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Help students identify the main idea of any text

march 3, 2011

Help students identify the main idea of any text

When teaching students about main idea, scaffold your instruction. Students need to first learn how to identify the concrete and literal before they can determine the inferential. Here’s a series of skills to slowly work through with your readers.

1. First, help students identify key words (nouns and verbs) found within a single sentence. What is the sentence about?
2. Then, guide students to be able to identify key words (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) in a single paragraph. What is the paragraph about?
3. Eventually reveal short passages that each have a literal topic sentence. (Be sure to find examples that have the topic sentence in various positions in the paragraph.)
4. Now it’s time for the big step–moving from the literal to the inferential. Have students determine the implied main idea within a single paragraph.
5. Then slowly increase the length of the passage from one paragraph to multiple paragraphs, each time asking students to determine the implied main idea. NOTE: There is no sense reading longer texts if students can’t infer main idea in shorter ones.

Students in ABC-Chart small-group activity to determine main idea
ABC Chart - Smekens Original

Retelling and summarizing lead to main idea

Let’s target the first three steps in the scaffold above. Teach students to locate the literal words that represent the subject of a sentence or paragraph. Before working on main idea, just work on retelling and summarization. This can easily be done with the ABC Chart. (For versions of the ABC Chart as a PDF, in Word, or for Smart Board, visit our Learning Center article, Brainstorm Details & Take Notes Using the ABC Chart.)

After reading a passage, guide the students in recalling important details (words and phrases) from the text. Write each one on a sticky note and adhere it to the ABC Chart based on the letter the detail starts with. Students recall as many facts and details as they can from the reading, although they don’t have to think of one detail per letter.

After recalling, it’s time to organize these thoughts. This is step 2, the sticky-note sort. Pull all the sticky notes off the chart and line them up on the front board. Have students move them around based on chronological order (like a timeline with beginning, middle, end) or organize them by big ideas (like a web). With the details recalled and organized, students can then work on an oral retelling of the passage.

This ABC Chart Sticky Sort is a 2-step process–Students first recall important words and details from the reading (steps 1 and 2), and then they group and organize them based on big ideas. This will help support steps 1, 2, and 3 of the scaffold above.

Shifting from the literal to the inferential

When targeting steps 4 and 5, you’re now asking students to step back from the text and rather than find the literal, you want them to think about the implied. This is a big shift. Students are always “looking” for the answer. They need to know the main idea is not usually in the reading, but rather about the reading.

To help with this, consider the connection between main idea and a title. A title alerts the reader to what the text will be about. It indicates not only the subject or topic, but also the perspective and slant. It tells the reader what about the topic will be explained within the reading. Titles are main ideas. Within 4-8 words kids can summarize the gist of a story or text.

Before reading your next passage, remove the title. Read the text and then ask your students What could be the title of this text? What was this text mostly about? Then compare it to the original title to see how close the students came. Acknowledge that by titling the text students are determining the main idea.

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