How to Teach Central Message

Teaching kids to identify the central message is not an easy task.

Most central messages are implied and it takes some inferencing to piece it together. Once students get it though, it is truly like a lightbulb has turned on and they will start seeing central messages in every story, whether you’re focusing on that or not (and I love that!).

In this post, I’ll share some of the activities and strategies I use to help students master finding the central message:

1. Start with an Anchor Chart

I love making anchor charts and using them to emphasize key points. One of the great things about anchor charts is that when you leave them up for a short time, they can become great visual references for students.

When I introduce the central message, I tell students that it is the BIG IDEA of the story. It is the life lesson the author wants readers to learn. I make sure to explain that the central message is not specific to the book and is a big idea for all of us.

For example, in The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill and Laura Huliska-Beith, when Mean-Jean ruled the playground, but the new kid Katie-Sue wouldn’t be ruled, you could say the central message of the book was friendship, or bullying, or standing up for yourself, or courage.

Those are all ideas that can apply to everyone. You could not, however, say that the central message was that Katie-Sue wasn’t afraid of Mean-Jean, because that is a small idea and is specific to the story.

You’ll also want to talk about the fact that the central message may be similar to the main idea but it is NOT the same thing. Main idea is for nonfiction, of course, and the central message is for fiction only.

Another difference is that the main idea is more often stated, while the central message is implied, with the exception of some fables. Students will need to make inferences from the clues provided in the story to piece together the central message.

2. Use Posters to Chart Central Messages

I like to place posters with central message topic headings on them and room underneath for either sticky notes (kids write book titles and get your okay before posting) or miniature pictures (about 3 x 3 inches or so) of book covers.

Some of the most common central message topics we seem to find include: friendship, family, courage, kindness, determination, hard work, be yourself, and acceptance. Each time we read a picture book together (or finish a read-aloud or a class story), we discuss the central message and chart it using sticky notes or small book covers.

You’ll be amazed at how this simple activity really strengthens their central message knowledge! They love to be able to add on to our central message posters and it’s an easy way to spiral their learning throughout the year.

3. Read Mentor Text

There are so many books that have strong central messages. I included some of my favorites in the graphic above but here are a few more that I really like: A Chair for My Mother by Vera Williams, One Love by Cedella Marley, I’m Here by Peter H. Reynolds, Lu and the Swamp Ghost by James Carville, Plant a Kiss by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg, Big Al by Andrew Clements, Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting, and The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch.

After I read a picture book, I make sure to ask students about the central message.

I prod students by repeating similar phrases like what lesson do you think the author wanted us to learn? Or what do you think is the BIG IDEA we can take away from this book? And sometimes, I simply ask them what was the central message.

4. Use Fables and Fairy Tales

Fables are great for so many reasons. One big reason is that fables were specifically written to teach lessons, so you know that automatically, they’re going to have a strong central message. I also love that they are short, so you can do a few at one sitting if you’d like.

There are several things you can do with fables. One thing I like to do is to copy different fables without the moral listed at the end. Then kids work in pairs to figure out the moral.

You can also do a matching game where you pass out a sheet with several fables on them (no morals though) and write three possible central messages on the SmartBoard. Students read the fables in pairs and match them to the central messages on the board.

Fairy tales work well too. Just like fables, they were often written to teach lessons, so they usually have a strong central message.


5. Use Biographies

Kids love to read biographies! My students especially like the Who Was series by Penguin Books. When reading biographies, you can’t help but notice how each person’s life has a central message or a theme.

Take Martin Luther King, Jr. for example. His life’s theme might be equality or social justice or fairness. If you look at Mother Theresa’s life, didn’t she show compassion or caring or love? What about Amelia Earhart’s life? I think she showed a lot of bravery and an adventurous spirit. So, biographies are a great tie-in for teaching the central message.


6. Find the Central Message in Movies

Besides books or stories, it’s fun to find the central message in movies or even sometimes in movie clips. I really like to use Pixar Shorts which can be found on YouTube and Teacher Tube. You’ll want to make sure though to preview them because some have much stronger central messages than others.

A few Pixar Shorts that I especially like for central message include:

  • Piper

  • Partly Cloudy

  • Lava

  • Boundin’


7. Use Task Cards or Games

Task cards give kids so much concentrated practice! I love to use them for just about every subject I teach. The best part besides the focused practice is that kids are so motivated when they use task cards. They seem more like a game than a worksheet ever would. Task cards work really well for teaching the central message. The stories are short enough that students can have repeated practice in a short amount of time.

There are lots of ways to use task cards, I wrote a few blogs about them if you’d like more ideas:

1. 16 Ways to Use Task Cards

2. How to Use Task Cards with Board Games


8. Use Short Stories and Books

Once students are pretty firm on the central message, it’s time for them to gain a little more independence! I like to start with one-page passages to have them find the central message, move to short stories, then to longer stories, and finally even books.

This scaffolding will help students really become confident in their ability to identify the central message, which is what we want. Finding the central message really is one of the key reading strategies, so I re-visit it (usually very informally and quickly) throughout the year.


If you’re looking for some Central Message Games, I have created two sets you might like.

The Central Message Game includes both print and digital formats and has students find the moral of the short stories with 32 task cards and a fun tic-tac-toe game format.

The Central Message Traditional Literature Game is also print and digital and uses folktales and fables and comes in an extra-large 16 half-sheet task card set with a game board too!

Both of them are also included in a 10 Game Fiction Reading Games Bundle or a 20 Games Fiction and Nonfiction Reading Games Bundle that’s print and digital for 3rd Graders.


3rd Grade Central Message Print and Digital Game

Central Message - Moral Reading Center for 3rd Grade


3rd Grade Traditional Literature Central Message Print and Digital Game

Central Message in Traditional Literature Reading Center

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