Ultimate Theme Guide: 4 Engaging Strategies for Determining Theme in 3rd, 4th, & 5th Grade

Determining Theme with Powerpoint & Worksheets

Determining the theme of a story is often a daunting task for 3rd, 4th & 5th graders. Why do they struggle with this important skill? As a former 3rd and 5th grade teacher, I have found that my students are often unable to go beyond the author’s words and make an inference about life’s lessons the author wants us to grapple with. Have you been in my shoes? Can you relate to my concerns?

I have spent the last several years deciding on the best way to approach teaching theme. I have realized that some foundational work needs to be in place before diving right into this inferential skill.

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1. Understanding Theme Vs. Main idea

To begin with, students must understand the difference between theme and main idea, as it helps them dig deeper into what they’re reading. So, when teaching your students the difference between the two, have them understand that main idea or summarizing is what the text is mainly about (characters, setting, problem/solution), while theme is the big picture for the whole storythe lesson message or moral the author is trying to convey. When students get the hang of telling these apart, it’s like they’re putting on special glasses that let them see beyond just the words on the page. They start to notice the deeper meanings and messages that authors are trying to get across.

Teaching this difference makes students better thinkers because they’re learning to analyze and interpret what they’re reading in a more meaningful way – thus, helping students become sharper, more critical readers and overall thinkers .

2. Using SWBST to Summarize a Narrative

Summarizing a story before determining theme is important for students  because it helps them grasp the key events, characters, and essential plot points. It requires students to identify and articulate the main elements of a story in a concise manner, fostering a solid understanding of the narrative. Once they have this foundation, discovering the author’s message becomes less abstract.


I’ve discovered a method of summarizing that worked best for the students in my classroom: “Somebody, Wanted, But, So, Then” (SWBST). Once students have completed this (see below), they then craft one to two concise sentence that captures the main idea or storyline, demonstrating their full grasp of the essential components of a narrative.


3. going beyond the author’s Words

Now that students have a solid understanding of summarizing the text, they can go beyond the author’s word to determine the author’s message. I first have them consider thoughts and questions to ask themselves using the chart above. I then show them “16 Common Topics and Themes in Literature” and review them briefly, clarifying any questions they may have.

It’s important to explain that a theme topic is one or two basic words covering a broad spectrum of possibilities , whereas an actual theme is a focused sentence with a specific message. Both of these reference sheets included in my theme resources for 3rd, 4th and 5th grade and should be placed in a Reading Folder for students to refer to often.

16 Common Themes in LIterature

4. Using Picture Books to capture interest

Once students have a an overall understanding of these skills, I then turn to their favorite picture books to model. One of my very favorite books is Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. Her books are perfect for upper elementary students.

Ultimate Theme Guide: 4 Engaging Strategies for Determining Theme in 3rd, 4th, & 5th Grade

Jacqueline Woodson sends a powerful anti-bullying message in this incredible story. I would read it more than once to first summarize and then determine a possible theme. I always provide my student with the 16 Common Themes in Literature poster featured above.

One possible theme topic to consider is “Fairness.” A possible theme statement could be: “Treat others the way you would want to be treated yourself.”

This author is fabulous for focusing on multi-cultural topics through her incredible read alouds.

Once you have provided extensive modeling for students who need it, my best advice is to have them practice with short passages tailored to their reading level. I have 10 reading passages that I include in each of my resources below for 3rd, 4th and 5th grade.

Digital & Print Resources to Support Your 3rd, 4th or 5th Graders

Make teaching authors purpose a whole lot easier with these no prep, ready to go resources.

10 Theme Reading Passage Worksheets, Powerpoint or Google Slides Teacher Presentations, Theme Anchor Charts, a List of 16 Common Themes, Main Idea Vs. Theme & Summarizing Worksheets are all included.

Lesson Plans and Teachers Notes for seamless instruction are also part of each resource.

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Grade 3 Grade 4 Grade 5


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If I can help you in any way please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at sgambatodebbi@gmail.com.

If you have not already done so, please view:

7 CAPTIVATING VOCABULARY ACTIVITIES & WORKSHEETS FOR ANY WORD LIST: GUARANTEED ENGAGEMENT FOR 3RD, 4TH, 5TH GRADE