If your students are anything like mine, they have an incredibly difficult time telling the difference between main idea and theme. Before this year, I had always taught the skills in isolation. Main Idea first, followed by Theme a few weeks later. Most kids are familiar with main idea when they get to the upper grades, but it is still tricky for them. Then add on top of that the idea of theme, and their minds are blown. This year, I taught them separately, then integrated them. It has helped with their understanding of main idea vs. theme SO much!
First, we made an anchor chart together where we brainstormed themes and then some fictitious main ideas that could go along with the themes (remember, the students already had background knowledge about what theme and main idea are independent of one another). Here are two similar versions of the theme and main idea anchor charts I've made with students over the years:
A note on the anchor charts: I want to clarify that the first example here does use what some identify as “topics” instead of themes. We talk about this in the classroom, but the anchor charts condensed them to one word. I DO encourage my students to use sentences to write themes instead of just one-word topics (as seen in the second anchor chart).
Free Main Idea Vs. Theme Sorts
The next day, they did a quick sort of main ideas and themes. This is when they really started to get it. They sorted the definitions as well as a few examples of both main idea and theme.
Get your FREE Main Idea vs. Theme Sort!
Subscribe to my newsletter and receive loads of free resources, lesson ideas, and teacher inspiration. When you subscribe, you'll automatically receive this Main Idea vs. Theme sort in your inbox!
Success! Now check your email to begin your download.
After they did the sort, I had them answer the following questions in pairs. Some still struggled with this, but most of them could see that themes were universal, whereas main idea statements include specific details and are usually specific to one story. Being able to look at the statements within the sort really helped them to see these differences.
After they had answered these questions in pairs, we had a really great discussion about main idea vs. theme as an entire class.
Differentiated Main Idea Vs Theme Task Cards
Later, we started working on theme task cards using brief passages. We all started with multiple choice task cards, which gave students three options, one of which was the theme, and the other was the main idea (the third is just a detail from the story). For some of them who got it RIGHT AWAY, I had them select the correct answers, but then also rewrite the statements in their own words.
Then, the students who had a solid understanding moved on to paragraphs with no options. I did give them a card to help guide them, but they were generating their own main ideas and themes.
Are your students also struggling to identify the difference between main ideas and themes? Visit my TPT store to purchase these differentiated Main Idea vs. Theme Task Cards to help your students master this tricky concept. With 16 original stories and four digital Google Classroom options, this resource is perfect for literacy centers, whole group lessons, warm ups, and small groups. You can also use the paragraphs for main idea or theme alone.
In addition to having students complete the cards independently, I have also used them in small groups. I printed several copies for students to read and led the small groups through it orally. The stories were great for discussion and it allowed me to really see students who understood it quickly. It was also beneficial because after I had the students tell me what they thought the theme was, they could see that stories had multiple themes sometimes!
I really believe this helped my students better understand the difference between main idea and theme. I hope some of these ideas (and the freebie) can help yours, too!
More Main Idea Vs. Theme Ideas
NEW! Check out my post about how I use song lyrics to teach Main Idea and Theme!