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Common Core Standards: ELA

Grades 11-12

Reading RL.11-12.2

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.

Example

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 motifCharacters 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”

Quiz Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrickcourtesy of Bartleby Online Texts

    Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,  
    Old Time is still a-flying:
    And this same flower that smiles to-day  
    To-morrow will be dying.

    The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
    The higher he's a-getting,
    The sooner will his race be run,
    And nearer he's to setting.

    That age is best which is the first,
    When youth and blood are warmer;
    But being spent, the worse, and worst
    Times still succeed the former.

    Then be not coy, but use your time,
    And while ye may, go marry:
    For having lost but once your prime,
    You may for ever tarry.

    Which of the following is the BEST theme statement for the poem?

    Correct Answer:

    Appreciate the opportunities of being young before they are gone.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (D). The entire poem is a warning to do everything you can while you are young before the sun sets on your youth and death is fast approaching. Answer (A) is way too literal; the flowers are a symbol in this poem that represents fleeting youth. Heaven is mentioned in the poem, but only as part of a metaphor to describe the cycle of the sun coming and going in the sky, just like a life will come and go. Answer (C) is wrong because the poem praises youth. There’s no accusation of deception or trickery here.


  2. From The Tempest by William Shakespeare

    Master says to his slave:
    Abhorred slave,
    Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
    Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
    Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
    One thing or other […]
    But thy vile race,
    Though thou didst learn” (Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1.2).

    Slave says to his master:
    “You taught me language, and my profit on't is,
    I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
    For learning me your language!" (Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1.2).

    Based on the quotes above, which of the following is a possible theme statement for Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest?

    Correct Answer:

    Knowledge and education give people new forms of power.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (A). The master taught the slave new things, and now the slave is “profiting” and learning how to use this power against his not-so-kind master. Watch out, master, he’s figured out the secret behind those nasty plagues! Answer (B) can’t be right because there’s no evidence of anyone incapable of learning here. Answer (C) is wrong because the master calls his slave “abhorred” and “vile.” No respect there. Answer (D) might seem like a good option, but it’s too broad to explain the message of these quotes. The author is giving us clues about what starts to make the slave more equal to his master—education. This is the idea that the text illuminates.


  3. “We were born on the same day in the same town. Our mothers unknowingly selected the same name. By all accounts, we should have been the closest companions. But the bonds of friendship are strange creatures. They shift and eventually fade like the daylight behind the mountains.”

    “I watched him turn to leave. A cloud of dust formed at his heels. And before I fully understood the implications of his words on the porch, that face that I could have sketched from memory was heading down a path that would never again intersect with mine.”

    Based on the quotes above, the author’s message about friendship is that…

    Correct Answer:

    even the strongest friendships may not stand the test of time.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (A). This is the only answer that connects the idea that appeared in both quotes. In both examples the friendship is breaking down or ending as time progresses even though we know that both sets of characters were close at one time. Answer (B) can’t be right because the first quote shows a friendship that started at birth, yet still faded away. (C) is tricky. In the second quote, we know that one character said something on the porch, but there is no evidence that what he said was angry. There is also no anger mentioned in the first quote.


  4. Excerpt from “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne
    courtesy of: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173387

    As virtuous men pass mildly away,
       And whisper to their souls to go,
    Whilst some of their sad friends do say
       The breath goes now, and some say, No:

    So let us melt, and make no noise,
       No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
    'Twere profanation of our joys
       To tell the laity our love
    […]

    Our two souls therefore, which are one,
       Though I must go, endure not yet
    A breach, but an expansion,
       Like gold to airy thinness beat.
    […]

    Excerpt from “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
    […]

    Which of the following topics is addressed by both poems?

    Correct Answer:

    The way that people should deal with their death.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (B). This is easier to figure out in the first poem where the author refers to passing away. In the second poem, you have to figure out that the “dying of the light” is symbolic for the death of a person. Answer (A) might be the main idea of a home décor blog, but it’s too literal to be the theme of any serious literature. Answers (C) and (D) are possible theme statements for some text, but they aren’t related to these two poems at all.


  5. Which statement is the BEST inference you can make about the speakers of the two poems above?

    Correct Answer:

    Donne’s speaker believes the promise of reuniting with loved ones in the afterlife makes death bearable, while Thomas’s speaker emphasizes that it is natural to fight against the unbearable thought of death until the last breath.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (D). The speaker in first poem argues that death should not be treated as a permanent separation, but the second poem describes the unwillingness of people to accept the end of their great lives and great legacies. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” That’s hardcore. Answer (A) can’t be right because John Donne’s poem says in the first line that good men go ‘mildly’ to death instead of yelling and screaming. Neither poem addresses decision-making. Answer (C) also doesn’t quite hit the mark because the second poem is about frustration that people experience with their own deaths, not those of relatives.


  6. Excerpt from “The Voice” (1849) by Matthew Arnold

    […]
    Strains of glad music at a funeral:—
    So sad, and with so wild a start
    To this long sober’d heart,
    So anxiously and painfully,
    So drearily and doubtfully
    And, oh, with such intolerable change
    Of thought, such contrast strange,
    O unforgotten Voice, thy whispers come,
    Like wanderers from the world’s extremity,
    Unto their ancient home.

    In vain, all, all in vain,
    They beat upon mine ear again,
    Those melancholy tones so sweet and still;
    Those lute-like tones which in long distant years
    Did steal into mine ears:
    Blew such a thrilling summons to my will
    Yet could not shake it:
    Drain’d all the life my full heart had to spill;
    Yet could not break it.

    Which of the following is the BEST theme statement for the poem?

    Correct Answer:

    Even in moments of intense pain and sadness, a strong person’s heart can never be completely broken.

    Answer Explanation:

    The correct answer is (B). Even though the majority of this poem is about the pain and tragedy the heart must endure, the last line reveals the theme that the human heart is strong and will not be broken. If you chose (A) or (C), you missed the end of the poem. Even though the poem deals with sadness and pain, the message in the last line is one of strength, not weakness. We know it’s tempting skim the passage quickly, but make sure you read the entire text before you dive into the questions.


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