Teaching Themes in Literature

It’s one thing to teach concepts like characters, setting, and plot. Most kids get these without too much trouble, but it’s another thing to teach your kids to find the theme of a piece of literature.

This higher-level thinking, much more abstract reading skill, is one that has to be taught with concentrated time and effort. Themes are often hidden, like a pirate’s treasure chest of jewels, and the only way we can effectively help our kids un-bury that treasure is to give them the map.


Here is the map (the five tips) I use in my classroom:

1. Teach the Concept of Theme Using Mentor Texts

I really love using mentor texts. Not only do my 4th and 5th graders love hearing the stories but the books are short enough that you can read one out loud and still have time to follow it up with a focused lesson. For themes, I read lots and lots of mentor texts.

Each time we read one, we look for the lesson the author wants us to take away from the story. I also make sure that they understand that a theme is bigger than the story and is a lesson for everyone and not just the characters in the book.

Further, kids need to know that stories may have several themes in them.

For example, in the book Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell, kids may identify the theme as confidence, overcoming obstacles, or even believing in yourself but to say that the theme was Molly learning to stand up to Ronald Durkin is too specific to the story and isn’t a lesson that can apply to everyone.

There are so many picture books containing themes and my theme unit includes a book list, but two of my favorite authors include Patricia Polacco and Eve Bunting also have lots of books with strong themes.

2. Task Cards for Theme

I love to use task cards to find the theme because the stories are really short and the kids are able to do really concentrated practice on themes in a short period of time. For this activity, since it is somewhat challenging, I prefer to put my kids in groups of two and pair stronger readers with weaker ones, to work as a team.

3. Theme Posters

Once kids understand what a theme is, I like to choose 5 – 6 themes for us to focus on for the year. I put a poster for each on the wall with an empty laminated construction paper below it.

As we read books together that fit these themes, I copy the book’s cover and tape it under the appropriate theme. For example, The Brand New Kid by Katie Couric would be placed under the Stand Up for Oneself poster.

You could also use sticky notes with the book’s title as an alternative.

4. Read Fables, Folktales, Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends

Fables are awesome because they are short (you can do several in one sitting), and the message is usually pretty clear. One thing that’s fun is copying different fables, leaving off the stated moral of the story, and having students work in small groups to find the theme.

Folktales, fairy tales, myths, and legends are other great types of traditional literature that can be used for theme.


5. Check Out Poetry Books and Biographies

Poetry is filled with symbolism and is sometimes perfect for finding themes. I also love to read biographies as a social studies integration piece, and I find that a person’s life actually can be summed up pretty well using a theme.

For example, when you think of Harriet Tubman, does courage come to mind? When you think of Abraham Lincoln, of course, you think of honesty. How about Mother Teresa? Perhaps compassion was a running theme in her life. So, biographies are great to tie into theme.

Theme may be challenging to teach, but I find it really enjoyable as well. One thing I like about it is that it is a concept that is ongoing and never gets boring (the kiss of death to me).


Once I introduce the concept and the kids have it, they find themes all the time. Kind of like when you get a new car and then notice them everywhere you look!

Another thing I love about teaching themes is the discussions we have in class and the way it really helps the kids find a deeper meaning (hidden treasures) in what they are reading.

Finally, I love using a complete unit that I created to teach theme, and it includes both print and digital formats. It comes with passages, posters, task cards, and handouts that your kids will enjoy. Click here for more details.

Themes in Literature: Print and Digital

Theme for 4th - 5th Grades in Print and Digital


I’ve also created several theme games, which are a fun way for students to get more theme practice.

Click here to see the cactus-themed matching game.

Click here to see the theme game, which targets drama and poetry.

Click here to see the Central Message tic-tac-toe game.

Click here to see the Central Message Game using traditional literature.


Happy teaching! Thanks for stopping by!

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