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

What are students learning?

Reading Literature

Grade 3: English Language Arts

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

Standard: Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text. RL.3.2

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 such as The Grasshopper and the Ant. Retell the key events and brainstorm possible themes or morals. Learn more about accessing grade-level text in this TIP Sheet.
  • Storyboards: To illustrate the key details in the text that are helpful to determine the central message, the teacher should stop periodically and discuss or have students draw a pictorial representation of the action on a comic storyboard. This could be a digital version. The teacher and students can summarize the set of events from the story and discuss the key details that help them determine the theme or central idea.
  • Graphic Organizer: Have students use a story map or sequence chain to retell the story, focusing on the key details that are contributing to a central theme. Learn more about graphic organizers in this TIP Sheet.
    • Sequence the beginning, middle, and end of the story.
    • Identify the problem and the solution to the story.
    • Use a Venn diagram or similar graphic organizer to compare and contrast fables and folktales from diverse cultures. Students can match or place word cards or picture cards in the appropriate section of the diagram, representing each story. Then students answer questions about the stories either verbally or by pointing to the correct picture in the graphic organizer.
  • Think Aloud: To model summarizing, read aloud a book to the class, have students listen to audio books, or read them in partners. Share how readers periodically, stop and summarize what was just read using just one sentence (e.g., “That paragraph was mostly about _______”). At the end of the story, provide another summary of the entire text that focuses on the central message.
  • GIST: GIST (Generating Interactions between Schemata and Text) is a strategy that asks readers to condense or summarize a text or other media by generating a brief summary in their own words. Students can use sentence starters or follow model answers to provide the GIST by identifying some of the main events or key details from a story. In longer texts, encourage students to stop every few pages and tell or document the GIST of what was read so far.
  • Anchor Chart: To help students understand details from the text, create an anchor chart that describes literary elements such as characters, setting, plot and how those contribute to understanding the central theme.
  • Story Sorting: Visually represent the events of the story by making picture cards of each event. Then, individually, in small groups, or with the whole class, focus on how the events contribute to understanding the central theme.
  • Sketch-to-Stretch: Sketch-to-stretch is a way for students to capture the central message through drawing. After the students have completed reading a story, they can draw or create (e.g., by pasting illustrations or using digital tools) a visual representation about the central message the author is trying to convey. They can use examples and details from the text to inform their drawings.
  • Discuss to Understand: As students are reading particular sections of the text, have a series of questions available to help students determine the central message. Help facilitate this by asking questions such as:
    • What is this story really about?
    • What do you think the author wants you to learn from this story?
    • What lessons do you think the characters learned?
    • What details are important?

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 that the design of the lesson does not support students understanding the main ideas.

Ideas to reduce this barrier could include:

  • highlight or bullet key ideas
  • use outlines or a scaffolded graphic organizer that begins with the details and builds to the main idea to organize information
  • explicitly teach the words and ideas to look for when finding main idea (words that repeat in the text, the title, main idea is a few words or phrase or picture)

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 content area textbook, a comic, or a poem, the ability to determine the main idea, theme, and supporting details is a lifelong skill 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 central idea, moral, or theme require various degrees of inference to determine, but must be supported by details from the text.
  • 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?


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 Student 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.
  • Theme: 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”).
  • Main Idea: Students may have difficulty determining what essential information is. Students often misinterpret details as being the main idea and need to be guided to see the author’s overall point or the ‘big picture’. It is also important to note that the main idea is not simply what the text is about. For example, in Jack and the Beanstalk, selling the cow is a detail in the story but is not essentially related to the main idea.
  • Summarizing: Teachers sometimes mistakenly believe that students have the ability to determine what is essential within a text. Explicit teaching is often required for students to learn this skill.
  • Building Background Knowledge: Many teachers assume students already know about a topic based on their age or what they should have learned in a previous grade or class. When background knowledge is not built or activated, students will lack the schema to understand new material and may not effectively learn and understand the topic or concept.

Everyday Connections

  • On the Playground: Encourage students to think about a story from their life (a fight with a friend on the playground, a time they got a new toy, etc.) or a favorite cartoon, book, play, or comic and tell about the main message or theme. 

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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