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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.

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.

Related Activities

Check out related activities from our guides on Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Tragedy of Macbeth.

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.

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone)
  • ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.5: Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest

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.

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.

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.

How to Teach Students to Incorporate Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in Creative Writing


Introduce the Concepts

Start by explaining the concepts of themes, symbols, and motifs to students. Provide clear definitions and examples of each element and discuss their significance in storytelling.

Read and Analyze Mentor Texts

Select a few mentor texts that exemplify strong usage of themes, symbols, and motifs. Read and analyze these texts as a class, highlighting how the author incorporates these elements to enhance the story. Encourage students to identify and discuss the themes, symbols, and motifs they observe.

Brainstorm Themes

Guide students in brainstorming a list of potential themes that can be explored in their own writing. Encourage them to think about universal ideas, societal issues, or personal experiences that can be explored and developed in their narratives.

Select Symbols and Motifs

Once students have chosen a theme for their writing, help them identify symbols and motifs that can support and enhance the chosen theme. Teach them to select symbols that carry meaning and motifs that can be repeated or developed throughout their stories.

Planning and Drafting

Assist students in planning their creative writing pieces by incorporating the selected themes, symbols, and motifs. Encourage them to create an outline or storyboard that includes specific scenes or moments where these elements will be introduced or developed. Support them in crafting their initial drafts, providing feedback and guidance as needed.

Reflect and Revise

Guide students in reflecting on their writing drafts and revising to strengthen the incorporation of themes, symbols, and motifs. Encourage them to evaluate whether these elements effectively contribute to the depth and meaning of their stories. Provide constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement.

Frequently Asked Questions about Themes Symbols and Motifs

What is a theme in literature?

A theme is a subject or message that an author explores in a piece of literature. It can be a universal idea, such as love or death, or a more specific concept, such as the corrupting influence of power.

What is a motif in literature?

A motif is a recurring symbol, image, or idea that appears throughout a literary work. It may serve as a symbolic representation of a larger theme or idea.

What is a symbol in literature?

A symbol is an object, action, or idea that represents something else, often a larger, more abstract concept. For example, a dove may symbolize peace, or a red rose may symbolize love.

What is the difference between a symbol and a motif?

While both symbols and motifs are recurring elements in a literary work, a symbol is typically a concrete object that represents something abstract, while a motif is an idea or theme that is repeated throughout the work.

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