Teaching Kids to Interpret Theme: The Limits of Practice

  • Reading comprehension Powerpoints theme
  • 10 July, 2016
  • 4 Comments
  Many years ago my daughter, Meagan, had a homework assignment. Her literature teacher assigned a short story to read and Meagan was to figure out the theme.

 

 

            The theme she came up with: “People do a lot of different things.”

 

 

            Needless to say, it doesn’t matter what the story was, that wasn’t the theme. (Though she was a little surprised that I could know that without even reading it.)

 

 

            “Meagan how do your teachers teach you to figure out theme?”

 

 

            “That’s just it, Dad. They don’t. They tell you what a theme is and I know what  a theme is,  and then when you get the theme wrong they tell you the theme and that is supposed to help you next time. But it doesn’t because that story has a different theme.”

 

 

            My goodness...the same method my teachers had used with me!

 

 

            Practice alone is not likely to teach kids to identify theme. The same could be said for other comprehension “skills.” No matter how often you are asked to do them, you still won’t be able to without some instruction.

 

 

            That’s a problem in lots of schools. Reading comprehension instruction has to give kids opportunities to read and to use the information: to answer questions, to discuss, to source one's writing. But there has to be more to it than that. Instruction should help kids to think about that information more effectively; to remember more if it; to analyze it more deeply.

 

 

            Reading practice is important. But practicing what you don’t know how to do is nonsense.

 

 

            What got me thinking about that was a review of the Common Core standards for reading. Look what kids are supposed to do with theme by high school graduation: “Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.”

 

 

            Man, if we aren’t going to teach kids how to figure out one theme, how will they ever know how to identify multiple themes?

 

 

            I did a quick review of books for teachers on how to teach reading comprehension. It is interesting because, if they mention theme at all, they usually only define it and give some examples. In other words, the same instructional method Meagan described.

 

 

            In good literature, the characters change across the text; the so-called “arc of development.” Wilbur is a different pig by the end of Charlotte’s Web; and the Elizabeth Bennett at the denouement of Pride and Prejudice is not the same acerbic Lizzy that we start with.

 

 

            Kids who can’t tell you a theme, can usually track the changes the characters go through. And, they can tell you whether those changes are good or bad.

 

 

            Theme is wrapped up in those changes—and because the best literature tends to have multiple multi-dimensional characters—characters who grow and learn—a story might have multiple themes. That's what Joanne Golden and John Guthrie reported in 1986 (Reading Research Quarterly). When kids empathize or identify with one literary character, the teacher may feel the same about the other. And, then, when the kids identify a story theme, they get graded down for not getting the right one. 

            We need to teach kids to track character changes across a story, to evaluate the value of those changes, and then to construct a potential lesson or theme based on that information.

 

            Once kids know how to do that, practice is a really good idea. Before they know how to do that, practice can’t help much. 

My ILA 2016 PowerPoint: Reading Sometimes Surprises You

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Unknown
Apr 06, 2017 05:19 PM

Good evening Dr. Shanahan,

Thank your for your insightful blog entry about the over-practice of reading skills without the instruction which I believe many well-meaning educators find themselves doing. You mentioned in your blog that you have read many professional books on reading comprehension that seem to just define theme without explaining to teachers how to truly instruct; do you have any book recommendations for professional development?
Also, you concluded in your ILA PowerPoint slides that reading comprehension tests are not useful for analyzing data. Which data should teachers use to inform their instruction?
I think teachers are trying very hard to help their students but receive contradictory information on how best to guide their students especially in this era of "close reading." I think that our district, in particular, has jumped on this bandwagon and over-emphasized text-dependent questions and have ceased to teach our children how to navigate a text through self-monitoring, questioning, and summarizing. 7/21/16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 06, 2017 05:19 PM

There are many skills tests aimed at determining whether kids know their letter names, can recognize common high frequency words, have phonological awareness skills and phonics skills, and can read fluency. Tests of those kinds of skills are quite useful for shaping instruction and for identifying kids who may need extra tuition in an area of concern.

Reading comprehension itself is a bit more complicated. There are, of course, many standardized reading comprehension tests, including the accountability tests that the states use. These tests will reveal who comprehends well and who does not. However, they will not identify particular comprehension skills, nor do I think such tests ever will. Some comprehension tests are also constructed in a way that would allow you to determine the levels of the texts the students comprehended well and the ones that they did not (Johnny can comprehend texts written at 800 Lexiles, but harder texts were a problem). That's about as well as you will ever do with reading comprehension. 7/23/16

Ericka
Dec 28, 2017 07:29 PM

Theme. I've recently questioned whether or not theme is something readers need to know about, or is it something aspiring writers need to know. Why would a 6th grader need to identify theme to be able to enjoy reading? Same with Plot, Climax, Resolution, etc. Why do I, or any student, ever need to be able to identify these elements of stories other than to help prepare them for a writing career?

I've read and enjoyed hundreds of books in my adult without once ever questioning the theme of the book. I am a real reader, and we want our students to read like real readers do. So, why aren't lessons more in line with what real readers do rather than what testing companies want the to be?

Ericka
Dec 28, 2017 07:29 PM

Theme. I've recently questioned whether or not theme is something readers need to know about, or is it something aspiring writers need to know. Why would a 6th grader need to identify theme to be able to enjoy reading? Same with Plot, Climax, Resolution, etc. Why do I, or any student, ever need to be able to identify these elements of stories other than to help prepare them for a writing career?

I've read and enjoyed hundreds of books in my adult without once ever questioning the theme of the book. I am a real reader, and we want our students to read like real readers do. So, why aren't lessons more in line with what real readers do rather than what testing companies want the to be?

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Teaching Kids to Interpret Theme: The Limits of Practice

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