Learning Through Story: Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

3. Identifying Themes in a Text

Suggested Learning Intentions

  • To explore the concept of theme
  • To consider how language choices can affect the meaning and effect of a text
  • To explore how vocabulary choice contributes to the style and specificity of texts

Sample Success Criteria

  • I can identify a theme in a text and provide evidence to support my views
  • I can identify how authors use language for effect
  • I can experiment with vocabulary choices and assess their potential effects

In the modelling stage of the Teaching and Learning Cycle, the focus shifts from the field of study to the genre being explored. This stage focuses on modelling the way in which language features and structures in literary texts can create tone, and how vocabulary choices can be used for a variety of effects. It is also intended to build on students’ understanding of the concepts of theme, Country, Place, People, Identity and Culture in texts by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors.

If you intend to use the 'Go deeper' phase of this sequence it is recommended that the stimuli you choose in the ‘Get Started’ phase reflect the themes of the essays selected for analysis. The themes of ‘identity’ and ‘kinship’ have been used as an example below.

It is strongly recommended that teachers view all suggested stimulus texts prior to their use to ensure their cultural appropriateness and to enable rich, respectful discussion. For guidance on text selection refer to the Teaching and Learning Resources — Selecting Appropriate Materials policy.

In addition, it is suggested that teachers refer to the guidelines around establishing a safe & culturally respectful classroom in the ‘Before you use this sequence’ section of the resource.

Consider creating a modified Ways Things Can Be Complex concept map for your class before commencing this stage or sequence, which can be revisited as appropriate. The map encourages the consolidation of critical thinking as students’ knowledge of a topic develops.

Thinking about ‘theme’

Provide students with a range of stimuli related to the key themes in ‘Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia’. For example,  ‘You Can’t Ask That: Indigenous’ particularly the question at 12:22-14:27, ABC ME’s ‘What it’s like: being Aboriginal' and an excerpt from the Insight episode ‘Aboriginal or Not’ (for example 18:37-20:24) encourage students to identify themes around identity and kinship. These video resources area available on ClickView (sign in with your department credentials for access). 

The ‘Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia’ teaching notes provide a table that organises the essays in the anthology by theme.  

If using the resources suggested above, Reconciliation Australia’s ‘RAP Good Practice Guide: demonstrating inclusive and respectful language’ is a critical resource for ensuring students are aware of definitions of Aboriginal identity which are inappropriate and outdated. 

Using a thinking routine like the +1 Routine and/or a graphic organiser like the Key Ideas Viewing Table, ask students if they can identify the key ideas of each stimulus text they have been presented with. Ensure that students provide evidence from the text to support their ideas. 

Enable students to identify key ideas by working one-on-one or in small groups to annotate or highlight a text, modelling the practice of using evidence from a text to illustrate how a recurring idea might be established. Explicitly teach vocabulary to support and extend student understanding. 

Draw out, discuss and clarify the key ideas that students have identified in the stimulus texts, with a focus on recurring ideas. Use a simple prompt like ‘What is a theme?’ to activate and assess students’ prior knowledge. Students record their thoughts on a collaborative digital platform, or on sticky notes.

Discuss student contributions and create an anchor chart so that a definition of the concept of ‘theme’ can be created and built upon as the class progresses. Provide students with a selection of prompts to support and extend their thinking. For example:

  • What is the difference between a topic and a theme? For example, an essay focusing on the topic of The Stolen Generations with a theme of reconciliation.
  • How might an idea become a theme? For example, through repetition and reappearance in a text or a series of texts.
  • How might the actions, feelings and ideas of people or characters in a text help the reader to identify a theme? 
  • How might themes be reinforced by vocabulary choice?
  • How might themes be created using imagery?
  • How might symbols and metaphors be used to create a theme?

These prompts have been adapted in part from ‘Theme: what it is’ from English Textual Concepts. 

Extend students by asking them to provide an example of an instance in which a theme could be interpreted differently when considered from a different perspective. Ask students to provide evidence from the stimulus texts to support their position.

As ‘Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia’ is an anthology, it is important to read several essays in concert when exploring the establishment of theme.

Depending on the essays selected, students may need to develop a basic understanding of the concepts of irony, satire, and parody to engage with the annotation task in this stage.

Modelling the text

Select 2-3 essays from the text that are linked by common themes. Dear Australia by Don Bemrose, This is Nat, she’s Abo by Natalie Cromb and I remember by John Hartley would work well together. 

It is strongly recommended that teachers view all suggested stimulus texts prior to their use to ensure their cultural appropriateness and to enable rich, respectful discussion. For guidance on text selection refer to the Teaching and Learning Resources — Selecting Appropriate Materials policy.

Please note that in the title of her essay Natalie Cromb has strategically reappropriated language that it is not acceptable for non-Aboriginal teachers or students to employ. The title of the essay has been reproduced verbatim to respect the intentions of the author. Care should be taken at all times to maintain culturally inclusive and appropriate language in the classroom.  

There is brief mention of sensitive subject matter in Don Bemrose’s essay (p27).

Offer students a variety of reading opportunities to support engagement with the selected essays. Consider reading aloud to students, reading an essay together (including a partial choral reading), organising collaborative jigsaw reading, inviting students to turn-take in partner reading or listening to audio recordings where available. 

Check student understanding of the stories you have read by using the Conversation Stems in Practice outlined in the Literacy Teaching Toolkit.

“I noticed…”

“I wondered…”

“I appreciated…”

“I made a connection…”

“I learned…”

“I was surprised by…”

Once reading and discussion has occurred, undertake a close examination of the language structures and features of the essays you have read with your class. As you model the structures and features of a text, utilise a think aloud strategy, focussing on:

  • Tier two and three vocabulary
  • Devices that are used to create tone (e.g. humour, parody)
  •  Vocabulary choices that contribute to the style of the text
  •  Sentence patterns (e.g. the impact of simple and complex sentences)
  •  The use of dialogue for effect
  •  The use of imagery for effect
  •  Key ideas and themes emerging in the text

A sample annotation of Don Bemrose’s essay ‘Dear Australia’ can be found in the 'Materials and texts'  section for this stage. 

Enable students to engage with the texts by providing literal or inferential sentence stems as a starting point. For example, Who…?, When…?, Where…? or Why…?, ‘How…?’, ‘What…?’.

Collaborative annotation

Once an essay has been closely examined with students, invite pairs or small groups to collaborate to annotate further essays or essay excerpts, identifying the same features that were modelled for the class. 

It is important to provide students with prompts to support their annotations and to ensure that students understand key concepts like tone and imagery, and the difference between a simple and complex sentence. For example:

  • What tone do you think the author is using e.g., humorous, serious, sincere, amused, angry? What evidence can you find to support your opinion?
  • How might the author have used vocabulary to affect the reader? 
  • Has the writer used any imagery? What do you think the purpose of imagery might be?
  • Does the story draw on your understanding of other texts e.g., another book or a song or speech? Why might the author use this strategy?
  • What do you think the key ideas or themes of this essay might be?
  • Can you identify any simple or complex sentences? Could changing the pattern of a sentence alter its meaning or impact? 

Invite students to share examples from their annotation with the class. Collect student work for assessment. 

Enable students to engage with this task by ensuring that students understand the content of the text before beginning their annotation. Consider pre teaching the metalanguage required for discussing the text, such as ‘language structures’. Offer students the opportunity to match a cut-up model of the text to a list of language features and structures. 

Extend students by inviting them to consider language structures and features across a range of essays or extracts, taking note of similarities and differences and considering their effects.

Areas for further exploration:

Invite students to undertake further research on some of the issues or themes raised in the essays you have read. For example, students could:

  • Identify the causes of the struggle for rights and freedoms by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People before 1965 using a graphic organiser like a Cause and Effect Chain or a hierarchy chart.
  • Explore the effects of the methods used by civil rights activists to achieve change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and/or the role of one individual or group in the struggle.
  • Identify areas that are the focus for continued civil rights action for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, for example, education, health, or protecting sites of cultural significance.

Students undertake an individual Colour, Symbol, Image routine to reflect on the key ideas and themes in a selected text and complete a modified Word-Phrase-Sentence routine to demonstrate understanding of language structures and features. For example:

Word: Identify a word or words that captured your attention or struck you as powerful.

Phrase: Select a phrase that shows how the use of dialogue, imagery or vocabulary choice might have an impact on the reader.

Sentence: Choose a sentence that illustrates the tone the author was using or shows how a simple or complex sentence can help to emphasise or illustrate an idea. 

Enable students to engage with this task by checking understanding of key terms and clarifying as required. Use a strategically selected paragraph to work one-on-one with students to support their identification of a relevant word, phrase and sentence.

Extend students by asking them to select an aspect of one of the essays you have read such as sentence patterns, and to experiment with how changing that pattern might alter a sentence’s meaning or effect.

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