Teaching Theme in First Grade


Teaching theme can be a lot of fun in first grade.  I like to explain theme or central message to firsties this way, “What do you think the author wants you to learn from this story that you can use in your life?”  It can be tricky and takes LOTS of practice!

Usually, the students will say something very literal from the story at first.  For example, in the story The Little Red Hen they might at first say something like “How to grow wheat!” But sometimes a student will say something so insightful it makes your heart flutter!  So…how do we get them to that point!

Teaching Theme Through Teacher Think Alouds

A good place to start is telling students what the theme of a story is, and then modeling finding evidence in the story to support the theme. Here is an example from The Little Red Hen.

Model using a web to record text evidence for your students.
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After reading aloud the story, I would display a graphic organizer like the one above, that already has the theme listed.  I would read the story again and stop along the way listing some events from the story that support this theme.  At the end of the lesson the chart would look like this:

Students practice finding text evidence in the book The Little Red Hen.
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Use Guided Practice

The next day, I would start with a similar graphic organizer (with the theme listed) for a new story.  This time, students would help me find the evidence to support the listed theme.

I think folk tales are a great place to start.  Here are some ideas of folktales and themes:
The Three Little Pigs– Take the time to do things the right way
Chicken Little/Henny Penny– Don’t believe everything someone says, or Think things through before jumping to conclusions
City Mouse, Country Mouse– Home is the best place to be

Students Practice Finding Theme Independently

After we have practiced together several times, then I would have students complete a graphic organizer on their own (with the theme already listed).  Over time, with lots of modeling and guided practice, I will have students begin to determine the theme on their own.  This is a skill that takes lots of time to develop, and we will revisit it over and over again throughout the year.  Also, I think it is important to recognize that there can be more than one theme in a book, there isn’t necessarily one “right” answer.

Writing is a powerful way for students to

Teaching Theme with Picture Books

Another fun way to teach this skill is to choose a variety of books centered around one theme.

These picture books all focus on the theme of being yourself.
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The books above all center around the theme of “Being different is good” or “Just be yourself”.

Here are some additional books that I think are great for teaching theme:

Picture books provide a great way to teach theme to primary students. Here are a few of my favorites!
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Charlie the Caterpillar– like The Ugly Duckling, theme of not judging someone by how the look
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble– theme of being happy with what you already have
Hooway for Wodney Wat– theme of even though you are small, you can do great things
The Principal’s New Clothes– theme of don’t follow the crowd if you know it isn’t right
Officer Buckle and Gloria– theme of the importance of working together

I’ve also included some graphic organizers for your students to use.

Click here for free graphic organizers to teach theme with your first graders. It includes a web for The Three Little Pigs, and another web that can be used with any book.
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Need more ideas for teaching reading comprehension? Check out this post all about using a reading response journal in your classroom.

Hi, I’m Jaymie! Thanks for stopping by my blog. I taught for 17 years including 12 years in First Grade, 4 years as a Reading Interventionist, and 1 year in Pre-K. 

I have a passion for creating rigorous, easy to use primary resources that require little or no prep! I hope you find some easy ideas to take back to your classroom or use in your homeschool!

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