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Supporting Your Children’s and Teens’ Home Learning: Identifying Themes in Literary Text

Adolescent girl at home reading with laptop nearby

When reading a literary text at home, adolescents can look for clues, such as when a character has an epiphany, that can help them identify the story’s theme.

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Posted on: April 28, 2020

Editor’s note: Even when classes are suspended, children can continue to make progress toward grade-level reading and writing standards at home. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers support children’s and teens’ literacy learning while schools are closed in response to the spread of COVID-19.

Commonly used literacy frameworks, such as the Common Core Standards (National Governors Association for Best Practices & Chief School Officers, 2010) call for adolescents to identify themes in literary text and textual details related to the themes. Importantly, identifying literary elements, such as themes, improves adolescents’ understanding of literary text (Boon et al., 2015). Because all literary texts have at least one theme, identifying themes and related textual details is a literacy activity that can be easily implemented at home while adolescents are reading independently.

A theme is the underlying idea or universal value (e.g., love, honesty, loyalty, sacrifice, fairness, forgiveness) in a literary text that can apply to all of us, not just a character in the story. It may be a moral or lesson for the reader, but not all themes are morals. A theme does not include information specific to a text such as information about the characters, setting, or plot. Rather, a theme is a general message that can be applied to many different situations outside of the text itself.

Theme identification is often a challenging task for students of any age and may require more extensive practice than other literary elements (Stetter & Hughes, 2010). Moreover, a text may have multiple themes that develop over the course of the text. However, adolescents can use the Theme Development Tracker resource (see Supplemental Materials for Families) as they read literary texts to identify themes and the textual details that develop these themes.

As explained in the instructions provided in the Theme Development Tracker, there are several clues readers can use to identify textual details that may be introducing or developing a theme. As your adolescents read, have them watch for these clues:

  • Advice: A character receives advice about an important event or decision.
  • Epiphany: A character has an epiphany, or an important realization, that helps the character better understand an event or make a decision.
  • Memory: A character remembers an event that occurred previously and describes it in detail. The memory helps the reader understand character traits, motivations, and actions.
  • Reflection: A character reflects on the impact of an event or lesson learned.
  • Repetition: A particular idea or value is repeated throughout the text.

When they find a clue in the text, have your adolescents stop and ask themselves the following questions to identify the theme:

  • What is the underlying idea in the story that could apply to anyone?
  • Is there a universal value (e.g., love, honesty, loyalty, sacrifice, fairness, forgiveness) that connects multiple characters or events?
  • Is there a lesson the reader is supposed to learn?

In addition, this resource contains a graphic organizer in which students can record the themes and textual details. As your adolescents independently read a text, be sure to periodically check the information they record on the Theme Development Tracker and ask your adolescents to describe how they identified the themes and details. It is especially important to check that the themes your adolescents identify are general messages the author is communicating to the reader, rather than statements about the text itself. If the theme includes information specific to the text, ask your adolescents to revise the theme to reflect a general message that could apply to many different situations.

With practice, adolescents can improve their ability to identify themes and related textual details and apply these skills to new texts, supporting their understanding of the text’s meaning (Fagella-Luby et al., 2007).

Supplemental Materials for Families

PDF iconTheme Development Tracker

Adolescents can use this resource to identify themes in literary texts and record textual details that introduce and develop the themes.

References

Boon, R. T., Paal, M., Hintz, A. -M., & Cornelius-Freyre, M. (2015). A review of story mapping instruction for secondary students with LD. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 13, 117–140.

Fagella-Luby, M., Schumaker, J. S., & Deshler, D. D. (2007). Embedded learning strategy instruction: Story-structure pedagogy in heterogeneous secondary literature classes. Learning Disability Quarterly, 30, 131–147. https://doi.org/10.2307/30035547

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). English language arts standards – anchor standards – College and career readiness standards for reading. http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/CCRA/R/

Stetter, M. E., & Hughes, M. T. (2010). Using story grammar to assist students with learning disabilities and reading difficulties improve their comprehension. Education & Treatment of Children, 33, 115–151. https://doi.org/10.1353/etc.0.0087


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