Friday, March 24, 2017

The Reading Strategies Book Study - Goal #7

Supporting Comprehension in Fiction:  Understanding Theme and Ideas

by Jen Burton

This goal brings me back to my roots as a teacher and coach. Some of the first work I did with teachers as a coach was collaborating around how to teach theme. Our "go to" resource was the Comprehension Toolkit. Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis' work inspired me to teach these skills through authentic reading experiences and the importance of letting our students in on our reading process, so we can provide them with strategies in how they can too can do this work to go deeper in their thinking. I was thrilled to see that Jen referenced this work in her introduction for this strategy.
Below are five lessons, and the prompts, that are key in supporting students in understanding theme and the big ideas in a text.

Lesson 7.12 Digging Deeper to Find a Story's Topic

When thinking about theme there are a couple ways to get after it. You may be reading along and you just have a gut feeling about what the theme is for that text. THEN you go back and find evidence to support this theme. This is represented in Lesson 7.12, "Dig Deeper to Find a Story's Topics" with "Maybe it's..." in referring to the theme or topic. It's interesting to me that these are called "topics." Jen suggests that naming these topics are a great starting point, but that we should expect students to state the theme in a whole sentence. She gives the example, "You can create your own family by surrounding yourself with people who love you" instead of just, "family." This makes me wonder and want to clarify then, what is the difference between a theme and a thesis statement? In the past we've talked about a theme being one word and a thesis statement being a whole sentence or thought. Maybe the thesis statement is more tied to the specific text?

I think it's helpful that there is an anchor story identified for each theme/topic.
Themes Harry Potter Characters Taught Us


  • Can you think of one word that fits with this story?
  • Think about the character's problem. If you said it in one word, what would it be?
  • Check the chart of words that are common topics in books. Do any fit with this one?
  • Explain your thinking.
  • You might say, "I think it could be ________ (topic) because _______."
  • Think about how the story ends. What's the last thing you're left thinking about.

Lesson 7.4 What Can Characters Teach Us?

Or you may look over the evidence that you've collected, and that leads you to a theme. Lesson 7.4 "What Can Characters Teach Us?" gestures towards that kind of work. I like how the characters name is in the middle of the web with the evidence from the text, connected to theme words or topics, are all around. Then have students do some "long and strong" writing about the main theme. I think you could also have a theme word in the middle, and have evidence, just for that theme, around. Then students "write long and strong" about that theme. Jen also talks about how we want our students to notice multiple themes in a story, not just the dominant theme.
  • Find a spot where the characters shows a good trait.
  • How would you describe how the character is acting here?
  • What can the character teach you?
  • What are you learning from this character?
  • You can try saying, "______ taught me that if ______, you should ______."
  • You can try, " _______ is acting like _______, so I'm learning _______."
  • Think about that trait. What can you learn?

Lesson 7.2 The Difference Between Plot and Theme

Jen gives a hat tip here to Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement by Harvey & Goudvis. This is basically the lesson I had done when I was first working with this strategy. This double entry journal allows you to combine both approaches from above. You may fill in the "theme" column first, as it just hits you. Or maybe you've collected evidence of the important events in the story and then you infer a theme from that evidence.
  • What's happening?
  • What's most important in all you just told me?
  • What is your idea about what's happening?
  • What else do you think is a possible big idea from the story?
There are two other lessons that I can't leave out as we talk about helping students identify theme:

Lesson 7.1 Notice a Pattern and Give Advice

Both of the above strategies are more aligned with higher levels of text. I like lesson 7.1 Notice a Pattern and Give Advice because it makes this thinking work accessible for our youngest readers. I love the visuals! It makes it soooooo simple, getting right to the heart of what theme is all about. In order for a big idea to be a theme you should be able to find a pattern of evidence to support that theme (CCSS R.1 & R.3). And it is connected to a life lesson or central lesson (CCSS R.2).
  • What does the character do over and over?
  • What's the pattern here?
  • What would you tell the character?
  • Give advice.
  • Start with, "You should ______."

Lesson 7.18 Character Change Can Reveal Lessons

We know how important it is for our students to identify how a character has changed across a story. I think connecting that work to this bigger work in Lesson 7.18 "Character Change Can Reveal Lessons?" makes it more meaningful. It's grounded in "What do you notice?" "Now push your thinking, what does that mean?" "Why is it important?"
Here's a video of Jennifer Serravallo in a "Research-Decide-Teach" conference around this goal.

  • What were you thinking about in the beginning of the book?
  • What were you thinking about at the end of the book?
  • Who is this character as a person?
  • What did the character learn?
  • Think about what has happened.
  • When I am trying to look for bigger ideas, I try this, "Even though _______, you should ________."
  • Are you saying ________, what kind of person would do that?
  • Yes, that is an idea about you, not from the book.
The work of this goal is what I might call our end game as teachers and readers. It makes me think of the Comprehension Continuum. To reach towards the loftier end of this continuum we ask, "How has what I read changed me as a reader?" and "Now that I know this, how can I change the world?" This work of inferring theme allows us to begin to answer those questions.
I also like how Jen talks about the work of this goal as using multiple skills. We are not just inferring, but also determining importance and synthesizing. It gets to the idea that it's not about one skill or strategy, but that ultimately we want our students to use strategies flexibly to get to deeper meaning in a text and impact their lives and others!
A tool we've been using to help our students go deep with their thinking and evaluate their own work are micro-progressions from Kate & Maggie Beattie Robert's DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence.

Here's a video from Teachers College using a micro-progression with theme:
I was thinking that at the end of our book study we could celebrate with a Twitter Chat. We'll have a combination of a slow chat and a regular chat on April 6th, the day after our book study ends. So this means we can post all day to #TheReadingStrategiesBook. Then at 6pm CST I'll host a regular Twitter Chat. That way we can interact live. Hope you can join in! It would be great to connect.


  1. Love this post, Jen! And, I love the idea of celebrating with a Twitter chat! Will definitely be there.

    I always approach theme as the author's message or the big idea that you may be able to apply to your life, not just to the story you are reading. So, I also start with topic. What is this story mostly about? Or, what are the topics (there could be several) that this story is mostly about? So, for example, family and friendship. From there, the theme needs to be a life lesson of sorts that the author wants to teach us about the topic, which can only be stated in a sentence.

    I like saying, "maybe this is about.." or "maybe the main character is feeling...because..." We need to teach children to think tentatively so that they can then explore their ideas further through the text. Although this language may be new to kids, it gives them a certain level of confidence so that they just give-it-a-go without feeling unsure and unwilling to take a risk.

    1. I agree about having children think tentatively throughout the text as their ideas become more concrete is a must. Giving them the language is definitely the way to help support them.

      Crofts' Classroom

  2. Great post Jen! I am excited about the Twitter chat! You should definitely post about it in the Facebook group. Can I take the image and start posting it on the book study posts?

    On to theme...
    This is such a hard oncept for some students. No matter the reading level some students are able to catch right on to the theme of a text and some just struggle. I love the strategies in this section and plan on using them starting the week after next, because we will be reviewing theme.

    I love the strategy 7.4 - What Can Characters Teach Us? The web is brilliant. And I like your idea of having the word in the middle and then the text evidence around the outside. I am definitely using this idea.

    Crofts' Classroom

  3. Thanks, Elisa! I agree too. It's so important that we create an environment that is safe for our students to take risks, and giving them language that supports that is a good idea! Your comment makes me want to be more intentional in doing that.

  4. Glad you found it helpful, Tina. Theme is chelkenging, but these lessons do make it accessible for our students. I love how Jen makes reading skills and strategies so explicit.

    I've noticed the most challenging part of identifying theme, especially for English learners, is the vocabulary and the nuance between some of the different topics for themes. I think the best way to build that vocabulary is collecting those topics as we read different book together as a class, building those shared experiences, like in lesson 7.12.

  5. I love love love Character Change Can Reveal Lessons (7.18) so much! This is where our fluent readers has the opportunity to "kick their comprehension up a notch" and really read in a deeper and more meaningful manner. I've used this strategy multiple times throughout the year as I'm working with a couple of 4th graders who are reading at higher levels, but are missing the deep thinking that will really help them get the most out of their reading!

    Such a great post Jen! I'm looking forward to joining in on the Twitter Chat at the end of the book study!

  6. I have a grade 2/3 class and I have sort of stayed in the front of the book. I can see how some of the lessons you highlight here would actually help us with some of our early explorations about characters, and their motives and actions. I should have checked to the end of the book sooner!

    1. I was surprised at how Jen made this work accessible for our youngest learners! Hope you can us for the Twitter Chat.

  7. I agree this strategy can take comprehension to the next level. So glad you're in for the Twitter Chat!