Recurring Themes in the Play | Facing History & Ourselves
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Uniformed high school students write at their desks.

Recurring Themes in the Play

Students prepare to write an essay on theme by identifying and analysing the themes explored in the play.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About this Lesson

In the previous lesson, students participated in a people’s assembly in which they discussed the essential question: What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others? The people’s assembly was a means through which the students could personally connect with the play, and it also laid the foundation for students to consider themes. By identifying the lessons that they could take from the play, students were drawing connections between its messages, content and present society. Such connections often fall along thematic lines. 

In this lesson, students will be explicitly identifying and analysing the themes explored in An Inspector Calls, thinking about what messages Priestley was choosing to send to his audiences. Students will first work together in groups, focusing on one particular theme, collecting ideas and creating a knowledge sheet to display their ideas to the rest of the class. Students will then rearrange a model essay in preparation for writing their own essay on theme for homework.

The page numbers referenced in this lesson refer to the Heinemann edition of An Inspector Calls.

  • Analysis (Lit-AO2, Lang-AO2)
  • Application of Contextual Information (Lit-AO3)
  • Critical Reading (Lit-AO1/AO3, Lang-AO1/AO4)
  • Knowledge of Content (Lit-AO1/AO3)
  • Summarising and Synthesising Skills (Lang-AO1)

Students work in groups to prepare to write a GCSE essay on theme, whilst simultaneously considering the modern relevance of An Inspector Calls. As preparation for the essay, students select a theme to focus on and then skim-read a given section of the play, thus boosting their knowledge of the play’s content. Throughout the skim-reading process, students read the text critically, looking for evidence to support their theme. Students share their findings with their group, and collectively summarise and synthesise their ideas to create a knowledge sheet, applying their knowledge of the contextual information when relevant. Finally, students rearrange and deconstruct an essay model that has been cut into paragraph strips to understand how to structure their own essay, which they then write for homework. The use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.

Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification

What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?

What are the themes of the play, and how do they resonate with contemporary readers?

  • Students will investigate the key themes of the play, working in groups to collect ideas on a specific theme before presenting their findings to the class.
  • Students will write an essay on a theme of their choice.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 6 activities
  • 3 teaching strategies
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 handout
  • 1 extension activity
  • 1 homework suggestion

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

In this lesson, students will be able to choose a theme for the focus of their essay. The reason being that if students are able to choose their theme, they are more likely to choose a topic that feels relevant to them. Recent adolescent brain research reveals that students are more likely to retain information that makes sense to them and that they find relevant. Moreover, students will find their ability to choose their focus empowering.

In this lesson, students will be creating knowledge sheets on a particular theme that can be hung around the classroom for other class members to read. These knowledge sheets will need to be big pieces of paper. If you do not have access to chart paper, consider taping smaller pieces together. It is worth keeping these knowledge sheets somewhere safe for revision.

In Part II’s ‘Rearrange and Deconstruct an Essay’ activity, you will need to prepare materials for the thematic essay sorting activity in advance of the lesson. Print enough handouts for students to read in groups of three or four, and then cut along the dotted lines to create statement strips, placing each set of strips in an envelope to distribute during class. Alternatively, as the essay is in a mixed order, you can give the handout directly to the students for them to cut up themselves. Please note, there are two model essays on this handout – an intermediate version and an advanced version. Use whichever is appropriate for your class or whichever you feel fits better with the timing of the lesson.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Part I Activities

  • Explain to students that they will be exploring the themes of An Inspector Calls, both to consider their modern relevance and to write an essay on one of the play’s themes. 
  • To begin this exploration, write the following quotations on the board and project the accompanying questions:

    ‘Public men . . . have responsibilities as well as privilege’ (Inspector, p. 41)

    ‘You think young women ought to be protected against unpleasant and disturbing things?’ (Inspector, p. 27)

  • Have the students find the quotations in the play to review the context in which they were said and then discuss the following questions in pairs or small groups:
    • What do these quotations suggest about how the people referred to in these quotations (i.e. public men and women) were treated in 1912? 
    • How are the Inspector’s statements linked to how the themes of gender and class are presented in the play?
    • How is what the Inspector says relevant or not relevant to modern society? 
    • Can you think of any modern examples or news stories that suggest public men and women are treated in the ways suggested? 
  • Then, invite feedback from the class.
  • Inform students that they will now be working in groups for the rest of the class to prepare a knowledge sheet on a given theme that they will then explore in an essay of their own. On their knowledge sheet, they will need to make claims about how their given theme is presented in the play, using evidence from the text to support these claims. They will also need to consider the message that Priestley is sending through his presentation of the theme. 
  • First, do a class brainstorm, fielding ideas from the students about the different themes present in An Inspector Calls. Possible themes include:
    • Social responsibility
    • Power
    • Women
    • Class
    • Public vs private
    • Family
    • Generational differences
  • Once you have brainstormed themes, ask students to choose a theme that they would like to write about and put them into groups with other students who share the same interest. Ideally, students would be working in groups of 4–5 so you might have more than one group on a given theme if students are passionate about choosing that one for their essay.
  • Inform students that they will be gathering evidence about their theme. First, they will need to divide up the play between the members of the group, to scour the script for relevant quotations. Depending on group size, each student will need to be allocated approximately fourteen pages. 
  • After they have divided up the pages, instruct students to work individually to consider their theme as they review their pages and to write any relevant quotations (including the page number and who they are linked to) in their class books. Let students know that they should select short, rich quotations that they can analyse in depth.
  • Give students twenty minutes for this task and project the following prompts on the board to guide their quotation search: 
    • Does the quotation develop an idea about your theme? 
    • Is the quotation short, but rich? 
    • Can it be analysed in multiple ways?
    • Is there a link to the context?
  • Next, ask students to share their findings with their group. As a group they will then decide on three claims to make about their theme. 
  • If needed, here is a list of claims concerning three separate themes that you can show your students or give to students who need additional support to help them understand how they can approach their thematic claims and the different ways that they can be phrased. Please note, we have explicitly chosen not to provide three claims for the same theme to avoid creating a situation in which students copy their three claims directly: 
    • In An Inspector Calls, Priestley explores the importance of social responsibility through the character of Mrs Birling.
    • In An Inspector Calls, Priestley presents class as a source of conflict.
    • In An Inspector Calls, Priestley presents women as obedient and subservient. 
  • Students will then need to decide on the two most effective pieces of evidence to support each claim. You may wish to once more project the prompts that guided them in their independent search:
    • Does this evidence support the claim?
    • Is it short, but rich? That is, can it be analysed in multiple ways?
    • Is there a link to the context?
  • Encourage students to select evidence that they can analyse in depth and that will be easy to remember (it is best to avoid very long quotations). Also, remind students to consider quotations from across the play rather than all from the same Act or scene. 
  • Once students have their three claims and two pieces of supporting evidence for each one, the first fifty-minute lesson will be drawing to a close. If students do not have a double lesson, explain to them that they will be continuing their work in their next lesson and invite them to debrief the activity by sharing a claim related to their theme in a wraparound.
  • Have any students who did not finish during class complete the activity at home, so they are prepared to reflect on their themes in Part II of the lesson.

Part II Activities

Give students, three minutes to complete a Think, Pair, Share activity on the following prompt:

  • Which themes of An Inspector Calls do you think are most relevant to modern society? Explain your answer.
  • Ask students to get back into their groups from the previous lesson and to prepare to write up their knowledge sheet. Make it clear that this sheet will be hung around the classroom for other groups to see and get ideas from. 
  • Pass out large pieces of paper (see Notes to Teachers, above). Give students fifteen minutes and project the following tips for students when creating their knowledge sheet:
    • Write the theme you are exploring at the top of your piece of paper.
    • Write out one claim in a complete sentence: In An Inspector Calls, Priestley presents [insert theme] as. . .
    • Write the first piece of evidence to support the claim, annotating it:
  • What does it mean?
  • What key phrases stand out to zoom in on?
  • How can it be interpreted?
  • Is it relevant to the context? Or does it carry a social message?
  • Repeat this with the second piece of evidence.
  • Repeat this process with the next claim and evidence, then if there is time with the third.
  • When there are five minutes remaining, summarise the message that you think Priestley is sending to his audience through his portrayal of your theme.
  • To ensure students summarise Priestley’s message, you may want to give them a five-minute warning.
  • Once the time is up, either give the students ten minutes to walk around the room and read the knowledge sheets of other groups that should either be laid out on the table or hung on the walls in a gallery walk, or ask students to swap knowledge sheets with another group, giving them five minutes to read their other group’s ideas.
  • Next, lead a short class discussion using the following questions:
    • What patterns did you notice across the themes?
    • What other connections did people make to the play?
    • How were they similar to/different from the connections your group made?
  • Inform students that they will now be rearranging an essay that responds to the question: How does Priestley explore the theme of transformation in An Inspector Calls? as preparation for writing their own essay. 
  • Explain that this process will help them think about how they can structure their essay and what they can include (though do stress that theirs does not need to be as detailed).
  • Divide students into groups of three or four to rearrange strips from the handout Transformation Thematic Essay Paragraph Sort for the essay on the theme of transformation, giving your class the appropriate-level (intermediate or advanced) essay.
  • Then, give them the chance to discuss the following questions in their groups:
    • What information is outlined in the introduction?
    • What is the claim made in each paragraph and what evidence is used to support each claim?
    • How are additional pieces of evidence incorporated? Can you identify any specific linking words?
    • What different messages does the author of the essay identify in the play? How do they link these messages to the context?
    • What does the author do in the conclusion? Why is this effective?
    • What is the central argument threaded through the essay concerning the representation of theme?
  • Next, lead a brief class discussion using the above questions and/or fielding ideas from the students about any confusions they had or what they thought did or did not work in the essay.

Extension Activity

  • Ask students to reflect on the play and its themes in a Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, Text-to-World activity, giving them the accompanying handout to the strategy if desired. 
  • Give students the opportunity to share their ideas with each other in a Think, Pair, Share activity. If there is time, invite students to share their ideas with the class.

Homework Suggestion

Explain to students that for their homework they will be planning and writing an essay on theme, in response to the question: How does Priestley explore the theme of [insert theme] in An Inspector Calls? They should write about the theme that they were focusing on in the lesson. 

Encourage students to consider what their central argument that will thread through their essay will be. This central argument can be straightforward. For example, if students are writing about generations, their central argument might be that Priestley presents the younger generations as a source of hope. Students’ three claims should link to this central argument throughout the essay.

Give students the handout Essay Structure and Sentence Starters and inform them that before they begin writing their essay they should outline a plan. You might wish to give students the following outline, to help them think about what they need to include in their plan:

  • Introduction: contextual references?/summary of theme and/or claims and/or central argument?
  • Paragraph one: claim + one/two pieces of supporting evidence
  • Paragraph two: claim + one/two pieces of supporting evidence
  • Paragraph three: claim + one/two pieces of supporting evidence
  • Conclusion: summary of essay/message concerning Priestley’s portrayal of the theme

As it is good practice to write plans, ask them to hand in their plan with their essay so that you can review that too. 

If your students require additional support, consider giving them the Developing Analysis Grid handout with some columns filled in. 

Each time that students complete a piece of writing, it is important to review their work, giving them feedback if necessary to ensure that they do not develop inaccurate writing habits. When students hand in their essay, consider using the Marking Criteria Codes teaching strategy to give in-depth feedback and to boost student engagement with marking.

If possible, give students an opportunity to redraft their work, taking on board the suggested improvements. If your students write particularly impressive essays, consider asking the students for permission and using them as models in future lessons. This can make students feel very empowered and proud of their work. 

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts that students use throughout the Recurring Themes in the Play lesson plan.

Download the Files

Essay Structure and Sentence Starters - PDF
Give students the handout Essay Structure and Sentence Starters as homework.
Developing Analysis Grid - PDF
Give students the handout Developing Analysis Grid as additional support for homework..

Get Files Via Google

Essay Structure and Sentence Starters - Doc
+ Share to Google Classroom Give students the handout Essay Structure and Sentence Starters as homework.
Developing Analysis Grid - Doc
+ Share to Google Classroom Give students the handout Developing Analysis Grid as additional support for homework..

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