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Tips For Teaching Theme Vs. Main Idea: Helping Students Understand the Difference

    Introducing the concept of theme can be a daunting task in any classroom. However, beginning by teaching theme vs. main idea can make both your life and students’ lives much easier. Use these tips and tricks to help them understand the difference!

    Chances are your students already have an understanding of what a main idea is by the time they reach the secondary classroom. Yet, many students continue to default to a main idea even after introducing the concept of theme. This can be a frustrating trend when you’re trying to move beyond basic comprehension skills.

    But, perhaps it’s time for a (slightly) different approach.

    Teaching Theme Vs. Main Idea: Understanding the Struggle.

    The truth is, students of all ages struggle with the concept of theme. As a result, many students tend to default to what they do understand– the main idea. And we both know they are far from the same time. 

    But why is theme such a struggle in the first place? For starters, it’s a higher order thinking skill that involves reading between the lines and making inferences. It involves drawing conclusions that are not explicitly stated. (And that we don’t always agree with.)

    As if that’s not confusing enough, most texts have more than one theme. Therefore, when students are asked to discuss or analyze a text’s theme without the proper foundation, it’s like they’re shooting in the dark. (And oftentimes, completely missing.)

    But that’s where you step in. (Insert applause here.)

    We must explicitly teach students the steps and skills they need to understand, identify, and, eventually, analyze theme. Now, as for where you should start? I recommend beginning by explicitly acknowledging the difference between the two.

    Teaching Theme Vs. Main Idea: Differentiating Between the Two.

    By providing students with a list of questions, teachers are able to strike a balance between offering support and letting the students do the heavy lifting. While many students have used main ideas to help them write summaries to show comprehension of what they read, it’s time for them to begin the transition to using themes to help them analyze what they’ve read.

    So what is the difference? At the very root of it, a main idea is sort of like the Spark Notes version of a summary. In other words, it briefly explains what a text is about. (Key word: briefly.) Theme, on the other hand, is a more universal lesson, message, or moral of a story. In other words, it’s an author’s message on a particular subject.

    Feel free to use the following questions to help students identify and differentiate between the two:

    Questions to Help Students Identify The Main Idea.

    1. What is the text about? (Identify the topic.)
    2. What happens in the story? (Summarize the plot.)
    3. What are the most important parts of the story? (Condense the summary into 1-2 sentences.)

    Questions to Help Students Identify The Theme.

    1. What is the topic of the story? (Challenge them to think of 1-3 words such as determination or never give up.)
    2. What is the author implying about the topic? (Remember, the theme is not directly stated in the text, but rather suggested by the characters, setting, plot, and other elements of the story.)
    3. What does the author want me to think about the topic?

    Again, determining a theme is difficult for many students, especially in the beginning. Therefore, if students are still stuck or simply need more guidance, ask them to consider the following to help:

    • What obstacles did the characters face? How did they react to them?
    • What important decisions did the characters make? What was the outcome?
    • How did the characters grow or change? Did they learn any lessons along the way?

    Start Small. (Aka Short.)

    Whether you’re introducing theme for the first time, reteaching for struggling students, or simply want to refresh and remind your students, I recommend starting off with a shorter text. (Children’s books make for a perfect choice!)

    Whether you use a short story or a children’s book, use it as a way to walk through the above questions with students. This will help allow them to practice identifying the main idea and theme, and acknowledge the difference between the two. Using a shorter text (particularly children’s books) makes this practice more manageable and less intimidating for students.

    Teaching Theme Vs. Main Idea: Checking For Understanding.

    When you’re looking to build upon students’ understanding of a main idea by introducing the concept of theme, it’s best to break it down into digestible chunks or, in fancy education jargon terms, scaffold.

    Therefore, after bringing theme into the mix, be sure to check for understanding after the introductory lesson. After all, if our goal is to move beyond regurgitation and toward application, we need to know students can apply their newfound knowledge.

    The following “quick check” activity will help you identify which students are struggling and with which concepts.

    Quick check activity.

    First, assign each student a classic fable or fairy tale. While students are likely familiar with these tales, it’s more fun if they have access to the actual story. You can provide a hard copy of the text or simply have them find the stories online!

    After they read the text, ask students to determine the main idea. Make sure they keep it short. (Two sentences max.) Next, ask students to develop a thematic topic list. Common topics include family, friendship, identity, trust, love, honesty, hard work, and perseverance– among many others. Then, take it one step further by having students choose a topic to start developing into a thematic statement. This is where they express what the author is suggesting or implying about the topic. Feel free to give them a sentence template such as, “[AUTHOR] believes [STANCE ON THE TOPIC.].” Then, have them condense the thematic statement by removing the “[AUTHOR] believes” from the sentence.

    Voila! They have a thematic statement. But there’s one more step. (And it’s essential.)

    The final step to check for understanding?

    Make your students prove their claim. When it comes to students understanding theme, they can check their work to see if it makes sense. I always like to compare it to a criminal trial. You would never place someone behind bars without substantial evidence to support a guilty verdict, right? (Hopefully.) Therefore, you can’t claim a theme without substantial textual evidence to support your claim.

    So, once they craft their thematic statement, have them put it to the test in context. Now, I believe in the power of three. (Is it a coincidence that there are three body paragraphs in your standard essay? I think not.) Therefore, ask students to find three pieces of direct evidence from the text that support their thematic claim.

    For students who might be new to theme or are struggling with the concept, feel free to start with one piece of evidence and then slowly move up to three. For more advanced students, challenge them to find four or five pieces of supporting evidence. That’s what I love about this stage of the process; You can always send students back for more or simply stronger pieces of evidence. In other words, no more twiddling thumbs!

    And honestly, this is where the real learning happens. If the student cannot find strong (or any) supporting evidence, you can direct them back to their brainstormed list of topics and go through the process again. Through this process they will develop and strengthen their understanding of theme in general.

    Teaching Theme Vs. Main Idea: Activities to Try in the Classroom

    • Get Musical!

    You know what they say– songs are just poems with a beat!So, if you have a handful of reluctant readers, try teaching this concept under the guise of music. Choose a popular song or two and have students walk through the same exercise outlined above using the song! (Just be sure to thoroughly read the lyrics and meaning first.)

    • Close Reading of a Childhood Favorite.

    Have students take the reins and do a close reading of a childhood favorite. Then, have them present their findings (main idea, theme, and supporting textual evidence) to showcase their understanding! Some of my favorites? The Giving Tree, The Lorax, The Little Engine That Could, and The Tortoise and the Hare.

    • Scramble and Sort!

    Take a short story or a section from a class novel. (For struggling students, be sure the theme is easily inferred.) Then, write five statements including the main idea, a thematic statement, and three details from the text. Cut each statement out, mix ‘em up, and place them in an envelope for each student. Students will then have to unscramble the statements and correctly sort them to identify the different elements. (For advanced students, level it up by choosing supporting details that support the thematic statement.)

    • Go With the Flow (Chart).

    Create a graphic organizer for students to fill out that shows how these concepts connect!Design a flow chart template where students begin by identifying the title of the text followed by the main idea. Next, they generate a thematic statement that relates to the main idea, while broadening it beyond the story itself. Finally, the theme flows into three to five specific examples from the text that highlight the theme. The best part? This chart can serve as a planning tool for  a full-blown thematic essay.

    • Match It Up!

    This is a fun (and virtual) two-column activity to not only solidify the difference between theme and main idea, but to show how they can be related. Pick a story, popular movie, or text read in class. Create a list of main ideas and corresponding thematic statements. Then, have students drag and drop the statements into one of two labeled columns. Next, students can draw lines to connect the corresponding themes and main ideas! This is an impactful activity for students who are struggling to see the difference between a plot-based main idea and a more generalized thematic statement.

    The bottom line? Taking the time to teach the difference between theme and main idea is a must. Trust me. It’ll save everyone a lot of frustration and red ink.

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