The Difference Between Main Idea and Theme

Ana PortaBooks, Volunteers

A crucial skill for students to build in 3rd grade is the ability to identify and differentiate between the main idea and theme of the books they read. This helps students think about what they are reading in a broader context, showing that they can use details and close reading to help them understand the main idea and theme of the book. This is helpful for both fiction and nonfiction books.

Main Idea Vs. Theme

The main idea is what the book is mostly about. The theme is the message, lesson, or moral of a book. By asking crucial questions at before you read, while you read, and after you read a book, you can determine the main idea and theme of any book you are reading!

Questions to Determine Main Idea
  • Before Reading:
    • Read the title.
    • What is the book about?
    • What is the topic?
  • While Reading:
    • Look for and carefully read text features.
    • Is the book fiction or nonfiction?
    • Look for information, words, and pictures that are repeated.
  • After Reading:
    • Think about the most important part of this topic.
    • What details or examples back up and support the main idea?
Questions to Determine Theme
  • Before Reading:
    • Look back at the common theme topics.
    • Keep these in mind as you begin to read the book.
  • While Reading:
    • Think: the theme may be stated or implied (suggested).
  • After Reading:
    • How did the characters react to obstacles?
    • What important decisions did the characters make?
    • How did the characters grow or change, and what did they learn?
Common Literary Themes
  • Acceptance
  • Courage
  • Perseverance
  • Cooperation
  • Compassion
  • Honesty
  • Kindness
  • Loyalty

Check out these other great tips and volunteering stories from WITS.

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