Theme can be one of the most interesting concepts to teach young readers and writers, but it can also come as a bit of a challenge. When writing about the theme of a story, your students can’t simply look it up in the text, as they would a character’s name or plot detail. Teaching theme is all about helping them learn how to read between the lines and follow the breadcrumbs the author has left behind to whatever conclusion seems to best fit the story.
What makes theme intriguing is the same thing that can make it difficult, at least at first, to understand. Unlike the hard facts of a plot outline, pinpointing theme isn’t quite so clear-cut. It’s open to interpretation, and any answer can be right—provided there’s evidence to support it. The following lesson plans will help you guide your 2nd grade students down the wandering, sometimes detour-riddled road, of theme discovery one step at a time.
Lesson Plan #1: The Anatomy of Plot VS Theme
The first step in teaching theme is to help your students understand the difference between plot and theme, two concepts which are often confused by novice writers. Both, after all, seem to be answers to the same question of, “What is this story about?”
One way to help them differentiate the two is to compare them to basic human anatomy. It sounds strange, but it really does work! Plot is like the backbone of the story—it’s made up of a series of pieces that fit together in a certain order. Without a plot, the entire story collapses. Theme, on the other hand, is the heart of the matter. It gives everything else involved meaning and helps bring the story to life.
For this lesson plan, start by reading a short story together as a class. Ask your students to make a list of the events that took place during the story. It can be helpful to provide them with a writing strategy like a list of fill-in-the-blank sentences to complete for the beginning, middle, and end of the story.
Then, on a separate paper, ask them to draw a big heart. Ask them to consider what the story seems to be about—not what happens in it, but what message it seems to be sending—and have them write their idea inside the heart. Ask them to back up their theory with evidence from the story: If it was a story about sharing, did an act of generosity save the day? If the theme was jealousy, what did the main character say to make them think so?
Lesson Plan #2: Working Backwards
Another way to help your 2nd grade students understand theme is to utilize a lesson plan that involves working backwards. Discuss some examples of theme as a class–being loyal to a friend, the value of studying hard, sharing is caring, etc.–and come up with a few new ones together. Write them on the board. Then, ask your students to write a short story that clearly supports the theme of their choosing—without directly mentioning the theme in the story.
Once the stories have been written, have your students share their work with the class. After each story is read, ask the class to see if they can correctly guess which theme the writer had chosen. If you like, you can even turn it into a game! Each student who makes a guess gets one point, even if their guess is wrong, as long as they have convincing proof to back it up. Each student whose theme is correctly guessed gets two points. In the end, of course, everyone’s a winner, because everybody got to learn something new. When you’re done with the exercise, compile all the stories in a professionally published classbook!
Theme Made Easy
By understanding what theme is—and just as importantly, what it isn’t—as well as how the various elements of a story are all connected to it, your students will grow both as writers and as readers. And, by incorporating the concept of theme into a larger lesson plan on the writing and publishing process, you’ll be helping them to see how theme fits into the world of storytelling in a way that is both engaging and entertaining. Even better, they’ll know a bit more about how to use that information to create something wonderful of their own—and how to publish and share it with the rest of the world!
Image sources: Lead image via Pexels user Nguyen Nguyen; Images 1, 2 via clkr.com.