Common Core Standards: ELA
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.
Breakin’ it Down
This standard asks readers to do three things:
1. Identify themes.
2. Analyze how these themes are developed.
3. Summarize the text.
Notes on Theme
Many readers would define theme as the life lesson or moral of the text. Love is blind. There are no winners in war. We tend to think of theme as those words of wisdom parents try to pass on while teenagers roll their eyes. However, in advanced texts, the themes are usually more complicated than a catchy life lesson and a single text often deals with more than one theme. The old “moral of the story” definition can get students into trouble here.
What should you do about this? Well, at this level, it may be helpful to think about theme as the idea or question that the author is trying to shed some light on. The text may not make a single, well-defined statement about love or war, but you can bet that it does illuminate some aspect of those big ideas. Rather than hunting for a clichéd life lesson, ask students to identify what universal ideas are being examined. By eleventh and twelfth grades, students are expected to craft original and more nuanced theme statements.
Notes on Analysis
Once students have identified a theme, they’ll need to be able to discuss how that theme is developed in the text. Students will need to examine literary elements such as extended metaphors, symbolism, and motifs and show how these elements reveal the theme. They’ll need to connect the plot and the characters’ motivations and realizations to the theme. Basically, students at this level should be able to provide an in-depth analysis that demonstrates how the theme is woven into each aspect of the text. Get out the microscopes because this standard requires an up-close-and-personal reading of the text.
Keep reading for our handy ideas on moving students to progressively higher levels of thinking:
NOVICE: Find a more obvious or common theme.
1. Look for motifs during reading.
Motif (n.) – a repeated idea, object or situation
Example: family conflicts, love, money, etc.
2. Track how characters react to the repeated topics, the decisions they make relating to those topics, or the conflicts that arise because of those situations. This is the part of the standard that asks students to “provide an objective summary of the text.” They can’t find the theme if they can’t summarize the intricacies of the plot.
3. Based on the characters’ choices and the outcomes of the plot, decide what the author is trying to highlight or say about each topic.
INTERMEDIATE: Find themes connected to extended metaphors or symbolic objects.
You mean that mirror isn’t just a mirror? Great authors often connect complex themes to objects or symbols in the text. If an author is repeating images of, say, masks or birds or mirrors, you can bet it isn’t by accident. Great readers should be able to identify these symbols and discuss how they point toward a theme.
1. Look for repeated objects or events.
Examples: flowing water, wintertime, emptiness, flight
2. Brainstorm a list of qualities or ideas associated with the objects or events.
Example: Flight might be related to freedom, hope, leaving home, or the ability to see everything below you.
3. Find characters, plot events, or situations in the text that are similar to the ideas brainstormed in step 2.
4. Craft a theme statement that ties together the symbols, the big ideas, and the plot/characters. The key to a nuanced theme statement is to avoid clichés and try not to include the words you or your.
Example: Throughout the novel, the author uses images of suffering and dying birds as each character leaves the prison to suggest that freedom and hope are not possible after long terms of imprisonment.
ALL-STAR: Hidden meanings and multiple answers.
Remember when we said that advanced texts usually can’t be boiled down to one definitive theme statement? At the highest level, students should be able to pull a text apart and discuss multiple possible interpretations of the big ideas at play. Ask students to pinpoint an object, idea, or symbol that can lead to two different interpretations of the theme and challenge them to explore both possibilities. Here’s an example for a novel that ends with descriptions of spring/rebirth:
Interpretation 1: The images of springtime that are noticed by the mother but not the daughter symbolize that cycles of pain will continue to be passed to new generations who do not see the possibilities for healing.
Interpretation 2: The images of springtime and the frequent descriptions of fruit-bearing plants surrounding the mother and daughter symbolize that families will continue to heal and grow after periods of intense pain.
Hint: Now hit Standard 1 again and ask them to support each interpretation with evidence from the text.
Teach With Shmoop
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Using this Standard
- 1984 Teacher Pass
- A Raisin in the Sun Teacher Pass
- A Rose For Emily Teacher Pass
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Teacher Pass
- Animal Farm Teacher Pass
- Antigone Teacher Pass
- Beowulf Teacher Pass
- Brave New World Teacher Pass
- Fahrenheit 451 Teacher Pass
- Fences Teacher Pass
- Frankenstein Teacher Pass
- Hamlet Teacher Pass
- Heart of Darkness Teacher Pass
- Macbeth Teacher Pass
- Moby Dick Teacher Pass
- Narrative of Frederick Douglass Teacher Pass
- Of Mice and Men Teacher Pass
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Teacher Pass
- Othello Teacher Pass
- Romeo and Juliet Teacher Pass
- The Aeneid Teacher Pass
- The As I Lay Dying Teacher Pass
- The Bluest Eye Teacher Pass
- The Canterbury Tales General Prologue Teacher Pass
- The Cask of Amontillado Teacher Pass
- The Catch-22 Teacher Pass
- The Catcher in the Rye Teacher Pass
- The Crucible Teacher Pass
- The Great Gatsby Teacher Pass
- The House on Mango Street Teacher Pass
- The Iliad Teacher Pass
- The Metamorphosis Teacher Pass
- The Odyssey Teacher Pass
- The Old Man and the Sea Teacher Pass
- The Tell-Tale Heart Teacher Pass
- Their Eyes Were Watching God Teacher Pass
- Things Fall Apart Teacher Pass
The Daily Grind: Teaching the Standard
We recommend that students keep a Motif Tracker as they read a longer text. For the time-strapped teacher, you can quickly create a basic table template for students to fill in like the one below. Or you can support the local mini-mart economy and encourage students to keep reading notebooks with sections for different motifs.
Sample Motif Tracker and student response:
MOTIF: Love/ Romance
|Page #||Quote relating to the motif||Characters decisions/conflicts/plot change because of the motif|
|2||"Without realizing it, her heart had melted and she was finding herself playing a dangerous game of flirtation with the handsome young man."||Elly makes dangerous choices because of love. Elly also has no control over falling in love. It surprises her.|
By the time students enter college English classes, they will need to independently identify motifs and themes in texts as they slam down espressos and burn the midnight oil. A motif tracker is a great training exercise for this.
For your advanced students, ask them to build the motif trackers themselves as they notice patterns in the text. Shmoop tip of the day: Colored sticky notes are a great way to keep track of multiple motifs in a text if students can’t write in the book. And who doesn’t love color-coded sticky notes?
Another great way to prepare students for this standard is to choose at least one text every year that has an allegorical meaning. This forces students to analyze complex messages that are subtly woven into texts.
Allegory: a story in which characters, events, and ideas represent or critique events outside the text (frequently allegories have a political or social message).
Possible allegories to read with your class:
- Lord of the Flies
- The Crucible
- Animal Farm
- Heart of Darkness
- “A Rose for Emily”