Themes, Main Ideas, and Supporting Details

Main Ideas, Topics, & Supporting Details

A topic is what the paper or selection is about.  The main idea is the author’s primary point. The difference, I think, is primarily a matter of phrasing and specificity.  

So, look at the examples of topic sentences to the left,.  They all have the topic of mountain biking, but have slightly different main ideas expressed in their “topic sentence.”  

(Examples are from the blog “Teaching with a Mountain View“)

Play the “Hamburger Game,” from PBS Learning, to practice identifying main ideas.

Supporting details, on the other hand, are details that you provide in a paragraph, to back up the main ideas.

A theme is the message of a passage, story, or essay.  You can think of theme as the message that the author wants the reader to contemplate.  Themes are general (life) lessons; when you explain what the theme of the story is, be sure to express it not in the particulars of the story, but as a larger lesson or truth.  

Themes are often implicit–they aren’t explicitly stated (the exception might be fables–which sometimes end with a sentence that begins “The moral of the story is….”)

AND works of literature can have multiple themes

In 7th grade, students are taught that themes must be expressed in one sentence.  Here, in 5th, they are expressed in phrases or words.

Common themes:

  • Acceptance
  • Alienation
  • Ambition
  • Beauty (outside versus beauty witihn?)
  • Change versus tradition
  • Compassion
  • Courage
  • Dangers of ignorance
  • Escape (desire to escape, inability to escape truth)
  • Faith versus doubt
  • Goals / True goals, false dreams
  • Family–blessings and challenges
  • Fate and free will
  • Friendship
  • Growing up, coming of age
  • Honesty
  • Individualism
  • Kindness
  • Love
  • Perserverance / Overcoming the Odds
  • Simplicity versus Complexity
  • Strength versus vulnerability
  • Temptation
  • Tradition versus rebellion
  • Youth (beauty of youth versus wisdom of age?)


Angela Buryi, “Finding the Message,” Scholastic Blog (2011)

Genia Connell, “Books that Build Character,” Scholastic Blog (2014)

Beth Newingham, “My February Top Ten List:  Resources and Lessons for Fiction Reading,” Scholastic Blog (2011)

San Diego State University, pdf on “Universal Themes

Purdue Online Writer’s Lab:  Literary Terms