Enjoy Teaching Theme with Fascinating Fables and Morals

Try teaching theme with fables. These short stories feature clear elements and teach lessons. Therefore, your students will easily discover a message, lesson, or moral.

Ms. Sneed Learns About Teaching Theme with Fables

As a new teacher, Ms. Sneed didn’t really know much about teaching theme. Fortunately, her mentor was willing to help with literature activities.

“Let’s take a look at standards for students in third and fourth grades,” said Mrs. Brown.

Ms. Sneed studied the paper in front of her as her mentor went over the standards:

Third Grade – Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.

Fourth Grade – Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

Fifth Grade – Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges of how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.

“You know that I always advocate looking at standards above and below your grade level. This sequence provides a perfect example for your ELA block. In third grade, kids are looking for a lesson. Then in fourth, the look for a theme. However, not much direction is provided. Only in the fifth grade standard do we get important guidance: to consider how a character responds to challenge.”

A Slideshow Models Teaching Themes with a Familiar Fable

“Fables, short stories with obvious morals, provide a perfect starting point. At the beginning of fourth grade, I like to introduce theme with “The Three Little Pigs.”

Introducing the Story Arc

Mrs. Brown opened a file on her laptop. “Take a look at this slideshow. In my opinion, it models the best way to find a theme – with a story arc. “

The mentor scrolled through the presentation until she came to the slide she sought. “As you can see, they first provide a diagram for plotting elements. Kids identify these story parts:

  • character(s)
  • setting
  • goal
  • obstacle
  • steps taken to reach the goal or overcome the obstacle
  • outcome”
Teaching theme with fables like "The Three Little Pigs" works well. Organize elements on a story arc.
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Plotting the Elements

As the mentor clicked through the slides, she continued. “As you can see, the presentation models the process for finding story elements.

  1. “Identify a character or a group of characters. Notice that I didn’t say all characters. Soon, you’ll see why. For this story, they’ve identified the three little pigs.
  2. “Pinpoint the setting. Although fables generally have vague settings, kids need to list them. Sometimes, setting affects theme. Here, the setting is simply the countryside.
  3. “Consider the character’s goal or motivation. In other words, what do they want? In this case, the three pigs want their own homes.
  4. “Next, identify one or more obstacles. All good stories have friction; it’s important to the plot. Of course, the big, bad wolf and his bad habit of blowing down houses comes into play here.
  5. “Now kids list steps taken to reach the goal and overcome the obstacle. In this fable, the first and second pigs didn’t build their homes of sturdy materials. However, the third pig did.
  6. “Finally, they examine the outcome. Sure, you could say that the outcome involved the wolf’s demise. However, kids need to know how to match the outcome with the goal. Did they meet it? Well, in this case, the third pig did. Only the brick house remained standing.”

“I see,” Ms. Sneed said. “Basically, kids summarize the story first.”


When teaching theme with fables, ask kids to plot elements on a story arc.

Considering How the Character’s Actions Affected the Outcome

Once more, Mrs. Brown progressed the slideshow. On it, the steps and outcome were circled.

“Here, we continue teaching theme with fables. Kids consider how a character’s actions affected the outcome. From this, they establish a theme.

“As we all know, the first two pigs’ actions caused their houses to fall down. However, the third pig, who built his house of brick, caused it to stay standing.”

Ms. Sneed sat deep in thought. “I get it now. The pigs wanted to build houses. But how they built them affected whether they reached their goal.”

Her mentor nodded. “Right. This cause-effect relationship helps us establish a theme.”

To find a theme, kids consider how a character's actions affected the outcome.

Establishing a Theme and Expressing It in a Paragraph

Again, Mrs. Brown clicked to the next slide. “Now we use this cause and effect to establish a theme. The third pig prevailed because of hard work. That’s the theme: hard work pays off. Alternately, we can express it in one word: industry.

“Our students must also support the theme with a summary, as shown here.”

Ms. Sneed’s face lit up. “Now I see! Up to this point, I didn’t understand why summarizing and theme fell in the same standard. You’ve shown me how we use the summary to find a theme. And with this slide, I see that the summary is used to support the theme.”

A smile spread across Mrs. Brown’s face. Whenever she helped a young teacher understand, she also helped their students to understand.

In "The Three Little Pigs," the characters' actions let us establish a theme: hard work pays off.

Finding Multiple Themes

“Sometimes,” Mrs. Brown continued, “kids find different themes. As a matter of fact, at higher grade levels, they’re required to do this.”

Ms. Sneed looked puzzled.

“Remember, we only used one character or group of characters on the story arc. To find another theme, kids simply consider another character’s point of view.

“As you see here,” she said, pointing to the next slide, “looking at the story from the wolf’s perspective teaches us a different lesson. When the wolf went down the chimney, he didn’t get the pigs. Instead, he got burned. In this example, the author uses the theme of revenge. However, I could see kids saying something like look before you leap.”

When teaching theme, acknowledge that students can find multiple lessons, especially when they look at the story from a different character's perspective.

Kids Practice Theme with Fables

Now Mrs. Brown reached into her teacher bag. “When you’re done teaching theme, have kids practice with more fables.”

She handed Ms. Sneed four pages. “Fortunately, these stories have been adapted for upper elementary students.”

To practice, kids read four more one-page fables.

After shuffling around in her bag again, Mrs. Brown handed her mentee another page. “With this story arc, your students will identify story elements, summarize, and find a theme, It’s worth its weight in gold!”

When teaching theme, use a story arc to organize elements.

Enjoy Teaching

As Ms. Sneed drove home that afternoon, she reflected on teaching theme with fables. Without Mrs. Brown’s guidance, she wouldn’t be able to explain it so kids really understood. That would be a bummer. Yes, to enjoy teaching, she needed great resources.

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