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

What are students learning?

Reading Literature

Grade 5: English Language Arts

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

Standard: Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text. RL.5.2

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 Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. Demonstrate to the students how to identify the central message or theme of the text, keeping track of key details as they read or listen. Learn more about accessing grade-level text in this TIP Sheet.
  • Storyboards: To illustrate the major plot points of the story, the teacher or students could stop periodically and have students draw a pictorial representation of the action on a comic storyboard. 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.
  • Story Map: During and after reading a text aloud, create a story map on an interactive whiteboard. The story map should contain the essential elements of the story (characters, setting, major plot points, resolution). The elements can be written or drawn. After the completion of the story and the story map, work collaboratively with the students to create a summary of the story. Learn more about graphic organizers in this TIP Sheet.
  • GIST: GIST (Generating Interactions between Schemata and Text) is a strategy that asks readers to condense or summarize a text by generating a summary in their own words. For simple texts read aloud by you, students can provide the GIST by identifying some of the main events from the story. In longer read aloud texts, stop every few pages, and ask students to tell 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, central message, and theme.
  • Think, Pair, Share: Ask students to individually summarize the story. Then, the student meets with a peer to share their summaries. After the pairs share, a couple of teams can share with the rest of the class. Learn more about Think, Pair, Share in this TIP Sheet.
  • Think Aloud: To model summarization, read aloud a book to the class. Then, 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 to students.
  • Sketch-to-Stretch: Sketch-to-stretch is a way for students to capture the central message through drawing. After the students have completed reading or listening to a story, they can draw or create (e.g., by pasting illustrations, using their AAC) 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, ask a series of questions 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?

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

Ideas to reduce this barrier could include:

  • provide options for building important background knowledge prior to and during reading/listening to a text (pre-teaching,re-teaching,embedded instruction)
  • highlight or bullet key ideas
  • annotate readings or provide key questions or background information needed to look for in an article or video or background information needed for a particular section
  • use outlines, venn Diagrams, T charts, or ways to organize information (learn more about graphic organizers in this TIP Sheet).
  • continue to use objects and multimedia when appropriate

 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 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?
  • 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. Learn more about making inferences with this TIP Sheet.
  • Why Teach Main Idea?
    • When the main idea is known 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 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. 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.
  • Story Elements: Students often miss aspects of story elements when summarizing a text. In addition, some texts are considered “inconsiderate” texts and do not provide enough to allow students to fully understand all story elements and must fill in the gaps with prior experiences and personal preferences, leading to problems with comprehension.
  • 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.
  • Social Studies: Develop a unit based on a theme which can also be found in literary texts (e.g., acceptance) and then share cultural examples of the same theme in history.
  • Music: Select the theme song of a movie students are familiar with and discuss why that music is an effective theme song.

Everyday Connections

  • Hanging Out: 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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