What’s the big idea? Identify themes in texts

In this article, I take a brief look at supporting children to identify themes in texts.

The National Curriculum asks that children in Year 5 and Year 6 identify and discuss themes and conventions in writing. But what are themes?Themes are not the plot and they are not the genre. Instead, themes are the underlying messages that exist beneath the words written on the page. They are the big ideas that the author is trying to convey to the reader. Note how I say beneath the words written on the page. Themes are not necessarily explicit and they are conveyed by writers through the words and actions of characters as they respond to the situations in which they find themselves. I’ll say it again, beneath the words on the page – it sounds a bit like read between the lines that age old phrase that we use when asking children to infer meaning. And therein lies part of the problem. Identifying the theme in writing requires inference skills and we all know how hard those are to teach.

National Curriculum: Year 5/6 Reading comprehension p.44

Some popular themes in children’s literature are friendship, determination and bravery. These are big ideas and ones inherently bound in notions of emotional intelligence. They are ideas that require an emotional lexicon; something that so many children struggle to access. So how can we help? Certainly, we need to talk about the themes in the books we read and encourage children to identify them. Simply asking, “What’s the theme in this book?” is unlikely to reveal much joy. However, providing children with a range of common themes and asking if any are present in a text is likely to be more successful. Our Primary English Theme Tokens have been produced for just this purpose. These are a collection of common themes in children’s literature for children to colour in and then discuss with friends. There are also spaces for children to add themes they may have identified that are not included in the resource.

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