Inside: Five fairy tale morals that are perfect for teaching theme (and how to use them)
It can be tricky to teach theme. When I speak to students about the theme of a story, the conversation goes something like this.
“What is the theme of The Three Little Pigs?”
“Don’t build a house out of straw or sticks.”
“Make sure to have a strong house.”
“Have a reliable brother.”
The three pigs learned these lessons, but they miss the mark when it comes to theme. I set out to guide my students toward a truer interpretation of theme.
Fairy tale morals, along with student connections, is my pathway to teach theme. I have used a variation of the method below when I taught fourth grade, and now in second grade. With a little time and effort, your students will also uncover the the hidden meaning behind themes.
Let the Characters do the Teaching
.Fairy tale characters provide a sense of connection in your students. They love to love the heroes and love to hate the villains. Who doesn’t get angry at those evil stepsisters?
Understanding characters requires students to take a close look at motivations and consequences. These consequences usually lead to discovering the moral of the story.
Combining fairy tale morals with student experiences has been highly effective when I teach theme to my students.
Here are the steps I take to guide students into stating the theme.
- Discuss what lesson the character learned.
- Discuss a similar lesson the students have learned.
- See what they have in common and determine the moral of the story.
- Look for a common thread in all three statements that you can state in 1-3 words.
The second and third grade Common Core standards stop with the moral/lesson of the story. I often push them to interpret the theme, depending on the class. You could easily make this a strategy to determine the moral and stop there. Fourth and fifth grade standards include theme, so take it all the way!
The graphic organizer below is a great tool to incorporate all of these steps.
Bonus: At the end of this post, you can sign up to get my Fairy Tale Fun Pack to add engagement and comprehension practice to your fairy tale unit. These free activities include the organizer above plus a lot more!
Fairy Tale Morals in Action
Most fairy tale morals work well for teaching theme. Here are some things that I look for when choosing books.
- Easy connections for my students
- A way to link the interests and experiences of my current class
- Very clear lessons (or more subtle ones for a challenge)
- Characters with strong personalities
- Surprises for added engagement
Below are five fractured fairy tales that I have found work well with teaching theme to my second graders. For older students, go a bit deeper, or you can go straight from the moral to theme, using the other steps to scaffold students as needed.
The Three Little Aliens and the Big Bad Robot
Students immediately catch that this is a spin on The Three Little Pigs, but they won’t expect all the robot’s antics.
Three aliens set off to find a home on a distant planet. The first two aliens make poor choices with their homes, choosing a space rover on Mars and a passing satellite circling Saturn. The third alien builds a solid house on Neptune.
The robot tries his best to get in the third house with pounding, smashing, and zapping. No luck. In the end all three aliens end up at the third house safe and sound.
Alien’s lesson – Take your time to find the right house that is safe from the big, bad robot.
Possible student lesson – Take your time with your work so you don’t have to redo it.
Moral – Taking the time to do something right pays off!
Theme – Work hard
The Wolf Who Cried Boy
You may find your students sympathizing with baby wolf – just a little. That is until he keeps lying!
Poor little wolf is stuck with eating lamburgers and chipmunks with dip. All he wants is boy. He has the brilliant idea to send his parents out to get a boy by calling, “Boy! Boy!” The problem is – there is no boy!
Parents are fooled twice, but not the third time. Unfortunately for the baby wolf, the third time there actually was a boy there!
Baby Wolf’s Lesson – Don’t pretend there is a boy there when there isn’t.
Possible Student Lesson – Don’t make up stories about people.
Moral – Always tell the truth.
Theme – Honesty
The Popcorn Dragon
Students will connect to this reformed show off as he turns into other animals’ BFF.
Giraffe, Elephant, and Zebra were very jealous of Dexter’s ability to blow smoke. They tried hard, but they couldn’t do it. Instead of comforting the other animals, Dexter started showing off. He went as far as blowing smoke right at the other animals.
The animals left feeling jealous and annoyed. Dexter realized his mistake, felt horrible, and fell asleep in a cornfield.
When he woke up, Dexter realized he could use his breath on corn to make popcorn. He used his new found talent to make up with his friends. They all shared a delicious snack.
Dexter’s Lesson – Do not show off your ability to blow smoke. Use it to help your friends instead.
Possible Student Lesson – Don’t show off your soccer skills. Try to teach others instead.
Moral – You will make more friends by helping others than by showing off.
Theme – Friendship
The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig
Talk about role reversals. This story couldn’t be more opposite to the original, but it is just as entertaining.
In this story, three young wolves set out to make a house together. They use sturdy materials like brick, barb wire, and concrete, but the Big Bad Pig always finds a way to destroy the house.
In the end, it’s a house of flowers that keeps the wolf safe. The Big Bad Pig couldn’t maintain being big and bad with the beautiful scent of flowers right in front of him.
Wolves’ Lesson – Don’t give up on making a house to keep you safe from the pig.
Possible Student Lesson – Don’t give up on trying different strategies to learn how to read, play a sport, etc.
Moral – When something doesn’t work, find a creative way to solve the problem.
Theme – Persistence and determination
This independent Cinderella chose NOT to marry the prince.
In this version of Cinderella, she dreams of becoming a mechanic. After overcoming obsatacles that mimic the original story, Cinderella is able to fix the prince’s rocket.
Instead of dancing all night, the two talk about tools, rockets, and all things mechanical. At the stroke of midnight, there is no glass slipper left behind. Instead, it was a socket wrench.
In the end, Cinderella turns down the prince’s proposal, but she accepts a job as his chief mechanic.
Cinderella’s Lesson – Don’t let anyone stop her from becoming a mechanic.
Possible Student Lesson – Do what it takes to be what you want to be when you grow up.
Moral – Pursue you dreams, even when they are challenging.
Theme – Empowerment
Savor the “Aha Moment”
I have used a version of this strategy to teach theme both when I taught fourth grade and now in second. At both levels, I have seen students using the power of connection and declare, “Now I get it!”
These “aha” moments come with great books, student connections, and a dose of patience.
Now when I teach theme, I can use students’ original thoughts and guide them to discover the true theme of the story.
At times, you may need to prompt students for connections to their life. Prompts vary depending on the books you choose, but here are some general prompts you can use.
- Have you ever…
- What have you done like…
- What do you know about…
- What happened when you…
- What did you learn when…
- What have you tried that…
- What do you think when…
Whether your students connect right away or need a little prompting, I wish you many aha moments in your classroom!
If you like the graphic organizer featured above, your going to love my free Fairy Tale Fun Pack.
When you’re looking to check comprehension, nothing beats graphic organizers. The six free fractured fairy tale organizers below are the perfect way to boost comprehension skills using fairy tales.
As a bonus, I included a STEM activity to supplement your fairy tale unit.
By filling out the form below, you will have all of these items delivered straight to your inbox.
- The theme organizer featured in this post
- A Venn diagram to compare and contrast different fairy tales
- An organizer to help explain the importance of the setting, whether it’s in the woods, ocean, or outer space
- An organizer to describe characters from the naive little fish to the sly wolf
- A comparison chart to look at a variety of different versions of a fairy tale.
- An organizer to show the unique pop of magic in each fairy tale.
- BONUS: A STEM activity with paper airplanes – a surefire winner for your students!
Do you have an activity that you love to teach theme? I’d love to read about it in the comments below.