#084: Main Idea vs. Theme - What's the Difference?

teaching reading Feb 24, 2022

The main idea vs. theme can be so tricky for students to understand not only the difference between them but what each one actually is as well. So, let's be clear from the beginning. Begin by teaching each one separately, then you can talk about the difference between them.


To start, the main idea tells us what a text is mostly about. You can often sum this up with one sentence. When we can figure out the main idea then we know the purpose of the text.

Some questions you might ask for main idea are:

  1. What is the title of the text?
  2. Who or what is the text about?
  3. What is the topic?
  4. What is the most important information about that topic?
  5. Is there information that is repeated [in different ways or the same way]?

Here's a YouTube video from McGraw Hill on Main Idea.

A theme is a lesson, message, or moral the author wants the character or reader to learn. You can often use a few words to explain this BIG idea.

Questions to determine the theme might include:

  1. Who is the main character(s)?
  2. What are they like?
  3. What happens to them and how do they feel about it?
  4. What is the conflict or struggle?  How do they feel about it? What are their reactions?
  5. What are the important decisions or choices the character has to make?
  6. How is the problem solved?
  7. In what way did the character grow, change, or learn?
  8. What seems to be the topic of this story - friendship, hard work, courage...
  9. What does the author want us to learn from this story about that topic?

Listen in to the full episode to find out:

  • Common themes in literature.
  • More questions you can use to guide your students' thinking about the theme and main idea.
  • How discussions on the main idea and theme might sound.
  • When we typically look for a theme vs. the main idea.

Don't forget to grab the free Theme vs. Main Idea Anchor Chart.

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