Ideas for Teaching Theme (and a couple freebies!)

Teaching story elements is generally pretty straight forward. Setting, Character, and Plot - easy-peasy. There are tons of resources available and the concepts are fairly concrete. But then you get to theme. How to teach something that is abstract, subjective, and requires that oh, so tricky skill: inference? As it turns out, teaching theme didn't turn out to be as difficult as I thought it would, especially when it is broken down into steps. And that is a very good thing, because theme runs across the grade levels for CCSS ELA-Litarcy. RL.2. Here are some ideas about how to get started teaching theme to your students: 

Define it in terms kids can understand
Theme is the main message of the story. That is why I like the message in a bottle graphic as a reminder. I have also seen resources that use this reminder:


Theme is a broad idea that can be applied to life, and in most stories the theme is not stated and instead must be inferred by the reader. This poster (which you can download for free) is a good reminder for exactly what theme is.

Contrast Theme with Plot or Main Idea
Kids (and adults) frequently confuse the theme with the plot or the main idea. One way to help your students understand the difference is to contrast the two concepts using stories that your students are already familiar with. For example, in Charlotte's Web the main idea or a summary of the plot could be: Charlotte saves Wilbur's life by writing words in her web. However that is not the message of the book. It is not a broad idea and it can't be applied to everyday life. Contrast that with: Good friends are always there for each other.

Remember that Theme is Subjective
Keep in mind that in many stories, there can be more than one theme or the theme could be interpreted in different ways. For example, in Charlotte's Web, an alternative theme could be, "Never give up," since Charlotte works literally to the end of her life to save Wilbur.

Ask the Right Questions
The theme comes from the way that the characters - usually the main character changes and grows throughout the story. Looking at how the main character responds in in various situations can give you clues to the theme of the story. Questions to ask include:

  • How did the characters react to obstacles?
  • What important decisions did the characters make?
  • How did the characters grow and change over the course of the story?
  • What did the characters learn?

Site Examples from the Story
Ask your students to give examples from the book that demonstrate the theme. Examples from Charlotte's Web, that demonstrate that good friends are always there for each other include: Charlotte went to the fair with Wilbur even when she was very weak, and Wilbur took care of Charlotte's babies.

Here is a freebie to help your students answer questions to help find the theme and a graphic organizer to help them cite evidence from the text.

Make Connections to Real Life
The whole point of having a theme in a story is that the author is trying to give the reader something that he or she can apply in life, or at the very least, make an observation that is thought to be universally true (at least from the author's point of view). Students will gain deeper understanding of the theme and the story by relating it to their own lives. For example, for the theme, "Good friends are always there for each other," in Charlotte's Web, students can share stories about times that they helped a friend or were helped.

Connecting to other stories is also important. What other stories have a similar theme? Just off the top of my head, I came up with many of the stories from Winnie the Pooh, Frog and Toad are Friends, and for older students, Holes by Louis Sachar.

Cultural Stories and Fables
Stories from different cultures are a great way to start your study of theme because many of these stories have been passed down through the generations for the purpose of teaching an important truth or lesson. Aesop's Fables are another excellent resource. Try reading the fable without reading the moral at the end to see if your students can infer it on their own.

Story Cards
I created this set of theme task cards for two reasons. First, because I got many requests for it, and second because when I searched the internet, I did not find many good resources for teaching theme.

 Each of these cards features a different story. Students find the theme and can answer either in a multiple choice or short answer format. In addition there are two challenge cards that ask students to dig deeper by:

  • Identifying the clues in the story that helped them to infer the theme
  • Summarizing the story and comparing the summary to the theme
  • Comparing the story on the card with a story that has a similar theme
  • Relating the theme to their own lives
  • Creating a new story with the same theme
Here is an example of two story cards.

For card number 4, students are given three possible answers.

a. You should always share everything.
b. Selfishness leads to unhappiness.
c. Cassie did not share her cookies.

If you prefer a short answer format, there is a student answer sheet provided for that as well. Answer keys are also included.

You can learn more about this product right here.
Theme Task Cards: 16 Story Cards, 6 Challenge Cards, Differentiated Student Answer Sheets

How do you teach theme? Please share your ideas with a comment.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! This is a difficult idea to get across to my students.

Stephania Augello said...

I recently attended a professional development workshop on comprehension strategies for EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners. One of the most important things that I took from that workshop was how crucial it is that students understand the applied message or "theme" of what they read. Our presenter told us that when reading a story to children, we should always start with the applied level of comprehension rather than the literal so we can assist students with gaining that understanding.

Miss A

Mrs. Dyer said...

Thank you!

Ms. M said...

I know you wrote this a long time ago but I just found it on Pinterest, and I think it's great! Whenever I look up "Author's Message" lessons, I usually get a ton on Author's Purpose, which is different than theme.

One thing I do with first graders is I tell them that the author usually uses the characters' actions to either suggest a type of behavior that we should emulate, or to tell us a cautionary tale. Then we take the story and think about the broader message--in life, people... or in life, people should... etc. It's extremely oversimplified, but it seems to work relatively well with my 6 year olds. Thanks again! said...

Also found this on Pinterest . . . very difficult concept to reach. Thanks so much for sharing :-)

Tom Clark said...

These cards are excellent! I am a teacher and these are just what I needed for my class.

Thanks so much for sharing this!

Study aids like this are so helpful when it comes to education


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