Tips for Teaching Main Idea

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Teaching main idea?  Here's a sure-fire lesson and video your students will love!  There's also a framework and worksheets for teaching this essential skill from the ground up.

Getting the main idea of a story or text is often a terribly difficult skill for students. So be ready to spend some time (a long time perhaps!) working on these types of lessons.

Sometimes the big idea is explicitly stated, while other times it is inferred. Inferencing is a higher-order skill that must be explicitly taught.  So what do we do about it?

Teaching students how to summarize and quickly comprehend a text is one of the most common and necessary reading "survival strategies" we need. We can break it down with 7 Specific Steps to Scaffold Instruction for Finding the Main Idea, and these are grouped under 3 Big Ideas.


teaching the main idea infographic

Initially your students will need a lot of support and scaffolding with this. Later you can provide collaborative activities so children have to verbalize their thinking (the relationship between oral talk and meta-cognition is proven).

Gradually move the students towards independent activities when you are confident they will experience success with finding the main idea.


Getting the Main Idea


Suggested Framework for Teaching: How to Find the Main Idea


1. Identifying the key words of a sentence
2. Identifying key words or topic of a paragraph
3. Identifying the topic sentence of a paragraph
4. Recognizing the explicitly stated point of a paragraph
5. Inferring the main idea of a sentence
6. Inferencing the main idea of a paragraph
7. Inferring relationships among ideas in related paragraphs from longer selections

ERIC Clearing House; Dishner, Ernest K


Identify Key Words (1 & 2)

This is very literal comprehension. Use a small, sample sentence to identify key words.

The small dog was frightened by the big, bad wolf.

In this example, the question, "What is the sentence about?" is that it is about a small dog. What about that small dog? It is frightened by the wolf. While this seems very simple, many students who cannot grasp the concept of a main idea need this step and cannot move on without it. Mastery at the sentence level is essential.

Once mastery at the sentence level is shown, move on to identifying key words of a paragraph. Do not put the words into a sentence yet. Just highlight important words and discuss what they mean within the paragraph.




Explicitly Stated Main Idea (3 & 4)
In the primary grades, these are the two points students are generally expected to master. The main idea, or topic, is still explicitly stated. Teach the students to ask, "What does the author say?" and, "Why does he say it?"

Be sure your students are familiar with paragraph structure before teaching the procedures to identify the main idea.

Either read a paragraph out-loud or direct them to read it carefully. Then use these four steps to scaffold their learning:

  • Write a phrase together about what each sentence says
  • Identify the one idea that all of the sentences say
  • Write the main idea in a complete sentence using your own words
  • Find the sentence that best sounds like your complete sentence

The beauty of this is that it is teaching the students to monitor their own comprehension. You are also teaching that the main idea can be found anywhere within a paragraph, not just at the beginning.



Inferencing (5, 6 & 7)
Inferencing is the critical step towards mastering reading comprehension. Along with fluency, it is an excellent predictor of future reading success.

These next steps are actually quite similar to steps 3 & 4, except that now the students will need to match their own understanding of the main idea with an implied one from the text - inferencing. 

A great introductory activity for this is to have them "unpack the main idea."  It is so much fun and great for visual learners.


Unpacking the Main Idea

I brought in just a few of the ingredients for one of my favorite snack foods - nachos.  They were hidden in a big and I had the students try to guess what was in it.

Then I let the kids unpack my bag, one item at a time.  They had to show the class what they pulled out and I recorded the guesses.  It became more refined and clear as more items were pulled out (although the onion confused them as they would NEVER eat onions!).


Unpacking the main idea




Once we finished pulling out all of the items, we talked about what the big idea of my snack could be - how all of the ingredients would come together to make one yummy plate of deliciousness! 

This could also be an introductory activity for teaching the main idea, but I like to use it to showcase the skill of inferencing.  I didn't tell them exactly what I loved to eat - I just gave them clues.



Main Idea Worksheets

Click on the apple for your Main Idea Worksheets.  You are going to love how easy these are to use!

  • locate sentences that go with specific details.
  • write the main idea as a question 
  • locate the main idea of a paragraph through inferencing.
  • write a paragraph using given details while constructing a main idea, or topic, sentence

apple for the teacher is the main idea

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