Areas of Expertise


Adolescent Literacy

Reading Strategies

Strategy: Theme Search
Dr. Timothy Shanhan, University of Illinois, Chicago


Theme Search is a strategy that helps students determine the theme of a narrative story by determining the changes that a main character goes through as a result of a crisis. In order to use this strategy, a text must be selected that describes how a character changes from the beginning until the end of the story. It is also important that this strategy not be used until the students have become skilled in identifying character traits.

Dr. Shanahan has designed a graphic organizer to be used with the strategy. In the first box, students are asked to “Describe the main character at the beginning of the story.” Next to that is a second box that asks the reader to “Describe the main character at the end of the story.” Beneath the boxes is a triangular shape in which students are to describe the “Crisis”…what event/s caused the main character to change. Below this, space is provided for a description of the “Theme.” This is explained in terms of what changes occurred during the story that directly reflect what the main character learned by going through this experience.


  1. Teach selects narrative text.
  2. Students are given an appropriate time frame in which to read the story.
  3. Students complete the above-described graphic organizer. In the beginning, it is advisable that this task be completed either in a whole or small group setting. As students become more familiar with the task, the graphic organizer can be completed individually.
  4. The class shares their graphic organizers.

Examples: This example is provided by Dr. Timothy Shanahan:

Text: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Describe main character at the beginning of the story.
Main character is Brian. Character traits: concerned about parentsí divorce, brought up in city, terrified, unfamiliar with survival skills, tense, hopeless, feels only despair.

Describe the main character at the end of the story.
Characteristic traits: observant, thoughtful, fascinated by food, determined to live, knew he would never be the same, confident, resourceful.

Brian is a lone passenger in a plane that crashes in the isolated north woods in Canada. The pilot dies, and Brian, a "city boy" must learn to survive.

Survival and power to survive; confidence in self; adjustment to life; independence; maturity.



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