Theme presents a new challenge for transitional readers. It's not enough to just read the words and figure out who did what to whom in the story. Now they need to synthesize everything from the story to come up with a deeper meaning. For students who are just beginning to think abstractly, this is a tough task.
Students can have several problems with finding theme. At first, many students try to talk about theme by using characters and events from the plot. After all, teachers say, "Use specific details!" These students are confusing theme with summarizing. Students also tend to confuse "theme" with "moral". Many stories, especially fables, have morals. But a moral is not quite the same as a theme. When authors write a story with a clear moral, there is an underlying assumption of right and wrong, and the author clearly wants the reader to do something. Theme is more open to interpretation, and doesn't have as much of an action component.
Here are some things that I do to help students learn about themes:
Universal Themes Chart: Give students a list of common themes. Then, they can try to match stories to the themes. I've had students return to this chart again and again as they read new books throughout the year.
Classroom themes chart: Use a long roll of paper and write themes across the top. Then, students can write titles that they've read (or titles from a class reading list) under the appropriate themes. The same title may appear under different themes, launching a good discussion. I love to hear students talking to each other about books that they have read and the themes they show. Students can write the titles of appropriate movies, also.
Great books for teaching theme: It's so sad that picture books go out of print so quickly! I love Mole and the Baby Bird, which you might be able to find at your local library. Pumpkins, which is still in print, is a lovely little story with an easy to recognize theme. Older students have enjoyed Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting and The Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff.
Theme in different genres: Help students to see that biographies, poems, and stories can all express themes. It's eye-opening for students to see how two texts from different genres and with different topics can express the same themes.
Questions about theme: These can bring about interesting conversations.
-Can a story have more than one theme? Why or why not?
-Can a story have a theme that the author didn't intend?
-Are there stories that don't have themes? What are they like?
Theme Powerpoint: I'm trying to make my Powerpoints shorter. :) Here is one that I made to be a very simple introduction to theme.
In this resource from TeachersPayTeachers, you can find three stories, lesson plans, and activities to help your readers in grades 3-6 work with theme.