I like reading children’s books to my children for enjoyment. However, many well-written picture books have a central theme that runs throughout the plot of the story. When I was teaching my upper graders about theme, I often used picture books. After all, the illustrations and fun stories helped me engage my students in the lesson. Here are a few tips on teaching theme with picture books.
What is a theme?
Students should know that a theme is the central idea that is demonstrated throughout the story. Often times, a character (or the reader) learns a lesson that supports the theme. Common themes in picture books are honesty, acceptance, kindness, generosity, courage, humility, patience, perseverance, friendship and loyalty. Before finding a theme in a text, it’s important to talk about what character traits or actions would support each theme. For instance, a book with the theme of greed might involve a situation where a character kept wanting more and more.
Using Evidence to Support Text
After reading the book for enjoyment, my class and I always went back through the text, came up with a theme (or two) and then looked through the text to find evidence to support our claims.
For instance, Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss is a great story to teach the theme of greed, or for older students, the dangers of a dictatorship. Evidence to support that Yertle is greedy might include: Yertle was the ruler of Sala-ma-Sond. He stepped on top of his “subjects” in his pond so that he could have a higher throne. He wanted to be above everyone and everything. Yertle wanted so much that his throne was too high. As a result, a small burp made the tower of turtles fall. This evidence also serves to help summarize the book.
Students should be able to make a conclusion about the story. Did the character, or the reader, learn a lesson? For instance: In the end, Yertle’s greed caused him to end up falling into the mud and being the ruler of nothing.
Great Books to Teach Theme
Besides Yertle the Turtle, other great books to teach theme are:
The Sweetest Fig by Chris Van Allsburg (Themes: Greed, Selfishness)
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (Themes: Generosity, Love)
Mr. Peabody’s Apples by Madonna (Theme: Gossiping is Harmful)
Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson (Theme: Friendship, Giving)
Of course, most books have more than one theme. If your students can support it with evidence then, they should go for it.
Common Core Standards
Determining the theme of a story is part of many grade level common core standards including:
ELA-Literacy RL 3.2 “Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.”
ELA-Literacy RL 4.2 “Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.”
ELA-Literacy RL 5.2 “Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.”
ELA RL Literacy 6.2 “Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.”
Teaching theme with picture books is a fun way to meet grade level standards.
More from Melissa:
How to Encourage Kids to Write
Teaching Tips: Cause and Effect Activities for Kids
Using Children’s Books to Teach Descriptive Writing