Picture books are one of my favorite tools when it comes to teaching reading comprehension. I especially loved using picture books when I taught fourth grade.
Picture books are are a great resource to use for teaching some of the more complex reading skills like identifying theme, making inferences, or even summarizing.
One of the biggest benefits to using picture books is that they are shorter than a novel so you can read an entire story in one setting. When students have heard the full story, it can make it easier for them to practice and apply certain reading skills…. like theme.
It’s easier for students to identify the theme of a story AFTER they have finished reading or hearing it. And since you can get through most of these picture books in a single setting, you’ll have five opportunities for you and your students to discuss the theme of a story.
Topic vs. Theme
Before I jump in and share some of my favorite picture books for teaching theme, I want to take a minute and talk about the difference between the topic of the book and the theme of the book.
Now in full disclosure, when I first stated teaching theme, I would teach my students to identify the theme as a single word. We would read a text and say the theme was “kindness” or “teamwork”. And I know there are some curriculum programs that will use these single words to describe the theme.
While I think this is a great starting place, I actually think we do a better job serving our students if we teach them to identify the theme of the book as being the universal life lesson you can learn from that text. And we teach theme as being a longer phrase that shares a belief or lesson about a particular topic.
For example, if the topic of the book was on kindness, then a possible theme could be “small acts of kindness can have a big impact on someone.”
Or if you were reading a book and the topic was teamwork, then a possible theme could be “everyone brings a unique set of strengths to the team”.
When we are teaching theme in this way I think it helps students think more critically about the text as well as learn lessons they can apply to their own lives.
If this is a new way of thinking about teaching theme, I have a strategy I’m going to share with you real quick:
I love teaching students to ask questions about the topic in order to find the theme. Not only does it help them to identify the theme, but it also helps them to ask meaningful and relevant questions.
In case you need a refresher on this strategy, this is what it looks like:
- Step 1: Have students identify the topic.
- Example: friendship
- Step 2: Have students identify important questions about this topic?
- Example: What makes a good friend? How do friendships help us? Why are friendships important? How do friendships change? What can we learn about friendships from this story?
- Step 3: Use the characters in the story to help you answer the questions.
- Example: We can learn from the mistake that Lily and Salma made and understand that friends should love and accept you no matter what. We can also learn from the story that you can be friends with someone who is different than you are.
- Step 4: Identify the theme of the story.
- Example: A possible theme for this story is that real friends love and accept you for who you are.
When I introduce this strategy, I also like to give students a reference sheet that will help provide some scaffolding and support while they put this strategy into practice.
I like to give students a chart (like the one pictured below) that has a list of common topics they might see in fictional picture books or chapter books, a list of questions they could ask about the topic, and then a list of related life lessons (themes) they might find connected to that topic.
So when you see my list of picture books below, you’ll also see possible topics and themes you could find in those picture books.
If you want to hear about some other strategies you could use for teaching theme, check out this blog post.
So here they are. Five of my favorite picture books for teaching theme:
The Invisible Boy by Judy Ludwig
Topics: Kindness, Friendship, School Relationships Loneliness
- Small acts of kindness can have a huge impact
- Loneliness is isolating
- Treat others the way you want to be treated
- Real friends will like you for who you are
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
Topics: Kindness, Regret, School Relationships
- Do the right thing, even if no one else is
- You might not get a second chance to do the right thing
- Everyone wants to belong and be connected
- Small acts of kindness can have a huge impact
Enemy Pie by Derek Munson
Topics: Friendship, Acceptance, Conflict Resolution, Perspectives
- You can find friendship in unexpected places
- Don’t judge a book by its cover
- There are many ways to resolve our differences
- Be open-minded to new friendships
The Sandwich Swap by Kelly DiPucchio and Queen Rania Al Abdullah
Topics: Friendship, Acceptance, Cultural Diversity, School Relationships
- You can be friends with people who are different from you
- Be open-minded to trying new things
- Everyone deserves respect and acceptance
- Personal preferences should be valued and respected
The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
Topics: Intergenerational Relationships, Building Community, Friendships, Beauty
- Beauty exits in unexpected places
- Appreciate what you do have
- You can find joy by giving to others
I hope each of these titles makes their way into your classroom library and you found this list of picture books for teaching theme helpful! I’d love to know if you have any other titles you love using to teach theme, share your favorites in the comments below!
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