Teaching Theme So Students Actually Understand

Teaching theme to 3rd grade, 4th grade, or 5th grade students is just plain HARD. Theme is an abstract idea, making it really difficult for teachers to put into words and really hard for students to grasp.  If your students are struggling with understanding theme, rest assured that they are not alone!  Teachers all over the world have this same struggle.


Teachers often teach theme by creating anchor charts that list common themes or that list questions students should ask themselves when trying to determine the theme of a passage or story.  These are helpful and good strategies to use, but most students will still have no clue how to determine the theme independently just through the anchor charts.  There are other strategies you can use to help scaffold student understanding.

Why Teaching Theme is Hard

Students struggle with theme because it is unlike anything else they have learned in their ELA classroom.

In order to identify the theme of a text, students must also have the ability to summarize important parts of a text so that they have a clear understanding of what an entire passage says.  Students must be able to distinguish the theme from the main idea.  They must understand what lesson the author is trying to teach and recognize that they can disagree with the author's point of view.  They must have a solid grasp of story elements and how characters change. They must be able to make inferences.

On top of all of that, students must understand how to actually determine the theme - no wonder teaching theme is so hard!

A Different Way To Teach Theme

In order to teach theme so students actually understand, first make sure they have at least been introduced to all of the other skills necessary for understanding theme, especially main idea. Find resources for teaching some of these skills below:

Once students have a solid foundation, practice each confusing aspect of theme in isolation.  Start with smaller chunks of text - even as small as one paragraph - and make sure students really understand before moving onto larger text.  This will help you determine where students are really struggling.  It also scaffolds your instruction so struggling students are not overwhelmed.

The aspects of theme that I have found confuse students the most -  as well as ideas for teaching each aspect - are below.

  • Themes aren't usually stated in the passage.  To help students better understand this, have students read a paragraph with a clear theme.  Tell students the theme of this paragraph, using a thinkaloud to explain how you figured it out.  Go back and reread the passage, showing students that the theme was not stated anywhere in the passage.
  • Completely different stories can have the same theme.  Seeing the same theme played out with a variety of different characters and plots can really help students better understand how to determine the theme.  Read several very different paragraphs, each with the same theme to students.  Download a freebie to help you with this here.  

  • Theme and main idea are different.  This is essential for students to understand, but very hard to teach. To help students understand this, have them read a short passage with a clear theme.  Then, write 5 statements - 3 details from the passage, the main idea of the passage, and the theme of the passage.  Do not tell students what is what, but instead have them figure that out.  Doing this activity repeatedly really helps solidify students' understanding of the difference between main idea and theme. If your students are still struggling with main idea, then this activity will also help them be better able to differentiate between main idea and details.


  • You don't have to agree with the theme.  This is particularly important in a world where biased information is available everywhere.  Students need to know that they do not have to agree with everything they read.  A good way to do this is to show students two paragraphs with opposing themes and have students discuss which theme they agree with more.  For example, you could have a paragraph with the theme of "You can always trust your friends" and another paragraph with the theme of "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself."

  • A reading passage or text can have more than one theme.  This can be confusing to students, as not all passages have more than one theme, while novels almost always do.  Build up to determining the theme of novels by showing students shorter passages with at least two themes.

  • Themes are meant to apply to real life.  This is an important aspect of theme - themes are not just a lesson for the characters in a story.  The author intends for people to learn from the theme of a story.  To practice this, read short passages with clear themes and, after identifying the theme, ask students how they could apply it to their own life.  (Or have them explain why they wouldn't want to apply it to their own life.)


After practicing each of these aspects of theme in shorter passages, students will be much better equipped to understand and determine themes in longer literature and novels.

It can be extremely difficult to find suitable shorter passages that fit this specific purpose, which is why I've done all the hard work for you!  You can find reading passages and activities to address each aspect of theme mentioned above here.

You can find more activities and resources to help you teach theme to your upper elementary students here.

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