Reading Between the Lines: Themes, Symbols, & Motifs

By Rebecca Ray

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One of the beautiful things about stories are the underlying lessons, morals, or critiques they contain. Teaching students to identify these hidden messages brings greater depth to their literary experiences.

Storyboarding is a great way to teach the concept of themes, symbols, or motifs. It allow the visuals or symbols to tell the stories, making the ideas easy for students to understand and expound upon. With storyboards, students can reflect abstract ideas in a concrete manner, a useful tool for middle school or high school students.

Create a Storyboard 

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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs Defined

In literature, themes, motifs, and symbols serve a number of purposes. Some convey meanings other than those explicitly in the text. Others help the reader understand motivations of a character or an author’s intended message. Sometimes themes, symbols, or motifs simply paint a picture in the reader’s mind through repetition of imagery.

THEMEThe theme is the subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person's thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic or take-away message.
MOTIFA motif is a distinctive feature or repeating idea in an artistic or literary composition.
SYMBOLA symbol is an object representing, or used for, something else; frequently an emblem, token, or sign, which represents something deeper and more important. It might be a material object representing something immaterial.

Create a Theme Storyboard  

Create a Theme Storyboard  

Our Recommended Lesson Plan

Overview of the Lesson

Students are given a particular theme, symbol, or motif to track throughout the reading of a novel.

Time: Throughout a Unit

Grade Level: 8-12


Students will be able to depict a key theme, symbol, or motif from a work of literature and convey their understanding of its meaning through storyboarding.

  1. Identify examples of a theme, symbol, or motif in fictional text, and interpret its meaning.
  2. Identify the effects of one of the above on the plots of fictional texts.
  3. Demonstrate understanding of symbolism by completing a graphic organizer or visual presentation of the abstract idea.

Requisite Prior Knowledge

Students should be able to understand that objects have deeper meanings, feelings, or emotions associated with them. For example, students should be able to explain the significance of the American flag and list three feelings or emotions that accompany its literal meaning.

Lesson Specific Essential Questions

  1. How can an abstract idea create a deeper meaning?
  2. What are the connotations of a recurring structure in literature?
  3. How do symbols affect my everyday life?

Anticipated Student Preconceptions/Misconceptions

Some students will have trouble thinking abstractly. Many students do not realize that some themes, symbols, or motifs have general or universal meanings.

Common Core State Standards Addressed

Although this lesson can be used for multiple grade levels, the examples below are the Common Core State Standards for grades 9-10. Please see your Common Core State Standards for grade-appropriate strands.

Lesson Details/Procedure

Before Reading

Ask students to complete the worksheet by filling in ideas, emotions, and feelings associated with the images in the storyboard. This will convey that each image has an abstract meaning.

Create a Theme Storyboard  

During Reading

When beginning the novel, the teacher should give each student their own theme, symbol, or motif to track. Students should complete a template storyboard by collecting a direct quote, page number, and explanation of the concept.

Create a Theme Storyboard  

After Reading

Once students have tracked their concept through the novel, they will create their own storyboard. It should visually depict the scene, include a direct quote, and explain its meaning for each chapter. There are completed examples below.

Create a Theme Storyboard  

Create a Theme Storyboard  

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•   (English) Themes, Symbols & Motifs   •   (Español) Temas Símbolos y Motivos   •   (Français) Thèmes Symboles et Motifs   •   (Deutsch) Themen Symbole und Motive   •   (Italiana) Temi Simboli e Motivi   •   (Nederlands) Thema Symbolen en Motieven   •   (Português) Temas Símbolos e Motivos   •   (עברית) סמלי נושאים ומוטיבים   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) الموضوعات الرموز والزخارف   •   (हिन्दी) विषय-वस्तु प्रतीकों और रूपांकनों   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Темы Символы и Мотивы   •   (Dansk) Temaer Symboler og Motiver   •   (Svenska) Teman Symboler och Motiv   •   (Suomi) Teemat Symbolit ja Kuva-aiheet   •   (Norsk) Temaer Symboler og Motiver   •   (Türkçe) Temalar Semboller ve Motifler   •   (Polski) Motywy Symbole i Motywy   •   (Româna) Teme Simboluri și Motifs   •   (Ceština) Témata Symboly a Motivy   •   (Slovenský) Témy Symboly a Motívy   •   (Magyar) Témák Jelképek, Motívumok   •   (Hrvatski) Teme Simboli i Motivi   •   (български) Теми Символи и Мотиви   •   (Lietuvos) Temos Simboliai ir Motyvai   •   (Slovenščina) Teme Simboli in Motivi   •   (Latvijas) Tēmas Simboli un Motīvi   •   (eesti) Teemad Sümbolid ja Motiivid