Teaching "Theme" with Children's Literature

9, 10, 11, 12

Students will understand the difference between a theme, a moral, and a topic, and to be able to identify the theme of a piece of literature.

Lesson Rating 
PrintOne Fifty-Minute Class Period

The learner will:

  • define a theme in regard to literature.
  • be able to identify the theme of a children's story.
  • speculate on the reasons for an individual's philanthropy in the children's story "The Cello of Mr. O." Instructor Note: Address the reasons for individual philanthropy. You can incorporate enlightened self-interest, altruism, egoism and seven motivations for giving and serving. Visit www.learningtogive.org to access additional lessons, Vocabulary (click on Resource Room) and themes. Before you begin the lesson, inform the learners they will need a children's picture book of their choice. They may select one from home or library.
  • The Cello of Mr. O by Jane Cutler (see Bibliographical References)
  • Student copies of Handout One What Is the Theme? Spanish version (Handout Two)
  • Children's picture book of each student's choice
  • Cutler, Jane. The Cello of Mr. O. Dutton Books, 1999. ISBN: 0525461191


  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Ask students to raise their hands if they can define "theme" as it relates to literature. Have students volunteer definitions of "theme." As students discuss the meaning of theme, help them distinguish it from the story's "lesson," "moral," or "plot." As the terms develop, write the terms on the board and the definitions and examples.

  2. Give students the following definition of theme:"an opinionabout life or human nature or society that the writer shares with the reader." It is usually not stated directly, but must be inferred.Compare their definition with this given one andrefine thedefinition in the words of the students.

  3. Read aloud to the students the book, The Cello of Mr. O, by Jane Cutler.

  4. Hand out Attachment One: What Is the Theme? and have students identify possible theme statements for The Cello of Mr. O. Discuss possible reasons why Mr. O risks his life everyday to play music for the town. (Instruct the students to keep notes of this discussion for reference in future lessons of this unit.)

  5. Each student will read a children's picture book of his/her choice and write a theme statement for that book. Then have volunteers share their statements with the class. Have the class evaluate these statements to make sure they are not plots or morals. Let the volunteers revise their statements, if necessary, before the theme statements are turned in for evaluation. Instructor Note: If time allows, you may want to also ask them to share the plot or moral of their stories.


Evaluate students' theme statements for the new children's book. Have them re-write for mastery, if necessary.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Discuss and give examples of why some humans will sacrifice for the benefit of unknown others.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Compare and contrast enlightened self-interest, egoism, and altruism as they relate to philanthropy and principles of democracy.