WHY TEACH STUDENTS TO FIND THE MAIN IDEA?
Being able to find the main idea of a text is a complex and important nonfiction reading skill for upper elementary students (3rd-5th grade). “Learning how to understand what a section of a text or whole text is mostly about is critical to comprehension” (Serravello 2015).
Teaching students to find the main idea helps readers make meaningful connections between all of the key details in a text. It is also the first step to summarizing nonfiction.
HOW DO I TEACH MAIN IDEA TO ELEMENTARY STUDENTS?
Teaching students to find the main idea requires them to identify the topic, and then what the author’s message is about the topic. Sometimes the main idea is right there for students in the topic sentence, and other times it needs to be inferred, or pieced together, from multiple sentences.
The following questions are all ways we can ask students about the main idea:
- What is the main idea of the text?
- What is this text mostly about?
- Give a one sentence summary of what the text is about.
- What is the author’s message about the topic?
- What is another title that could be given to this text/section?
Most students will need tons of practice with many varied texts and passages. Start with paragraphs or short texts. As students grasp the concept, slowly move into longer books with multiple paragraphs and sections. These longer texts usually have multiple main ideas.
Introducing main idea with an anchor chart containing a visual is so helpful for teaching students to find the main idea. I have seen many visuals that all bring home the same point – Scoops of Ice cream, legs supporting a table, branches on a tree, umbrella with raindrops etc. Any of these works to clearly show that the main idea needs to be supported by key details.
HOW CAN STUDENTS PRACTICE FINDING THE MAIN IDEA?
Below are five ways you can teach and practice main idea with upper elementary students.
1. TOPIC VS. MAIN IDEA CLASS T-CHART:
Students can get confused with topic and main idea. It is important to remind students that the topic is just one or few words that is the subject of the text. The main idea takes this one step further into the author’s main focus, claim/point, or perspective, on the topic (one sentence).
Model and practice identifying the topic simply from the title and cover image of a text. Then, in order to find the main idea, students need to actually begin to read the text. You can fill out a T chart together as a class with “Topic” on one side and “Main Idea” on the other.
2. MAIN IDEA GRAPHIC ORGANIZERS:
Graphic organizers are great to print as a poster for whole class or print as is for students to practice independently. They are perfect for supporting visual learners and breaking down challenging skills into more manageable pieces for students.
Because it is so important to practice finding main idea and supporting details with many texts, having a variety of graphic organizers is key. This helps students stay engaged while continuing to practice this skill.
3. PREDICT THE MAIN IDEA:
Before reading a section or text, have students look at the title and headings/subheadings. Discuss their findings and then make predictions on what the main idea of the text could be. After reading, have students revise their main idea based on the key details and information they have read.
4. REPLACE THE TITLE/HEADING:
Cover the title of a nonfiction book or printed article. Read the text aloud and discuss key details from the text. Then, have students guess the title based on what they have heard.
This is also very effective with identifying multiple main ideas of nonfiction texts that have many headings/subheadings. It requires students to show their comprehension by developing a brief heading/subheading summarizing the most important element of that section. You can cover the headings/subheadings prior to photocopying for students. Students use that space to write their own heading/subheading.
5. MAIN IDEA CRAFTS
I love using reading response crafts for hands on and interactive practice with a reading skill. It is a great way to switch up reading response and provide a concrete way for students to better understand the skill.
Examples of main idea crafts include this FREE Main Idea Light Bulb Craft, and Nonfiction Summary Pillars.
Looking for more resources for teaching students to read nonfiction? Check out the blog posts below!
Teaching Students to Comprehend Nonfiction Texts