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Finding The Message: Grasping Themes in Literature

By Angela Bunyi on February 18, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5

With state testing fast approaching, I have found myself carefully analyzing our benchmark assessments for instructional focus. One of our identified areas to address includes identifying the theme of a passage. Being new to the grade level, I wasn't sure if this went beyond my familiar 3rd grade goal of understanding a fable. After some work and research, I'm ready to share how you can teach theme in the upper grades. This post includes SMART Notebook files (also in PDF form), a project idea, and printable graphic organizers and posters.


Common Themes Found in Literature

One way you can help your students decipher the difference between a theme and a summary is to start by simply labeling any charts you create for theme as "THE MEssage." This helps students remember that a theme is a message that you can find and apply to your own life. It can be more complicated than the moral explicitly stated at the end of a fable. Also, a story or novel can have multiple themes woven throughout and go far beyond a word such as "friendship," though identifying a key word is a great first step in identifying a theme. Taking the key word of friendship in the novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, you can develop a theme. Start with the question: "What did the main character, Rufus, learn about friendship?" Exploring this question can help you explore a potential theme. 

So, what are some common themes that are found in literature? Beth Newingham addressed this in her post, geared for 3rd grade, while I am offering a more complex list of common themes found in literature, from young adult literature through the classics. 


Beth also provided this "Common Themes in Books" handout.

Picture 9

You may also want to use this "12 Common Themes Found in Literature" handout with your class.


Lesson Ideas

One way to track themes is to create a T-chart, with one side dedicated to identifying a theme, the other for recording supporting details that "prove it."  

And which books should you use to demonstrate and discuss themes? I recommend, even in the upper grades, first using picture books.

 Picture Books for Discussing Themes:

I believe it is also important to help your students understand that themes expand beyond books. Themes can be found all around us. Artists, for example, think carefully about portraying a theme for their audience. There are entire sites dedicated to discussing themes found in movies and music. Try this in your room: Listen to the lyrics of a carefully selected song, such as "Cat's in the Cradle" to discuss theme, or try a familiar movie. Below I have listed a few movies that can get your class started.

Familiar Movies for Discussing Themes:

  • The Lion King (responsibility)
  • Babe, the 1995 version (redemption)
  • The Emperor's New Groove (humility)
  • Antz (friendship)
  • Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 version (greed)
  • A Little Princess, the 1995 version starring Liesel Matthews, which is lesser known, but well done (the power of imagination)

Songs for Discussing Themes:

  • "Hero" by Mariah Carey (appreciation)
  • "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" by Green Day (good-byes)
  • "I Hope You Dance" by Lee Ann Womack (sacrifice/societal pressure)
  • "Cat's in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin (family relationships)
  • "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips (overcoming obstacles)


Discussing Themes Using Novels/Author Studies

One of the best ways to really dig deep and teach the concept of theme is through a novel study. We are currently wrapping up The Watsons Go to Birmingham1963 in our room. When I was searching for some themes online I was able to find a complete teacher reading guide through Scholastic to support our talks (see pp. 32–39 for theme support). From racism to humor to growing up, this teacher guide includes supporting details to expand the message we take away as a theme.

Authors that I recommend for investigating common, recurring themes include Kate DiCamillo and Gary Paulsen. Kate DiCamillo, for example, often tackles themes such as redemption and family relations/abandonment. Gary Paulsen strongly demonstrates the struggle of man vs. nature or man vs. societal pressure. If you read Paulsen's autobiography, My Life in Dog Years, it makes sense that he often incorporates these themes into his novels. 

Picture 5


Graphic Organizers

One thing I enjoy doing in our theme lessons is tying in skills taught previously. For example, it helps to think about the characters, setting, and plot before identifying a potential theme. We also use the concept of main idea and supporting details to "prove" our selected theme.

Picture 7

Download this Searching for a Theme (PDF) graphic organizer.

Picture 8

Download the What's the Big Idea? (PDF) graphic organizer.


SmartBoard Resources

Picture 4I am fortunate enough to be working in a school where a SmartBoard can be found in virtually every classroom. Like many teachers, I can't remember life before my board was installed. I have created a SMART Notebook file that supports the teaching of theme through a novel study of The Watsons Go to Birmingham1963. Download the SMART Notebook file "Identifying Theme."

Picture 3



So you don't have a SmartBoard in your classroom? I was able to create a supporting PDF slide show as well. It does not have the same interactive elements found on the theme web in the SMART Notebook file, but it has a page gallery on the side that can help you navigate the pages with ease.

Download the PDF slide show "Identifying Theme."



Project Idea: Theme-in-a-Bottle


Looking for an interesting project that showcases this learned skill? Here's one of my favorites, which has students writing letters in a bottle from a character's point of view! 


  • Two-liter plastic soda bottle or some other unbreakable see-through container
  • Construction paper
  • Scissors
  • Markers, crayons, colored pencils
  • Tissue paper
  • Glue


Photo Credit: travis manley/Istockphoto



  1. Tell students that a character in the text wants to share what he or she has learned as a result of his or her experiences through the course of the story. The character has decided to send a message in a bottle or some other appropriate container. 
  2. Have each student decorate a container with symbols and scenery appropriate to the novel and its theme.
  3. Ask students to write a letter from the character's point of view. This letter should express the main character's feelings about the life lessons he or she has learned. At the beginning of the letter, state the theme they think the text conveyed. In the body of the letter, have students incorporate three points that support their ideas.
  4. Tell students the bottle they create will be given to a student in another class who will judge if they presented three points that connect to their theme.
  5. Tell students to be creative! Be neat! And make sure to write as the character in the novel would.



Please share your questions and suggestions for teaching theme in your classroom. 

You can learn more about our classroom by visiting our class site.


Comments (26)

I was wondering if the Smart Board lesson is still available? It downloaded as a zip file, but there was not a Smart Board file in there, just separate pages that came out as text only.


Beth, the 12 Common Themes in Literature by Christopher Paul Curtis is entirely incorrect and therefore misleading and could be the reason some of the commenters are confused. A theme is the central idea of the story and can often be stated in one word, such as love or fear. Or only several words such as good versus evil or coming of age or overcoming adversity or man versus nature,such as was correctly listed as the first theme. So he did actually get off to a good start. And numbers 2 and 3 man's struggles against social pressure and man's struggle to understand spirituality and number 5 overcoming adversity are also themes. However, after that, he deviates completely from themes and the list becomes morals or lessons. "Crime doesn't pay", etc. reads like Aesop's fables. Also, it's "Tell Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe not "Tale Tell Heart" by Edgar Allen Poe as the author states. The posting is a terrible example of wrong information with the name of a famous poet's name misspelled and his well-known work printed backward. It should be removed from this page.

In the Smartboard Lesson, the word reoccuring is used, but the word should be recurring.

In the Smartboard Lesson, the word reoccuring is used, but the word should be recurring.

Cathy, if you take the one word theme and then have them build on it, it helps students understand two things: that themes will reoccur in many books they read AND that a theme is not a literal, specific lesson learned (ie you shouldn't steal ducks). I have my students sort their book into a general one word theme, then write a more specific theme for that story. For example, we sorted the book One by Kathryn Otoshi into the one word theme, "Acceptance" then came up with a more specific theme of, "everyone has value." I spent one day sorting many books we'd read as a class into one word themes and used the worksheet above to allow them to do the same. Then the next day they took one and wrote a specific them and could continue to do so in future days.

I know I'm late to this conversation, but I'm confused. I know Theme to be the message the author is conveying. It is true to all people, not just the characters in the piece. It cannot be one word. A one word description of a piece is the subject or topic of the piece. I would not use the chart of one word "themes" with my students.

I enjoyed reading through your ideas, thank you for sharing freely. I wanted to let you know, though, that the Green Day song you mentioned is about dealing with drug withdrawal and not about saying goodbye to someone. Perhaps not a great song to use with kids, but powerful nonetheless.

This seems a bit confusing as you are relating the theme to the message in the story which are different.

This seems a bit confusing as you are relating the theme to the message in the story which are different.

This seems a bit confusing as you are relating the theme to the message in the story which are different.

This seems a bit confusing as you are relating the theme to the message in the story which are different.

This seems a bit confusing as you are relating the theme to the message in the story which are different.

I loved your lesson your ideas

FYI: Someone is selling a "Message in a Bottle" project on TPT with the ideas you listed.

Thank you for sharing this lesson. I was having some difficulty on creating an appropriate lesson on theme.

This is great! I am looking for a test to assess my student's knowledge of theme in literature. Do you have any such resources?

Are the resources for this still available?

Hello Lisa,

With the help of a parent and our theater teacher....we used the following materials for our Halloween school camping adventure:

~ black butcher paper or black plastic bag ~ about 20 rocks from outside of our classroom (large ones) ~ a box of firewood ~ red and orange party streaming rolls ~ one of those small portable fans ~ a production lamp

We put this together in about 30 minutes. First, put the butcher paper for the base down (or black plastic bag). Then take the lamp, facing up, and prop it next to the fan so that the air is pushing up as well. Surround the lamp (not cover) with rocks in a circle. Next, create a circle of firewood. Follow this with some rocks on the outside as well. Finally, take some orange streamers and yellow streamers and tape it to the fan. When you turn on the fan, the streamers go up in the air and make the light flicker with movement. My parent has a lot of theater experience with her children, so she completed this like a pro.

For bonus points (and we did this), we borrowed a fog machine and put it by the back door, open. You only need to push the button once every 45 minutes or so to keep a light fog in the room. We also downloaded camp noises (crickets and owls hooting) and played that in the background. Throw in some marshmallows on a stick (they sell brown ones) and some hot cocoa, and you are good to go.


Angela, I was looking at your 5th grade website and I loved the picture you had posted with your students reading around a campfire. I love this idea. Can you tell us more about it? How did you create the campfire - materials? What activities were your students engaged in during their campfire? Thank you for sharing all of your ideas! Fondly, Lisa


That's our version of state testing, so it probably wouldn't help you much. Some state tests are similar, so you may want to research that.

I can, however, give you a glimpse of our Thinklink probes. Our district (and most of the surrounding areas) administer Thinklink tests three times a year. It is like our state testing and treated that way for results. When results come out, students can practice weak areas through probes. Here is my link:


Besides that, you can't purchase the TCAP booklets. They were given to us by the state. The TCAP Coach book, however, may be available in your state. I would look into that possibly. More importantly, I'd hit the web for sites like www.internet4classrooms.com that provides you lesson ideas and resources based on your specific learning standards.



Angela, I teach fifth grade in Nebraska. So, I am unfamiliar with TCAP. Is this TCAP prep book something that I could use in Nebraska to prepare my students? I know our standards might be slightly different, but it might have great ideas and help in it that would be helpful. If so, how do I get a hold of it. I would ask the same thing about the Thinklink tests and probes. What are these and how do you get them?

When I taught the poetry unit in writing I used Ralph Fletcher a LOT! We used the three pillars of poetry. Do you have any other resources that you would suggest for preparing students for state tests in reading?

Thanks again, Becky


What state do you teach in? Our test is now considered the second hardest test in the nation, so I find myself scouring the following resources in TN:

~ Thinklink tests and probes

~ TCAP Coach books

~ A large TCAP prep book given last year (with the same number of questions, types of questions, and actually looks like the test).

Through these resources I found skills such as hyperbole, theme, and author's purpose assessed. I didn't see anything on the types of poetry (eg- limerick), which I am happy about as I don't focus on that. I have used Ralph Fletcher's three pillars of poetry, which I like. Poems can be musical (including rhythm), emotional, and focus on imagery. I found a question that supported this as well.

I hope that helps!


Angela, In preparation for state testing I've been trying to spend some extra time with poetry recently. I've already taught a unit on this in writing and have routinely shared poetry throughout the year. However, I know that when they get to the questions on the state testing it will be tricky for them. Would you be able to give me some tips? Thanks!!!


Sigh. Not like I have in the past, but yes. Totally. The authors I seem to gravitate towards for writing lessons are the same ones I look to for reading lessons. Here are a few staples:

~ Cythnia Rylant (Every Living Thing is an amazing collection of short, snippet stories-worth purchasing).

~ Lester Laminack's Saturdays and Teacakes (mentor text). We've visited this one many times this year.

~ Kate DiCamillo. I use her a lot because many of the books have been read by my students, and we read The Tiger Rising as a class. I really like her focus on character struggles and incorporation of symbolism and complex themes (mentioned in the post).

~ Leonard Pitts- The Miami Herald. Why? He won the Pulitzer, is entertaining yet complex (he wrote a piece on PB&J Uncrustables, but it is REALLY a piece about how all these conveniences have made our lives less convenient).

I hope that helps. More importantly, find the authors you love and can read like a writer and use this for writing lessons. For example, I have used portions of Jumpha Lahiri's work for lessons before (The Real Durwan found in her Pulitzer Winning book- Interpreter of Maladies).


Thank you for this! :) Do you also do author studies in writing? Who are some authors you find to be great to use with writing?

Its a great idea, i am sure it can bring good results, i am also curious to know more updates.

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