Describe the central message or theme; Retell a text (Inclusive Big Idea #2)

What are students learning?

Reading Literature

Grade 1: English Language Arts

Inclusive Big Idea #2: Describe the central message or theme; Retell a text

Standard: Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson. RL.1.2

How could I teach this?

Think about how instructional strategies and activities can give students multiple ways to engage with learning. One way won’t work for all, so how can you remove and reduce barriers for all students?

  • Anchor Text: Use an anchor text, read aloud or adapted to meet the range of reading skills and practices, such as Alexander, Who’s Not (Do you hear me? I mean it!) Going to Move, by Judith Viorst. The story should have a clear sequence of events which address the major theme or lesson. Learn more about accessing grade-level text in this TIP Sheet.
  • Storyboards: To illustrate the major plot points of the story, stop periodically and have students record a pictorial representation of the action on a comic storyboard, or other digital storyboard option. Then, at the completion of the read aloud, the teacher and students can summarize the set of events from the story and discuss theme or central idea. Have some pre-made images or allow students to find images that demonstrate their understanding of the central message. You can make a storyboard even more engaging through puppet theater:
    • Puppet Theater: Using a felt board, create props from a familiar story. Have students retell the story to each other by manipulating the various props on the felt board. Have students work in pairs, taking turns describing the beginning, middle, and end of the story, or sequencing the pictures.
  • Graphic Organizer: Have students write, match, or place pictures with written labels in a graphic organizer with labels beginning, middle, and end to record the key events from a story. Then students answer questions about the beginning, middle, and end of the story either verbally or by pointing to the correct picture in the graphic organizer. You can also color code the events of the story on the graphic organizer (e.g., beginning = green, middle = yellow, ending = red). To help students track key details that may help them determine the central message, provide a list of transition signal words for reference on an anchor chart (e.g., first, next, after, before, last). Learn more about graphic organizers in this TIP Sheet.
  • Think Aloud: Keep a record of key events as a story is read or listened to.
    • Preview the type of information to look for prior to reading the story or watching the video. Practice finding key events with a set of short paragraphs or very short stories.
    • Model think-alouds of key events and evidence supporting a theme or central idea from the story. Have sentence stems with the main think-alouds available.
    • Record any transitional signal words used in the story in multiple places so students can readily access them.
    • Identify pictures that represent the central message of a given story. Students may start with stories they are familiar with or that are from their culture.
  • GIST: GIST (Generating Interactions between Schemata and Text) is a strategy that asks readers to condense or summarize a story by generating a brief summary in their own words. For simple texts read aloud or listened to, students can provide the GIST by identifying the central message from the story. In longer read aloud texts, the teacher or student may stop every few pages and discuss the GIST of what was read so far. Graphic organizers can help students record ideas.

Somebody-Wanted-But-So-Then: Have students capture the central message from a story of text by determining the ‘somebody’ (the main character of the story), what the main character ‘wanted’ (which is the inciting incident that starts the movement of the plot), the ‘but’ (the problem that keeps the main character from getting what they ‘wanted’), and ‘so-then’ (is the resolution of the story or the solution of the problem). 

Don’t stop here! Remember to reduce barriers for all students.

Make reducing barriers a process - take a few minutes to think about your process! Is there a barrier related to:

  • interest or engagement? Think about how to incorporate student’s lived experiences, culture, and interests… 
  • background knowledge? Think about how to highlight key ideas and define key vocabulary… 
  • showing what they know? Think about having options for how they use learning tools and technology to communicate…

For example, one possible barrier is the amount of information that a student needs to hold in mind.

 Ideas to reduce this barrier could include:

  • be aware of how much sensory input occurs at once, perhaps offer the option to use headphones.
  • show examples and provide answers to check along the way
  • provide templates or graphic organizers
  • provide sentence starters or phrase choices that students can use or move to answer questions

Use these Inclusive Strategies to help reduce barriers.

Tell me more about this Inclusive Big Idea (I need a refresher)

Brush up on the content of this Inclusive Big Idea. It will help you and your colleagues to understand and teach this content better.

  • Why are Main Idea and Theme important?
    • Whether reading a story, a comic, or a poem, the ability to determine the main idea, theme, and supporting details are lifelong skills readers use to foster higher level thinking and deeper comprehension.
    • To share their comprehension of a story, text, or topic, students must be able to restate the main idea and other key details to summarize their understanding. Main ideas and details can be explicitly stated in the text while the central idea, moral, or theme require various degrees of inference to determine, but must be supported by details from the text. Learn more about inferencing with this TIP Sheet.
  • What Vocabulary Should I Know and Teach?
    • summary- containing the key points and big ideas
    • main idea- the most important idea in the text
    • details- specific smaller elements that support a larger work
    • key word- essential or significant words related to the text or topic
    • relevant- has significant importance to the topic or text
    • irrelevant- not important or related
    • characters- person/persons in a story
    • setting- place where the story happens
    • plot- sequence of events involving characters in conflict situations
    • point of view- perspective from which the story is told
    • theme- moral or big idea of the story
    • inference- a conclusion or opinion that is formed based on facts or evidence not directly stated in a text
    • context clues- words and sentences within a text that provide additional information and support a reader’s ability to make a conclusion about what happens in a text
  • What is Theme?
    • The central and underlying meaning of the story.
    • The big idea the author wants the reader to take away from the text-- the writer’s view of the world or a revelation about human nature.
  • What are Some Common Themes Found in Literature?
    • Acceptance: These stories have characters who respect and accept others’ differences and beliefs.
    • Courage: These stories have brave characters who have the strength to overcome a fear or accept a risk.
    • Perseverance: These stories have characters who never give up, even when facing difficult times.
    • Cooperation: These stories have characters who work together to solve a problem or achieve a goal.
    • Compassion: These stories have characters who want to make those who are suffering feel better.
    • Honesty: These stories have characters who find that it is best to always tell the truth.
    • Kindness/Love: These stories have friendly characters who are generous and considerate of others.
    • Loyalty/Friendship: These stories have characters who trust each other and never turn their backs on their friends.
    • Coming-of-age: These stories have characters passing through major stages of development/growing up.
    • Family/Belonging: These stories have characters who find similarities with family or friends and use these characteristics to bond.
  • How Can You Find the Theme?
    • It is common for stories to have multiple themes. Theme can be stated explicitly or implicitly. For example, fables explicitly state the theme at the end.
    • Unlike the main idea which requires information from an entire text, the theme can often be found at the conclusion of the story.
    • Most often, readers have to infer the theme based on character traits, motivations, actions, emotions, and values.
    • Some sample questions about theme:
      • What message did you take away from reading this text? Which clues helped you determine this theme?
      • Which passage in the text is most significant? Why?
      • How do the changes the main character undergoes help you determine the message of the book?
      • What affected your interpretation of the theme the most: the plot, the characters, the setting?
  • What is Main Idea?
    • The main idea is what the paragraph or story is mostly about. All the sentences are joining together to give the reader a message. You may encourage students to look for main ideas in other media, such as videos or songs.
    • Sometimes the main idea is directly stated within the passage. Other times, it is inferred, which means the reader has to “read between the lines” and figure it out on their own.
  • Why Teach Main Idea?
    • When the main idea is present at the beginning of a text, it alerts the reader to upcoming information and helps them set a purpose for reading. This leads to a greater understanding of the text.
    • It provides the reader with a framework for understanding and recalling the important ideas in the text.
    • Learning how to identify the main idea will help readers remember what they read and improve their comprehension.
  • How Do I Teach Main Idea?
    • Begin by identifying the main idea at the sentence level, then practice with a paragraph, and finally with an entire selection.
    • Teach students that main idea is sometimes expressed as a topic sentence usually found in the beginning of the text.
    • Finding the central theme or idea is not limited to text, but can be found in movies, cartoons, plays, and more.
    • Teaching the Main Idea-- Continuum
      1. Identify the key words of a sentence
      2. Identify key words or topic of a paragraph
      3. Identify the topic sentence of a paragraph
      4. Recognize the explicitly stated point of a paragraph
      5. Infer the main idea of a paragraph
      6. Recognize the relationships among ideas in related paragraphs in longer selections
      7. Infer relationships among ideas in related paragraphs in longer selections
      8. Determine main idea or central message of an entire text.
  • How Do I Identify Key Words?
    • Mastery of identifying key words at the sentence level is essential in order for students to move on to larger bodies of text.
    • Begin at the sentence level to identify key words that help deepen understanding of the central theme:
      • The small pig was frightened by the big, bad wolf.
      • Who is the sentence about? It’s about a small pig.
      • What about that small pig? or What happens to the small pig? It’s frightened by the wolf.
    • Once mastery at the sentence level is achieved, move on to identifying key words of a paragraph. Model how to highlight important words and discuss their meaning within the paragraph.


Looking for more suggestions?  Target student common misconceptions, build on interdisciplinary links, and implement strategies and supports across multiple lessons or units.

Go beyond the specific standard! These examples can spark ideas to generalize related skills from the content to real-world experiences for all students.

Common Misconceptions

  • Retelling: When retelling a story, information should be presented in the same order in which it happened to ensure students understood the cause and effect relationship for events and other story characteristics.
  • Theme: Theme is rarely stated directly in the text. Students must infer theme based on details presented in the text. Main idea and theme are often confused as being the same. Although both can be related, theme is a broad topic, whereas main idea is more specific. (For example, nature may be the theme of a story, whereas the main idea is “littering is bad.”)
  • Social Skills: After identifying the theme or message of the text, ask students to identify ways that they can apply it to their own life. For instance, with Alexander Who’s Not Going to Move, discuss “accepting change” and sort examples and nonexamples.
  • Science & Social Studies: Once students can determine the main idea and key details of a text, ask them to apply this skill to their reading about subject matter.

Everyday Connections

  • Recreation & Leisure: After watching a movie or show, seeing a sports event or play, or seeing a documentary, students are able to retell the key details and understand the central message or lesson

Explore other Inclusive Big Ideas to think about the content you are teaching. How can you connect what you are teaching now to what has been taught before or what will be taught in the future?

Other TIES resources:

Inclusive Big Ideas: Standards-based resources for inclusive classrooms | TIES Center

The Inclusive Big Ideas were adapted from resources created by the NCSC Project , a federal grant from the US Department of Education (PR/Award #: H373X100002), However, the contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the US Department of Education and no assumption of endorsement by the Federal government should be made.

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