A Fresh Perspective on Theme: 5 Things Students Need to Know

A Fresh Perspective on Theme 5 Things Students Need to Know - The Teacher Next Door

Have you ever repeated a word so many times that it seems to lose all of its meaning? In reading instruction, “theme” can be one of those things. There is so, so, so much talk about theme, but what does it really mean, and why is it important? 

It all boils down to this: understanding is the point of reading, and the theme is the key thing that the author wants you to learn or take away from the story. The theme is the point, the purpose, the reason why the story is being told.

The theme is kind of the “so what” of the story. The “Why do I care about these characters and events?” Without a theme stories would be just a random collection of people and things or even just words if it’s a poem. The theme is what makes us care, and gives a context and meaning to what is on the page.

Below are some fresh and interesting ways to talk about theme with students, to enhance their understanding.

  1. Reading a story, a poem, or drama and not understanding the theme is like…sitting in your car but not going anywhere. Or going to the water park but not bringing your swimsuit. What’s the point? (Word of caution- don’t say this out loud in front of 5th graders, they will be more than happy to agree and not bother to read to the story!)
  2. The theme is sometimes directly stated in the text, but more often, it is implied or hinted at.
  3. Themes have to include some element of truth- if what is being described is not something that readers know to be true in their hearts or everyday experience, it won’t have much of an impact.
  4. Themes have an effect on what you think of the story, especially when they are not directly stated, but rather implied.
  5. Interestingly, picking out the theme of a story is often more difficult for the author of a work than it is for the reader.  (This makes for an interesting tie-in for your advanced writers.)

Theme is important in all kinds of literature, including stories, drama, and poems.


This is where you are probably going to spend most of your time on theme in 5th grade upper elementary. Here are some questions to consider when determining the theme of a story.

  • How does the theme affect the tone of the story? 
  • What effect does the theme have on the readers? 
  • Will the reader likely agree with the theme, or have a different perspective? 
  • Do you agree with the theme, or do you have a different take?


Poems can vary from a collection of individual words,  phrases, and even full sentences. Regardless, they all have a theme. Love, beauty, death, identity, spirituality- these are all examples of theme topics that a poem might have.

To identify the theme of a poem, pay attention to the details: 

  • What is the author saying? 
  • What is the mood or tone? 
  • Is there a message is the author trying to convey?


Some teachers are lucky enough to have time to do a whole unit on drama, and others have to squeeze it in here and there, like fluency practice or in Social Studies. Either way, take advantage of the opportunity to add some discussion about the theme of the drama. 

Do your students need a little practice with theme?

If you’ve been looking for some really targeted practice for determining theme of stories, you might want to take a look at Theme Game Print and Digital 4th and 5th Grades. It’s got  This resource has a variety of short passages and a matching game for focused practice. This activity works great for literacy centers, one on one work, whole-class games, and test prep.

4th and 5th Grade Themes in Stories Reading Center


If your students are ready to take on theme with text that is a bit more complex, check out this Theme Digital Reading for Google Slides™ 5th Grade Fiction resource. It’s a paperless reading unit, with two sets of high-interest passages, two vocabulary activities, two comprehension slides, and four slides focused on identifying the theme.

5th Grade Digital Reading Unit Fiction Theme


Standards Alignment: RL.5.2 – Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.

Interested in reading more? Check out these related blogs! 

4 Easy Ways to Teach Your Students to Compare and Contrast Theme

Teaching Themes in Literature

Character Traits & Story Events: How to Help Students Discover a Meaningful Connection

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