Story Themes


Identifying theme is a much more abstract and complex skill than identifying the main idea. It relies on inference and  background knowledge. Student ability to identify theme relies on them being able to piece information together including inference, explicit text events, and identifying the author’s purpose and meaning.  In this way, it is a crucial skill to have for students as they enter upper grades where literature begins to rely more on inference and abstract understanding.

Story Themes Lesson Plan Includes:

  • Full Teacher Guidelines with Creative Teaching Ideas
  • Instructional Content Pages about Story Themes
  • Hands-on homework activities giving students practice on Story Themes
  • Answer Keys
  • Common Core State Standards
  • Many Additional Links and Resources
  • Built for Grades 4-6 but can be adapted for other grade levels.

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The lessons introduces your students to the task of identifying the theme of a story. Identifying theme is a much more abstract concept than identifying main idea, and relies on inference and background knowledge. The lesson begins by compacting theme and main idea so students understand the difference between the two concepts. Then the students are given strategies to find the theme, and stories they can use to practice determining the theme.

Sample Classroom Procedure / Teacher Instruction:  

Warm up activity: Call students to the front of the room. Explain that today you are going to read to them a simple folk tale. Then you want the students to tell you what the main idea of the story is, which is what the story is mainly about. It should take a few sentences. ( This is important to distinguish, because theme and main idea are often confused, and a theme should be only a few words ie,  a theme of  forgiveness, justice, honesty, obeying a parent, not acting foolishly” , while main idea can be longer and more detailed.)

  1. Read the retelling of “The Little Red Hen”. The students should offer suggestions to tell the main idea. The main idea might be “A little red hen decides to bake a cake, and wants others to help with the work, but her friends refuse. But, when the cake is done, everyone wants a share of her hard work, even though they did nothing to earn it.”
  2. After discussions about main idea, say “The descriptions you gave me tell me about the main idea, what the story is mainly about. Knowing the main idea is important. However, it is also important to understand theme of a story.
  3. Define theme and write it on a large piece of paper that will become your anchor chart. Write: “Theme is the ‘Big Idea’ or the author’s life lesson. It is the key point that they want to draw the reader’s attention to. Themes of stories are usually one sentence or shorter. Many themes are told in one word.”
  4. Discuss the theme of the retelling of The Little Red Hen. Take suggestions from students by asking “What do you think the author is trying to teach you? What life lesson does he want you to learn? Try to tell me in one sentence or less.” Answers might be “Work hard”, “Help out”, or “You get what you deserve”.
  5. Create an anchor chart that helps students visualize theme vs. main idea by imitating the chart below.

What is Theme?

Theme is the author’s key point of the story. It is the life lesson the author wants the reader to take away from the story.

How is it different from main idea?

Theme may be only one word or short phrase.


Here are some examples:

Little Red Hen: Hard work.







Little Red Riding Hood: Obedience.

Main idea is what the story is mainly about. It may be a short summary.

Here are some examples:

Little Red Hen: The Little Red Hen asks her friends for help with cooking, but they are all too lazy to help her. When the baking is done, the friends who didn’t help still want to eat the food, but since they didn’t do the work, they don’t get the treat.


Little Red Riding Hood: A little girl is told not to wander off the path while taking a basket of goodies to her grandmother. A wolf tricks her and ends up attacking her grandmother and almost eats Little Red!



How can you determine a theme?

Look for clues the author gives you. What does the author want you to think about? What lesson are you supposed to learn?

Use background knowledge.

Think about how characters changed during the story. What lessons did they learn?

  1. Have students discuss a few more common stories that they know or you have read through the year and compare main idea and themes. once you feel students have a basic understanding of what to look for in a text, have them return to seats with a partner to complete Activity Page 1, where they will read a story and identify a theme.
  2. As students work in pai, walk around the room and check in to make sure students are able to find the theme, and are not confusing it with main idea. If students are struggling, pull them into a small group and support them.

9. Share results of the first activity as a whole class.

  1. Assign students the practice sheet to complete independently.
  2. Circulate to support students, and share results when students have completed the practice sheet.


Common Core Standards:


Additional Resources: 

Many more teacher resources in Download!

Want more reading resources?  Check out our other Reading Lesson Plans!

Additional information

Grade Level

4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade



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