Connecting To The Theme with Elmer!

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Determine central ideas or themes of a text, justify your choice and make a connection to the world.

Big Idea

What's the theme of the story and why is it important to me?


  • Elmer by David McKee
  • 'Connecting to a Theme' powerpoint (change slide 6 to a picture of your school)
  • 9x12 construction paper
  • Elephant template
  • Connecting chart
  • lined paper for writing
  • markers, pencils, scissors, glue sticks for each student
  • Lesson vocabulary words from the Reading/Writing word wall: infer, theme, connecting, plot, literature

Let's Get Excited!

5 minutes

Underlined words below are lesson vocabulary words that are emphasized and written on sentence strips for my Reading & Writing word wall. I pull off the words off the wall for each lesson, helping students understand this key 'reading and writing' vocabulary can be generalized across texts and topics.  The focus on acquiring and using these words is part of a shift in the Common Core Standards towards building students’ academic vocabulary.  My words are color coded ‘pink’ for literature/’blue’ for reading strategies/’orange’ for informational text/'yellow' for writing/’green’ for all other words)


Engage the students:

  • “I brought some pictures to show you – tell me if you notice anything about my slides….(show slides 1-4 of powerpoint.  


Bring students to a common learning point:

  •  “Did you notice that the pictures are part of a theme?  They are all about one idea!”
  • "What was the idea?"

Teacher's Turn

15 minutes

Introduce the lesson:

  • “Today we are going to talk about the theme of a story and how we can make connections with that theme. Let's see some examples.”  Go through slides 5-8.  Have kids guess the theme of each set of pictures.
  • In most stories, the author will not tell readers what the theme or lesson of the story is. Readers will have to infer what the characters did wrong or right and what you can learn from the character’s experience.”



  • “Art has a theme." Slides 9-11 "What is the theme? Can you make any connections - Does the are relate to any of your memories or make you feel anything?"
  • “Books and movies also have a theme and a plot." Contrast the idea of a theme and a plot.  Slide 12  I also used the 'connecting theme and plot' chart to contrast these.
  • Use the story element headers to determine the plot.  (These headers were used in a previous lesson and I like them because they have a visual to help students remember what they are.)


Guided Practice:

  • Look at theme and plot for movies.  Slides 13-15  Ask for student connections.
  • Fables have a theme and plot Slides 16-17 Ask for connections.


Commonly students may focus only on the characters or events in the story and identify the plot, instead of the theme. They have difficulty discerning the big idea lesson, but the Common Core Standards encourage students to not only recount a story, but identify the central message or lesson. (RL.2.2)  While these students might comprehend the text, retelling the events does not show higher order thinking.  Teaching students to distinguish between the plot of the story and the big idea connections will help them to more accurately express their understanding of story themes and lead to success Standards in the upper grades which require not only understanding but the ability to reference text as evidence.

Students Take a Turn

20 minutes

Guided practice:

  • Students finish the last two slides themselves…. (Slides 18-19) 
  • Go over the answer with the class.  MODEL as necessary so the kids hear your thinking.
  • Here's the whiteboard after our discussion.


The Common Core State Standards stress the skill of determining theme early on.  Practicing this is 2nd grade with full support will allow them to see examples of how teachers 'think out loud' to determine a theme. This book has a great theme, but is a bit above 2nd grade reading level. I chose to read it out loud so students could get the practice they need with this great text.

Looking forward to the CC standards, by 5th Grade, students should be able to explain how the themes in classic stories, such as Charlotte's Web (friendship) or  Pipi Longstocking (fun) are emphasized. They read the text and cite examples from the text to explain the theme.


Explain the task:

  • Read Elmer. 
  • Student pick the theme that they can connect to. (Slide 20)
  • Take ideas for the theme and ask for support for each suggestion – “How do you know that?”  “What is the connection to the real world?”  Put some ideas on the board. 

Apply What You've Learned

20 minutes

Explain the project:

  • Students create a ‘theme poster’ to tell others about your story.  
  • "Write your 3 ideas – theme, how you know that is the theme, connection- (slide 20) and color your elephant any way that you want."  
  • "Be creative and make sure you tell us why you think it’s the theme and how you connect.”  
  • "Here's a completed project.  (Notice the glitter - the kids convinced me it needed some 'glam' when they saw my craft box out. This girl especially enjoyed making her project.


Students work:

  • As students complete the project, use time to walk around and have them verbalize their ideas.  It's great to hear how they can describe how they know the theme or to hear them make connections. 
  • Here's a video of how students describe their project.


Scaffolding and Special Education: This lesson could be easily scaffolded up or down, depending on student ability.

For special education students, the lesson should be straightforward because they don't have to read and the teacher models most of the ideas.  When determining the theme and justifying their reasoning, I used a white board at their desk to brainstorm with them. This is a video of how I prompted a student.

For students with great academic abilities, I would encourage good text evidence and higher level reasoning.  Don't just take 3-4 word justifications (such as the elephant looks different) but challenge them to use higher level vocabulary, such as 'individual, 'unique', etc.