They make a perfect re-teaching activity or reading center.