Teaching Kids to Interpret Theme -- You Really Can Teach Comprehension

  • theme
  • 10 July, 2016

Blast from the Past: This entry posted initially on July 10, 2016 and was reposted on June 18, 2022. This blog explores how to teach an aspect of reading comprehension that most teachers have no idea how to teach. It provides an example drawn from the Common Core standards. This might seem out of date since some states have withdrawn from those requirements (or were never part of them) – however, I did a quick check of the states that have made a big deal of not having CCSS standards… all of them (e.g., Florida, Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska, Arizona, Oklahoma, Indiana, South Carolina) require the teaching of theme in literature. That makes this blog as important now as it was then -- all 50 states require teachers to teach kids to identify theme in literature. However, these days more and more teachers are buying into the idea that knowledge is the key to reading comprehension and are failing to teach kids how to do things like think about and analyze literature. Big mistake – and one that runs counter to the “science of reading.” The instructional approach described here is very effective across the grades. Give it a try and you'll see what I mean.

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). The kids may empathize or identify with one literary character, while the teacher focuses on another. Then, when the kids identify the story theme based on the character that drew their attention, they get graded down for interpreting the text differently than their teacher. 

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. 

Character Change Chart


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

Timothy Shanahan Jun 18, 2022 02:14 PM

You can do those other strategies (I especially like the one in which you watch for repetitions)... however, one of the benefits of what i described is you can get a richer picture of the text by looking at the changes of multiple characters -- they don't all change in the same way.


Timothy Shanahan Jun 18, 2022 02:16 PM

EK- It is pretty rare in a good piece of literature that no one changes or learns anything. It can happen, but typically in primitive literature that kids don't need to think very deeply about. For instance, in Aesop's fables characters don't learn anything (but we do, because he tells us the theme in the form of a moral -- it would be a particularly dense reader who had trouble getting those themes on their own).


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?

Melissa Fiesser Jun 18, 2022 11:52 AM

Theme- it helps us make connections to other texts and learn more about ourselves. Theme provides insight into the author’s purpose. Without a good purpose, why would any author choose to write a text for others to enjoy?

Sarah Tantillo Jun 18, 2022 12:43 PM

Hi, Dr. Shanahan--Thanks for reminding folks about this important skill, and you are correct that many teachers teach how to DEFINE "theme" but not how to INFER it. I also agree that character changes provide one door into theme. I also came up with another tool, which I wrote about in my book LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE: Recipes for Action, and blogged about here:

Here's a quick summary:

1. What TOPICS/ISSUES does this text deal with? List as many as you can think of.
(Ex: How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is about SELFISHNESS.)

2. What QUESTIONS does the author raise about these topics/issues? Pick 1-2 topics to focus on. (Ex.: Why are people selfish? What are the consequences of selfishness? How can people overcome selfishness?)

3. What MESSAGE(S) does the author convey about your selected topic/issue?
(Ex.: People can overcome selfishness with love from the people around them.)

Katie Stewart Jun 18, 2022 11:35 AM

Hi, Dr. Shanahan! I love this post. This is some thing that my colleagues and I have talked a lot about. I have not taught theme as being tied to character change, so that is something I will start doing. I have typically taught students that they can look for an idea that shows up again and again (motif) and then ask themselves what the text is teaching them about that idea. I'm sure I pick this up from a Lucy Caulkins lesson, but I also see your strategy in the notice and note work (Beers & Probst). Would you classify what you offer here as a partner strategy, or some thing that might even be more valuable than what I am doing. Theme really is so tricky!


EK Jun 18, 2022 11:39 AM

What if a character hasn’t changed? The character remains the same like in The Empty Pot. The people around him notice him at the end, but he hadn’t changed. I agree that teaching theme needs lots of instruction but it isn’t solely based on the change in the main character. Thoughts?

Peter Dewitz Jun 20, 2022 05:42 PM

You might look at the work of Joanna Williams who developed a program to teach second graders to infer the theme. She used a similar graphic organizer, but one with a more elaborated set of questions to guide the thinking of the students. It is easily replicated at higher grade levels. Williams, J. P., Lauer, K. D., Hall, K. M., Lord, K. M., Gugga, S. S., Bak, S. J., ... & deCani, J. S. (2002). Teaching elementary school students to identify story themes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(2), 235.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 20, 2022 07:20 PM


That work was very interesting, but if you remember, she didn't successfully teach kids to identify theme. Her approach didn't work. When I presented this to her after those attempts, she was very supportive of my approach.


Cristina Jun 21, 2022 02:21 PM

Hi Tim:
Thank you for reposting. It's always interesting to revisit these topics as teaching strategies and philosophies swing back and forth. You said something in your introduction that I wonder if you would elaborate on: "However, these days more and more teachers are buying into the idea that knowledge is the key to reading comprehension and are failing to teach kids how to do things like think about and analyze literature."
Can you elaborate a little on what you mean by "knowledge is the key to reading comprehension"? Do you mean the current research and school of thought that suggests that cross-content reading take center stage rather than a balanced approach that includes literary analysis (appropriate to the grade, of course)?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 22, 2022 01:25 PM

A big part of comprehension (reading or otherwise) is making connections and filling in blanks that the author isn't explicit about. You do that kind of thing when you watch a television show or movie -- characters are in a building in one scene, and in the next they are on airplane (your knowledge of the world allows you to fill in the gaps and make the connections -- these are the same characters, this must be later than in the first scene, they were upset so I think they are going some place to deal with what was bothering them, etc. Comprehension depends on a great deal of this kind of knowledge (and if you are reading science or history there is academic knowledge that can help reduce the reading demands (if I already know who George Washington is I don't need to spend as much time on the second paragraph, I can focus on the third and fourth that have new (to me) information.

Although knowledge matters folks these days are overdoing it (they dismiss teaching vocabulary, sentence structure, cohesion, text organization, strategies that get students to focus on particular information or to process the text in ways that facilitate building memory for the information in the text) -- despite the science supporting such teaching. Definitely teach science, social studies, and the arts and have kids, in reading class, read texts with information worth knowing (including literary text), but don't believe that if kids memorize a list of facts about anything that there reading is going to improve (beyond, possibly, a text focused on those specific facts).


Ani Jun 18, 2022 03:43 PM

For me, using the Universal Themes and Generalizations has been a useful tool.

Angela Flowers Still Jun 18, 2022 06:11 PM

Hi. I appreciate the honesty expressed throughout this article and comments. Teaching is showing, not just telling. Unfortunately, theme is only one of several challenging concepts to teach explicitly. I’m my experience teachers have even struggled with how to explicitly teach “main idea” to elementary students. There isn’t always a topic sentence. I would enjoy reading different perspectives on how to teach these two different but complex concepts in a step by step format. There are so many steps involved that each need their own “how to.”

Melissa Loftus Jun 18, 2022 07:26 PM

Isn't part of what makes teaching these "skills" so difficult that every text is different? I love Dr. Shanahan's idea about looking at how characters change, but as others mentioned, there may be other things to look at (repetitions, conflicts, etc.) to determine the theme depending on the text. Same with the main idea, as Angela points out, you can't always find the main idea by looking for a topic sentence. I think it's important that we show students many options for how to determine these big ideas from texts, and tell students that it will differ depending on the text. Also, I just wanted to note that I am a big believer in building knowledge through texts, and the science of reading, and definitely still believe that teachers need to explicitly teach students how to analyze texts, especially as they get more complex! Thank you all for this great conversation.

Janine Van Stelle Haded Jun 18, 2022 12:50 PM

Characterizarion is one intersecting story element that students can identify and also use to determine a there. Conflict is another. Offering instruction that shows students how to identify characterization (through characters' thought/feelings, dialogue, actions, and effect on others) and how to identify conflict (problems/struggles, thwarted desires/roadblocks, etc.), as well as how to analyze micro and macro setting choices (where are conflict and actions occurring) all help students dissect author craft and ask why is the author doing this. Having students attempt to do this in their own writing helps solidify these comprehension-via-analysis techniques. Requiring text-based answers further builds the comprehension. This explicit "learn to notice" reading strategies instruction has improved narrative and lyrical reading comprehension for my middle school students and has improved their narrative and lyrical writing. Now I am trying to build a similar skill set for nonfiction reading and expositora writing. Thank you sharing research and organizing your content in ways that have meaningfully impacted my instruction!

Dr. William Conrad Jun 18, 2022 09:56 PM

Hello Tim,

While I truly respect your lifelong commitment to making science-based reading research accessible to teachers in practical ways, I must tell you that you published this blog on the cusp of Juneteenth! We needed a picture of Black children and family members readi ng together. No?

Gail Jun 18, 2022 11:55 PM

MANY Thanks Tim,
I'm happy to see that you have posted that teaching thinking strategies is within The Science of Reading, and for comprehension that's important. There seem to be many sources, online and offline, that now believe that knowledge (teaching vocabulary) is the ONLY important thing for comprehension according to The Science of Reading. Given my doctoral study in Question-Answering teaches concepts as well as cognitive strategies (thinking steps) - it's nice to have some credible support for my work. Even though is is evidence-based, any teaching of such cognitive strategies seems to be suddenly "not fashionable"?

Marilyn Zecher Jun 19, 2022 01:19 AM

Your chart is pretty much the same thing I was given at the college level in the 1980's. I have used it with children for many years. I find that graphic organizers -especially those which promote reasoning - are great for getting students to examine the human condition through literature. I especially like using short stories because the students get more practice. This can also be useful in examining film and films based on short stories. Richard Wright's Almos' a Man is a great example.

Mat Jun 19, 2022 02:31 AM

I always enjoy your Blasts from the Past Tim!

I also want to mention your article that you co-wrote with your wife on Character Perspective Charting (https://www.jstor.org/stable/20201844) as I have found this story tracking method helpful for students to identify theme. In that article you suggest an alternative to story maps that are commonly used well and instead added some more questions. The idea is that by asking more questions about the tension that takes place in the story it's more likely to lead us to think about the theme. Here are the questions that Tim and Sherrell suggested:

Setting: Where and when does the story take place?

Problem: What is this character’s problem?

Goal: What is this character’s goal? What does the character want?

Attempt: What does this character do to solve the problem or reach the goal?

Outcome: What happened as a result of the attempt?

Reaction: How does the character feel about the outcome?

Theme: What point did the author want to make?

MARIANNE MCCORMICK Jun 19, 2022 01:31 PM

Mr. Shanahan,

What about static characters? I am thinking of the Kite Runner, and how Hassan and Assef act as a foils for Amir's changes and these contrasting characters explore the struggle between good and evil. So aren't static characters there for a purpose too and shouldn't we teach how they function?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 20, 2022 05:19 AM

There are two reasons that characters are static. One is that the text is trivial (think about many television sitcoms, especially those aimed at kids). The other is the kind of circumstance that you are describing -- that the character is used as a ground against which the changes in the other figures can be compared or measured.


Fiona Walker Jun 20, 2022 03:52 AM

Thank you, thank you! I worry about the contemporary maginalising of fiction/literature in favour of a 'knowledge-based curriculum'. This blog entry is very helpful and practical.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 20, 2022 05:13 AM

I worry about that, too. We need to recognize that literary heritage is an important part of our "real world knowledge" and that reading teachers, though they need to teach kids to read texts focused on science, history, and the arts, have a special responsibility for teaching literature (since there are other classes and often other teachers which and who also address those information focused subjects). Although literature can range from the frivolous to the classical, content texts may include not just the valuable but the trivial.


Debbie Wells Aug 29, 2023 03:42 AM

It might be useful to have a literature class/period in elementary schools.

I remember when literature based basals came about. Excerpts or rewritten versions? What skills can we pull from this text?

So much reading instruction focuses on mastering skills. That matters - and, of course, students develop expectations for what counts as reading.

With a dedicated literature time, teachers and students could approach the text in new ways. The novel as a work if art - to be appreciated, interpreted, analyzed and enjoyed. And comprehended.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Teaching Kids to Interpret Theme -- You Really Can Teach Comprehension


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.