Maeve Visser Knoth: Helping Students Find the Theme of a Book

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Helping Students Find the Theme of a Book

How is it that a teacher can help his students come to an understanding of the theme of a book? In my experience, even first and second graders can begin to understand THEME if they are asked the right questions. Once a group of children have finished a book, they will have things they want to discuss but many of these naturally tie into an understanding of theme. Before tackling THEME, make sure that the students have talked about setting, tone, character developemnt and the other literary elements. These will all fit together to build the theme. When a book is well-written and successful, all parts work together to leave the reader with the something. A well-constructed theme is not a moral, but a general truth about life, something larger than the story, that the author wants her reader to take away from the book. I help the learners stay away from generalizations by asking them to use some qualifier when constructing a theme. They may use "Oftentimes..." or something of this sort.

I usually ask the learners to brainstorm a few general topics that might be related to the theme...They come up with things like "friendship, bravery, becoming an adult," From there, I ask them what the author might be saying /about/ bravery, friendship etc... It might work well to have students write a complete sentence as a starting point and use these sentences as the beginning of the discussion. Sometimes there are threads in several sentences that can be woven together into a theme. Since students learn differently, I try to use both writing and discussion to come up with a theme.

If your group read CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY the learners might come to theme this way:

I'll ask, "What is the book about?"

The children might answer:
Bad kids get punished.
Charlie gets what he deserves.
Charlie is the best of the kids.
Charlie loves his parents and grandparents and thinks about others before himself.
The Chocolate Factory is some kind of "dream come true".

So, I prompt,....Dahl might be saying what?

Oftentimes bad kids are punished.
Oftentimes good kids get rewards.

Let's refine that a bit more. How does the story end? Is it more about Charlie or more about the other kids? How is Charlie good? Can we put that in the theme?

"Oftentimes someone who thinks more about others than himself, may be rewarded beyond his wildest dreams."

This is of course not the only theme they might come up with, but if you press them to look at the book, how it ends and what the author really puts in the story (rather than what the kids read into the book or bring from their own experience) they are likely to be on the right track.

I must credit Aiden Chamber, British writer, critic and teacher, for his brilliant scaffolding for creating meaningful book discussion with elementary school children. Take a look at the book TELL ME to read more about his work.


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