Five Ways to Discuss Theme with Your Students


When teaching literature in the middle school ELA or high school English classroom, one element students struggle with is the theme. Students struggle with identifying the theme of a story and analyzing how it develops throughout the plot.

Five Ways to Discuss Theme with Your Students

One way to help students learn how to identify the theme of any fictional text is by simply climbing the “ropes”...

ROPES is an acronym that stands for relationships, objective, power, ethics, and strength.

You can pose these questions to your students the next time you are analyzing theme in the classroom.

Use this acronym when teaching theme to your secondary ELA students.

Relationships

How are the protagonist’s relationships with other characters affected as the story progresses? To what extent is the protagonist responsible for these changes? The protagonist’s role in evoking these changes and the significance of the changes themselves will help readers determine whether this story is commenting on the personal, interpersonal, or broader societal realm.

Objective

What is the protagonist’s objective throughout the story? Does it change? Do they achieve it? Determining, monitoring, and evaluating the protagonist’s purpose, or objective, will help readers conclude whatever values the story is either attempting to promote or critique. For example, does the protagonist seek to become filthy rich and then end up utterly destitute? What are the values being promoted or undermined here?


Power

How powerful is the protagonist? Where do they maintain this power or lack thereof? Perhaps, the protagonist remains a domineering force within their own household, yet feels themself to be utterly powerless within the limits of modern society. What are the sources and extent of this power attempting to communicate to us about the way we live and interact? What we desire and fear?

Ethics

What does the protagonist value, in a moral sense? Where do these values come from? Does the author agree with them? Are they innate or socially constructed? How is the author suggesting that we either overcome or preserve these values? Is the reader supposed to agree -- what conventions of “good” and “bad” are being followed?

Strength

Note that strength and power are mutually exclusive terms -- a “strong” person can be quite powerless, and vice versa. That said, is the protagonist identifiable as “strong,” mentally, physically, and emotionally? Does this strength allow them to survive in whatever world they are a part of, or could it hinder their performance in this world (i.e., “Harrison Bergeron”)? Besides the protagonist’s “strength” as a whole, it is essential to evaluate their individual strengths, and whether these confer with the protagonist’s values. If so, then we might be presented with a great moral conflict.

Using one letter of the “ropes” acronym will begin to point your students in the right direction towards determining any theme of a particular story. Using all five of the components will place students on the path of discovering the theme of the story.

Here are some rhetorical analysis teaching resources you may like:
Sticky Note Literary Analysis
Literary Analysis Mini Flip Book
Response to Literature Task Cards
Five Ways to Discuss Theme with Your Students