Top Teaching > Angela Bunyi > Finding THE MEssage: Grasping Themes in Literature

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Finding THE MEssage: Grasping Themes in Literature

IMG_2230With 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

IMG_2231One 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 addressed this in her latest 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.

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

Lesson Ideas

Many teachers have Strategies That Work in their book collection. If you don't, you can likely find a copy in your hallway. It's a great resource for the upper grades, and I highly recommend it. One of the lessons addressed in the book includes creating a T-chart to teach theme. One side is dedicated to identifying a theme while the other side is for recording supporting details that "prove it." 

And what 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:

  • Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya
  • Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting
  • The Old Woman Who Named Things by Cynthia Rylant
  • The Raft by Jim LaMarche
  • Mr. Peabody's Apples by Madonna
  • Old Turtle and the Broken Truth by Douglas Wood
  • Fables by Arnold Lobel

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 "What's the Big Idea?" (PDF)

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

PlasticSodaBottle_AB_021611 Looking for an interesting project that showcases this learned skill? Here's one of my favorites.

Materials needed:

  • 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

Letter and bottle development guidelines:

  • A character in your 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. 
  • Decorate your container with symbols and scenery appropriate to your novel and its theme.
  • Write a letter from your 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 you think the text conveyed. In the body of the letter, make sure you incorporate three points that support your ideas.
  • The bottle you create will be given to a student in another class who will judge if you presented three points that connect to your theme.
  • Be creative! Be neat! Make sure you 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.



  • #1 Angela Bunyi

    Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 08:48 AM

    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.


  • #2 Lisa

    Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 08:30 AM

    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

  • #3 Angela Bunyi

    Monday, February 21, 2011 at 07:29 AM


    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 that provides you lesson ideas and resources based on your specific learning standards.



  • #4 Becky

    Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    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,

  • #5 Angela Bunyi

    Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 09:02 AM


    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!


  • #6 Becky

    Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 08:37 PM

    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?

  • #7 Angela Bunyi

    Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 04:53 PM


    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).


  • #8 Brittney Turner

    Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 01:12 AM

    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?

  • #9 Character Education

    Friday, February 18, 2011 at 06:00 AM

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

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