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.



Teaching Theme: In the Texts We Read and the Lives we Live

Recently, my class and I have become fascinated by Misty Copeland and her life-story. Over the past several months, we’ve read articles and picture books about her, watched her on 60 Minutes CBS News, seen her speak at a Barnes & Nobles in our neighborhood, and some of us have had the opportunity to see her perform with the American Ballet Theatre in in Lincoln Center, NY.

Misty Copeland

Here is some of the information we’ve collected about Misty Copeland:

Text Evidence

·      Family financial struggles

·      Started dancing at 13

·      Joined ABT at 18; watched coveted roles go to other dancers

·      Received criticism about her body; her race

·      “I just said to them, what do I need to do? I am so eager. I am so hungry.           I want to continue to push myself.”

·      Received first title role: Firebird!

·      Injured with six stress fractures

·      “I was on a path. I was going to become a principal dancer. I never             let my mind rest. I kept dancing inside.”

·      “Generations of black women and men didn’t have a fair chance in             the ballet world; it’s still difficult to be other.”

After charting this text evidence with my students, I asked them: What can we learn from Misty’s story? What themes emerge?

 After several minutes of small group discussion, my students had a great deal to share in response to these questions. One popular idea was: Achieving your dreams is possible with luck, patience, and hard work. My favorite is from one of my quieter students who offered, “It’s never too late to get good at something.” He shared this enthusiastically and continued: “Because I’m still hoping to get good at soccer!”

Our discussions about Misty Copeland are symbolic of the work I try to do around theme in my classroom each day, all year. I’ve discovered that if I want my students to develop a deepened understanding of this abstract concept we call theme, then I needed to make discussions around theme commonplace in my classroom; not just about the texts we read, but in the lives we live.

One way I try to honor this in my classroom is during our Monday Morning Meeting when I ask students to share a highlight from their weekend. I ask them to try to identify and express a theme that emerges from the experience they’re sharing. Sometimes, they need time to write in their writer’s notebook and get back to us. Here are a few examples:

When a student shared that her team lost a basketball tournament, I wondered how this could be a “highlight” of her weekend. After thinking about this, her response was: “It’s not about winning or losing; it’s about having fun and trying my best!”

When students share their playdates or sleepovers as a highlight, I ask why. One response offered was: “The best times are the simplest times with friends and the grand adventures we create together.”

Visiting with family members is another frequent highlight that is shared. I ask, out of everything you did over the weekend, why is this most important to you? One response was: Being with my family is important because they love me and I love them. It’s when my heart is happiest!”

Some students share highlights about hiking or biking with a friend or family member. Why is this their highlight? What have they discovered about the significance of this experience? One student offered: “Spending time outdoors in nature reminds me about how beautiful life is.”

If I want my students to develop an understanding of theme, to be able to identify and interpret theme in a text, what better way to practice this work than with what matters most to them in their own lives?

Dana and I often discuss the challenges of teaching theme and how to break through some of the boundaries we’ve experienced with our students. A discussion of this can be found here: hubs.ly/H01HsHk0

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 9.37.20 AMIn my next post, I’ll share more of these common pitfalls Dana and I experience as our students work to understand theme and some of our strategies for helping students break through these obstacles.



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.

Importance of Picture Books in Middle School Reader’s Workshop

Picture books are essential in the middle school classroom. Each is a short story that has a heartbeat that Theme Chartmurmurs gently, waiting to be heard. My students sit in rapture listening, smiling, giggling, and nodding as they allow the words and illustrations of picture books to whisk them away to another place. Part nostalgic, part thought provoking, these texts teach in a way that can only be described as captivating.

Some say middle school students are too old to hear and read picture books. I say no one is ever too old.

Often time teachers, including myself, steer students toward chapter books during reader’s workshop, instead of encouraging picture book reading. Of course, this is so students can build their fluency and stamina by delving into plots that unfold over many pages. We may hear ourselves saying, “You must read a chapter book. No picture books.” I have often wondered if other teachers have felt the way I have after saying these words. I feel a twang of pain and there is a small voice inside my head whispering that students should always choose what they want to read, no matter the length of the book. After all, aren’t picture books just short stories? Aren’t they the texts we use to model reading strategies, locating literary elements, and building schema? Why would I steer my students away from them during reader’s workshop? It just didn’t make sense. I knew I needed to incorporate picture books into my reader’s workshop in a new way.

A week later, I had a plan. I decided that we would dive head first into a world of reading picture books.

When I told my students that they were going to read only picture books for a week straight, cheers erupted. They shouted with joy, saying they couldn’t wait to reread childhood favorites and books by beloved authors. Sprawled out on the floor, bins overflowing with picture books from my collection and the school library, my students read voraciously.

We called it the “25 Picture Book Challenge,” and each student set a goal of reading 25 pictures in a week. Even as we set the goal, I knew it might be impossible. But I couldn’t help myself. My heart beat quickly with the hope that each student would have 25 short stories in their repertoire of texts. I couldn’t help but feel giddy thinking about all the possible text-to-text connections students could make and all the plots, characters, and settings they would read about.

Delighted squeals of “I read 5 books today!” was music to my ears each day. Enthusiasm soared as the humming heartbeats of the picture books echoed throughout my classroom. Both my avid and reluctant readers enjoyed recording their book titles on their reading logs. Everyone was reading. The joy for reading was palpable, and my students and I looked forward to reader’s workshop each day.

My minilessons could have been about many different topics- fix-it-up strategies for comprehension, Themesgetting to know characters, thinking about conflicts and solutions. However, I chose to focus my minilessons on theme. I wanted my students to think about the big ideas in each book- focus on the central messages of the stories they were reading. Exploring theme with picture books was very satisfying. My students blanketed classroom charts with sticky notes about themes. We sorted their themes based on frequency, commonalities, and uniqueness. We categorized some themes, such as family, as “Broad Themes” and webbed them to brainstorm other themes such as “sibling rivalry,” “family traditions,” and “conflicts between generations.” My students made lists of book titles that related to common themes, and we noticed how different books had similar themes across different genres. It was the type of learning that I always hope to have in my classroom.

In the end, we toppled our goal. Our total reached over 2,500 reads at the end of one week. I rejoiced in my decision to incorporate picture books into my reader’s workshop. I knew I would never look down upon picture book reading in middle school reader’s workshop again.