Teaching Theme and Summarizing Strategies in 4th and 5th Grade

The Standards for Teaching Theme and Summarizing. In this teaching blog post you will find mini lesson resources, as well as my 5 tips for teaching themes and summarizing in your classroom. Learn more on how to incorporate these classroom ideas here.

Now that I have expanded to 4th and 5th grade ELA, I will have new topics to cover. Today, we’re going to talk about teaching theme and summarizing.

The Standards for Teaching Theme and Summarizing

  • RL.4.2: Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.
  • RL.5.2: 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.

Now for the teaching aspect. HOW can we teach our students to determine theme?

  1. Review the different types of literature.
  2. Introduce what theme is. 
  3. Teach students to summarize and relate that to theme.
  4. Introduce texts and passages.
  5. Allow them to practice over time.

1. Review the Different Types of Literature.

When teaching theme, it is essential to use a variety of different literary texts. This is because theme often comes in many different forms. Theme is not spoken or defined anywhere in the text, the students have to infer and critically think to figure out theme. Myths, folk tales, tall tales, and more are perfect for teaching theme because these types of literature almost always have an overall message from the author. So, before I teach theme, I like to back up and teach the different types of texts that you’ll be using over the entire unit.

(Link: RL4.2 Theme)

During their genre mini-lesson, students can review the types of literature that will have great theme lessons within them. Then, they can use this knowledge to do a book find to find the different types of literature. Before this lesson, head to the local library and stock up on at least five or six different books from each folklore category.

2. Introduce What Theme Is.

Now, it’s time to introduce what theme actually is. Anchor charts are handy for students when teaching a new topic. In my ELA unit, there are two pre-made anchor charts that you can display on the whiteboard, or you can recreate them and complete them with the students. They are ideal for teaching theme and summarizing.

(Sources: RL4.2 and RL.5.2)

On the left, you see the pre-made anchor charts that you can print or project on the whiteboard when teaching the mini-lesson. Or you can use these pre-made anchor charts to create an anchor chart with your students on chart paper.

Once you have introduced theme, it is time to teach the students how to identify the theme using text, which is our next section.

(Sources: RL4.2 and RL.5.2)

Then, give students a matching game that will help them read a short paragraph and read between the lines. Usually, no texts that authors write will have the theme written out clearly. The students will have to comprehend and infer what the theme is.

Or, this activity from my 5th-grade unit involves 3 short stories, which students can read and determine the theme of each. This activity can be done as a whole group, small group, or partners. It is a good step to take before students read full texts.

3. Introduce Text and Passages.

4th grade 5th grade theme mentor texts

Once students can recognize what theme is, they will need to be able to apply it to their texts. Below are seven links to books with good themes. These are affiliate links for Amazon! They will be useful to use during your read-alouds or partner reading time in your theme unit.

(Sources: RL4.2 and RL.5.2)

Here are reading-related activities for teaching theme. In my ELA units, I always offer passages and printables to use with any text. In the top left picture, you see a few types of printable activities that students can use with any text, including an interactive notebook page, task cards, and a digital version of one of the graphic organizers in the unit.

On the right at the top, you see an example of one of the comprehension passages in the unit with task cards and a printable theme bookmark for comprehension.

4th and 5th Grade Theme Lesson Plan and activities including graphic organizers and interactive noteboook

(Sources: RL4.2 and RL.5.2)

These graphic organizers and interactive notebook pages can be used with any fiction text. During your theme unit, I highly recommend offering a variety of texts that fall in the folklore genre (folk tale, fairy tale, fable…). It is a great way for students to practice summarizing and theme.

4. Teach Students to Summarize and Relate that to Theme.

Also included in this standard is summarizing. The beginning part of the standard deals with finding the theme, but the 2nd part deals with summarizing. Teaching your students to summarize is not easy at all, but hopefully, they’ve been practicing retelling and recounting in the last three years of primary grades! That will help them summarize. Teaching theme and summarizing can be challenging but my resources will help you!

4th grade 5th grade theme and summary anchor chart

(Sources: RL4.2 and RL.5.2)

Teaching the SWBST is such a great device to use for summarizing. It’s easy for students to remember, and it covers all the bases when it comes to summarizing. You can choose to project the mini anchor chart on the board or use it as inspiration to create your own with your class, like the one shown above.

(Sources: RL4.2 and RL.5.2)

5. Allow Them to Practice Over Time.

Students need to practice theme and summarizing throughout the year and in many different ways.

(Sources: RL4.2 and RL.5.2)

Incorporating task cards, interactive notebooks, passages, printables, and more into your ELA rotations is highly suggested. If you teach Daily 5 or reading centers, these will fit perfectly into your different stations. Have students complete them with partners or independently. Just let them practice a lot! After your initial theme unit, which may take a week or two, I suggest having theme be a cyclical practice where they’re working on it throughout the year as a review.

Would you like a FREE Theme Lesson Plan?


When you sign up for my email list, this RL.4.2 Lesson freebie will be sent directly to your inbox. Check your email after this!

Or do you need COMPLETE resources for teaching theme?

For 4th and 5th grade, I have a specific resource for theme. Click the images below to grab your grade level!

The resources featured in the blog post are complete, no-prep units. They have everything you need to teach inferences in your 4th or 5th-grade classroom. Lesson plans, graphic organizers, comprehension passages, task cards, interactive notebooks, assessments, and more! Click the buttons below to get a closer look:

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