Teaching Theme – Pitfalls and Strategies

In a previous post I discussed the importance of making discussions around theme in the classroom a commonplace experience grounded in the lives we live each day. As a result, students are better positioned to identify and interpret theme in and across the texts they read.

Dana and I define theme as follows:

Theme is a thread that runs throughout a text and evokes an emotional response within the reader.

~ Cherry-Paul & Johansen, 2014

However, teaching students to notice and latch onto this abstract thread is a challenge we face in our classrooms each year. This teaching involves helping our students to draw upon multiple literary elements to arrive at a deepened understanding of theme. And in doing so,  there are three major pitfalls we’ve experienced with our students. Anticipating these pitfalls helps us steer our students toward using the critical thinking skills they’ll need to identify and interpret themes. The following chart describes the pitfalls and offers strategies to avoid them.




Students who can become bogged down in summarizing the plot when asked to explain theme or provide text evidence.

Help students learn to differentiate between the events of the story and the theme of a story. Practice this process using a well-known animated movie like The Lion King or Finding Nemo. On a graphic organizer, chart paper, or using an interactive whiteboard, invite students to briefly detail the plot of this text in 2-3 sentences. Then, ask them to try to express a theme that runs throughout the entire text. When students can see plot and theme side-by-side, it helps them to understand that theme is universal, not confined only to a specific text; it lives in our lives and in the world.


Students who rush and identify one event or moment in the story as a theme without text evidence from across an entire text to support their idea.

Help students to slow down, step back, and consider revising their idea. On a graphic organizer, chart paper, or using an interactive whiteboard invite students to find text evidence that supports their ideas about a theme from the beginning of the text, then the middle, and finally the end. If they aren’t able to find text evidence to support their claims about theme from these three parts of a text, then they must consider that they’ve made a rushed decision that could be wrong. Ideas must be deeply rooted in and across the text! This process can also be practiced with a shared or well-known text.


Students who limit a text to just one theme and tend to identify and repeat this same theme from text to text.

Help students avoid locking in on the idea that there can be only one theme in a text. Create a graphic organizer, chart, or use an interactive whiteboard to invite students to jot down events from the plot of a shared or well-known text. Group these events and challenge students to name a different theme for each group that relates to the events. This process requires students to slow down and think deeply by considering alternative possibilities and then selecting a theme that resonates most powerfully with strong text evidence.

Graphic organizers for these pitfalls and additional strategies can be found in our book: Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning.

Finally, help students move beyond one-word noun expressions of theme to crafting theme statements using the word is. The following example is from a small group of 6th graders working to express a theme in the picture book The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg:

theme statement

These strategies have have made the process of understanding theme more concrete for our students. Helping students to strengthen their identification and interpretation of themes positions them to support and elaborate on their ideas powerfully using strong text evidence.



Sonja Cherry-Paul has been an educator for the past 17 years. She is a middle school English teacher and co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach. Sonja is a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards committee member who is committed to celebrating authors and illustrators who address issues related to social justice.



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