Theme vs Main Idea: What’s the Difference?
The Classroom

Theme vs Main Idea: What’s the Difference?

Tara Shanley
May 16, 2024

Main idea. Theme. Central idea. Topic. Summary. These are all words we use when teaching literacy skills and discussing texts.

The terms are all so closely related that it can be confusing for students (and sometimes even educators!) to remember what each term means or how and when to use it.

In this article, we compare two often confused terms, theme vs main idea, and discover what makes them different. We’ll also look at other related terms and how they fit into the conversation.

What is the main idea?

The main idea of a text is a one-sentence summary of the key details of a story. It answers the question, What is the story mostly about? The main idea is sometimes confused with other terms like central idea, purpose, summary, and theme. You can usually write the one-sentence main idea of a literary text by including the name of the main character, what problem they’re having, and how they solved or planned to solve it.

Let's look at Disney's "Aladdin" as an example. The main idea statement for this story could read:

  • Aladdin wants to marry Princess Jasmine but can't because he's a commoner, so he meets Genie and wishes to become a prince.

In this example, Aladdin is the main character. The problem is he wants to marry Princess Jasmine even though he can’t. He solves the problem (more or less) by wishing to become a prince.

Is there a difference between the main idea and the central idea?

Both literary and informational texts can have a main idea. In an informational text, we often call the main idea the central idea. The titles of informational texts, for example, often summarize or give clues about the central idea.

Let's look at an article called "Titanic discoverer took marine archaeology to new depths" from our Sinking of the Titanic text set.

We may not get all the specific information we need to write a one-sentence central idea statement from this title. But we do get clues about what to look for in the text to fill in the blanks. We could write a central idea statement that reads:

  • Dr. Robert Ballard used technology to discover ancient shipwrecks and make deep-sea archaeology possible.

The title tells us we should look for the name of the Titanic discoverer, and what he did in the field of marine archaeology.

Is there a difference between the main idea and the purpose?

The main idea of a story summarizes the key points the author shares in the text. The purpose of the story is why the author wrote the piece.

Let's look at an article called "How the search for clues in Taylor Swift's music became all-consuming" from our ELA in the Real World collection. We may write a main idea statement like:

  • Taylor Swift hides clues in her name and promotional materials, which engages fans, sometimes to obsessive levels.

The author's purpose statement could be:

  • To share information about this unique engagement tactic with readers and analyze what it does to celebrity fan culture.

In this example, the main idea is Taylor Swift’s tactics for engaging with her fans. The “why” of this article is to share that information with fans and analyze why it’s significant.

Is there a difference between the main idea and a summary?

The biggest difference between a summary and the main idea of a story is the length. The main idea summarizes the key points of a text in one sentence. It gives the top-level, most important highlights of a text.

A summary, like one on the back of the book, is usually three to five sentences, or about a paragraph long. Traditional summaries may include extraneous details to provide the reader with more context before they dive into a text.

What is a theme?

The theme of a text is a one-sentence recap of the general commonalities that appear throughout the text. It answers the question, What is the message, lesson, or moral of the story? Themes often appear multiple times throughout a text and run through the entire plot or structure of the story.

Variations of the word theme may also come up in other contexts during reading, writing, and analyzing texts. A theme statement or thematic statement gives the author’s viewpoint or opinion on a topic. For example, if summer vacation was the topic, the thematic statement may be, “Summer vacation is necessary for students to relax after nine months of consistent learning.”

Is there a difference between the theme and the topic of a text?

The difference between the theme and the topic, like the main idea and summary, is also the length. Themes are full sentences that describe a one- or two-word topic more in-depth. Common topics for texts include:

  • Acceptance

  • Courage

  • Honesty

  • Kindness

  • Loyalty

These topics could serve as a starting point for a theme. For example:

  • Self-acceptance is more important than outside validation.

  • Courage comes from within.

  • Honesty is an important virtue.

  • A single act of kindness can make a difference.

  • The only thing worse than a friend with no loyalty is one with too much loyalty.

Differences between theme vs main idea

Multiple characteristics highlight the differences between the theme and the main idea of a text. They include:

Literary or informational text

According to literacy expert and author Timothy Shanahan, theme is a literary term. It doesn’t apply to informational text. You’ll only have students find the theme when studying a fictional work, like a novel, picture book, or short story.

The main idea is most often used in literary texts. Its synonym, central idea, applies to informational texts. Therefore, both literary and informational texts have a main idea.

Specificity vs generality

The main idea always shares specifics from a story while the theme shares generalities. The main idea of a text only applies to that specific text. It lists the characters’ or subjects’ names and plot points that are unique to the story or article.

Themes are general. The same theme could apply to different texts with different characters or plot points.

For example, let’s return to Disney’s “Aladdin.” Above, we listed the main idea for the story. But it shares common themes with other Disney princess stories, like “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Little Mermaid.” All three stories share themes like, It’s important to learn the true meaning of friendship and You can find love in unexpected situations.

Complexity of the skill

Most students learn how to find the main idea of a text earlier in their education. This usually happens before they learn about themes. That’s because finding the theme requires higher-order thinking.

Most themes aren’t explicit and you have to read between the lines to find them. Finding explicitly stated points of a main idea, like a character name or problem, is less complicated.

Number of answers

A text will always have just one main idea. Students may write or phrase the main idea slightly differently from one another, but the concept will always be the same. The main idea of “Aladdin” will always include the main characters of Aladdin, Jasmine, and Genie. The plot points like wanting to marry Jasmine and wishing to become a prince won't change.

In contrast, one text could have multiple themes, especially if the text is longer. Some themes may be more obvious or more developed than others throughout the text, but that doesn’t mean others don’t exist. 

Identifying questions

Students ask different questions to uncover themes and the main idea of a text. They can ask these questions before, during, or after reading in either case. Questions to ask to find the main idea include:

  • What is the text about? Can you identify the topic?

  • What happens in the story? Can you summarize the plot?

  • What are the most important details in the plot? Summarize in one sentence.

Questions to ask to find the theme include:

  • What is or are the topic(s) of the story?

  • What is the author implying about the topic?

  • What obstacles did the characters face?

  • What important decisions did the characters make?

  • How did the characters grow or change throughout the text?

6 tools and activities to help students distinguish between the theme and the main idea

Use these tools and activities to help students understand the differences between the theme and the main idea:

1. Anchor charts

Anchor charts are visuals that illustrate the thoughts, ideas, and processes of a lesson in one place. Create a chart that lists the characteristics and examples of a theme on one side. Add the characteristics and examples of the main idea on the other.

You can create this chart as part of whole-class instruction to involve the students in brainstorming and providing examples. Or, you can create the chart before your lesson. Then, hang it up in the classroom to reference as you teach and as students review and practice.

2. Close reading a well-known text

Close reading a well-known, enjoyable text can make it easier for students to find the main idea and themes in a story. Choose a favorite picture book for them to use or another text they’ve read during the school year. Pick a text that they can read and reread as many times as they need to.

There are three steps of close reading. They include:

  1. Students read for general understanding and to find the main idea.

  2. Students read to look for new ideas, unfamiliar words, and the author's purpose.

  3. Students read for deeper analysis and to make connections within the text.

Finding the main idea often happens on the first reading of a text. Finding the theme may come from a second or third reading, allowing students to look at it more critically.

3. Graphic organizers

Graphic organizers can help students keep track of details in the story that leads them to find the main idea and themes. A flowchart or web chart can help students note key details from things like a text’s title, recurring statements, or character names.

4. Song lyrics

Lines and verses of songs are often shorter—and sometimes clearer—than a paragraph of text. Analyzing the lyrics of student-friendly songs can help reinforce the concept of themes and the main idea. Use printable lyrics sheets for nursery rhymes, Disney songs, or other school-appropriate tunes for this activity. You can do it as a whole-class, group, or individual activity.

Start by using just one song and have students read the lyrics. Encourage them to annotate the printed sheet or model and project your annotations for the students to see. On another sheet of paper, have students use their annotated notes to discover the main idea and at least one theme of the song.

Extend the lesson by analyzing two songs. Then compare how the themes and main ideas for each song are similar to and different from each other. If students are unfamiliar with a song's context, such as the plot of a Disney movie, provide background knowledge before you begin. Show appropriate music or lyric videos before the lesson to introduce the students to both the music and lyrics.

5. Sorting and matching activities

Sorting and matching activities help students understand the nuance of specificity and generality in themes and the main idea. You can create these activities with tangible manipulatives, like slips of paper. Or, you can use a digital tool like Formative to create activities students can access anywhere.

Include the definitions of the theme and main idea in the activity for students to reference. Have at least three general details or morals like “slow and steady wins the race." You should also add at least three main ideas specific to a text, such as “the tortoise was the first to cross the finish line.” 

Do this activity as a whole class, or in small groups or pairs. Students can also do matching individually to sort out the details of the theme and the main idea. No matter which delivery method you choose, come together as a class at the end to discuss which details go under each group.

6. Task cards

Task cards present students with a specific learning activity to complete. They’re popular for differentiating instruction because you can tailor the complexity of the same task for students at different ability levels. Use task cards as part of your learning stations or as free-time activities to help students practice literacy skills. 

Each card should include a short passage for students to read, either a text they’ve read before or a new text. The card should also contain at least three multiple-choice options. The first should include the theme, next the main idea, and last, a key detail from the passage.

Ask students to match the correct multiple-choice answer with the correct category: main idea, theme, or key detail. You can scaffold up the complexity by including just the passage. Then ask students to write the main idea, theme, and a key detail in their own words.

3 tips to teach students the difference between a theme and the main idea

Still looking for more help to make sure your students understand the differences between theme and main idea? Use these tips when planning your literary skills lessons:

1. Start with shorter texts

Shorter, less complex texts can be more accessible starting points for learning new literacy skills. Whether you’re teaching the skill for the first time or reteaching it, starting with a shorter text for the first lesson can help.

For younger students, this might mean using a short story for the first lesson. For older students, this may mean returning to a well-known favorite story, like “The Three Little Pigs.” Using a shorter text can help make learning and practicing the skills less intimidating for students.

2. Check for understanding

Add checks for understanding throughout the lesson to make sure students comprehend each step before moving on to the next. This allows you to scaffold lessons while modeling your thinking process for working through a text and finding the main idea and themes. Set up your activities, like task cards, in a way that forces students to complete the steps in order. This forces them to check their understanding of the concept as they progress through the activity.

3. Reinforce the skill with every reading

Main idea and theme are two skills that are easy to practice with most content students read. No matter how you deliver the lesson, they can always practice finding the main idea and themes in their texts. Encourage them to record these findings on special sheets, in a dedicated notebook, or on bookmarks to keep track of what they find.

Help students learn the main idea with Newsela ELA

Finding the main idea in a text takes practice. Students need to practice with a variety of texts of different genres and complexity levels. Teaching this literacy skill with relevant content is more effective than using out-of-touch basal readers.

That’s why teaching about the main idea with Newsela ELA is easy! You get access to a variety of helpful resources and scaffolds to help you teach literacy skills, like:

  • A library of over 15,000 pieces of literary and informational texts.

  • Annotations that let you highlight key details to help determine the main idea and themes of a passage.

  • Texts published at five reading levels. They help you show students how to find the main idea and themes in the same text as the complexity increases.

  • Interactive graphic organizers for any article that you can customize with the Formative and Newsela integration.

  • Assignment controls allow you to select which skills to teach and assess with each article. Use the checkboxes in the activities panel to toggle your choices on and off.

  • Explainer videos on topics like finding the main idea bring a multimedia approach to teaching literacy skills.

  • An updated ELA Standards and Skills collection with even more resources for teaching the main idea in your lessons.

  • Custom collections that align with your academic priorities and instructional frameworks.

  • Coming for back-to-school ‘24:

    • Checks for understanding embedded within texts that allow students to slow down and make sure they understand what they’ve read.

    • Expanded search filters that let you search content by reading skill, grade and lexile level, topic, standard, and more.

    • Updated reporting features to identify classroom trends and patterns and look in on students’ skills progress with ease.

Not a Newsela customer yet? Sign up for your free Newsela Lite account and get access to the scaffolds you need to teach students how to differentiate between themes and the main idea.

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