Teaching Theme in Reading: 3 Tips for 3rd Grade


Teaching theme in reading is such a tricky skill in 3rd grade. It’s one of those reading concepts that is confusing for them. Initially, they may think they are looking for the main idea – which of course it is not. But what is it? How do you explain what theme means? Here are 3 tips and strategies for you to try with your 3rd-grade students that will help them understand what theme is and how they find it.

Teaching Theme in Reading 3rd Grade Tips

What is theme in reading?

The theme is the central message or lesson the author is trying to convey through the story. We are going to examine the characters and how they change in the story to determine what the author is trying to teach us.

What is an example of theme in reading?

My first tip is to begin the lesson by explaining what theme means by giving examples.

  • Give students examples such as these on the Theme Anchor Chart shown below. Having these examples as they learn how to find the theme is just the support they will need.
  • Talk about some of the read-aloud books you have shared with your students. One of my favorites is Because of Winn Dixie. It has a clear theme of friendship between the main character (India) and all the eccentric characters she meets in her new town.
Teaching Theme in Reading Anchor Chart for Students

How do I find the theme in a story?

Teaching students how to find a theme in a story really is best taught as steps to take. This is my 2nd tip. Give them clear steps to follow in order to analyze the characters so they can see when the characters change or grow in the story.

This Finding the Theme of the Story anchor chart gives students these steps:

  1. Sequence the key events including the character’s actions.
  2. Identify the main problem or something the main character is trying to accomplish.
  3. Look for what the character says, thinks, feels, and their reactions.
  4. Think about what the character learns or how the character changes or grows.
  5. Decide what the message or lesson the author wants to convey.

Teaching Theme in Reading by Using Close Reading Strategies – 1st Read

My 3rd tip is to use close reading strategies when teaching a specific reading skill such as theme because this gives students a framework to use as they learn this new skill – and one that they can use each time they are working on theme.

Students will read the theme reading passage for the first time in order to get the gist and to begin to get to know the characters. There are two ways I help them with that.

First, I give them these guiding questions to refer to during reading.

Second, I ask them to jot down the answers to these questions:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What is the problem?
  • What does the character say?
  • What does the character do?
  • Did the character learn of change?

These questions will lay a good foundation for students to begin to explore the character more deeply and discover the theme.

Teaching Theme in Reading by Using Close Reading Strategies – 2nd Read

When students read the theme reading passage for the second time, I expect that they will begin to get to know the main character better. The purpose of reading this time is to discover the theme by mapping out the events using a graphic organizer.

This helps students look at the entire plot and determine what happened to the main character that helped them learn a lesson or interpret a central message through their experiences.

After Reading Theme Activities

At this point, many students will have an idea of what the character learned and can name the theme of the passage. If you want them to have a level of mastery of this skill, they need to be able to show that they comprehended the passage, understood the plot and characters and can explain what the theme is by giving text evidence of it.

Giving them a set of comprehension questions will show you who understands, who needs more support, and what they need help with.

If your students need help with citing text evidence – check out this post that helps explain how to teach this skill and includes a FREEBIE!


Let’s summarize the 3 tips for teaching themes in reading:

  1. Use examples of theme in stories they are familiar with.
  2. Give them specific steps to finding theme using an anchor chart they can use as reference.
  3. Use close reading strategies with 1st and 2nd reading of the passage.

These tips have worked really well for me and I know they will help you too!

The resource I used in this post: Theme – Reading Passage, Graphic Organizer, Anchor Charts, Questions – 3rd Grade. It’s a fun story about a little mouse that 3rd graders will love!

This resource is perfect for a 2-3 day lesson on teaching theme in reading for 3rd grade.


More 3rd Grade Close Reading Resources

Don’t have time right now? Save this pin to your 3rd Grade Reading Pinterest Board!

Teaching Theme in Reading 3rd Grade Tips Pn

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