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Teach 4 details that imply a text’s main idea

October 18, 2022

A text’s main idea is typically one of the first questions assessed on state reading tests. Determining the main idea (or central idea) of any text is the starting point of comprehension. If the reader can’t determine what a text is mostly about, then he can’t analyze it at a deeper level.

However, many students confuse the main idea with the more obvious topic. Although the topic is included in a main-idea statement (e.g., Super Bowl), the rest of the sentence reveals what about that topic the text specifically addresses. Many texts are written about the same topic— but they have different main ideas.

This is also evident in online-search experiences. After typing in a topic, the search engine suggests several more narrow main ideas. This again depicts the difference between a broad topic and its more narrow focus.

Main Idea: Newspaper Headline Examples
Google Search TOPIC versus MAIN IDEA

After defining topic versus main idea, then clarify the meaning of “mostly,” which refers to quantity. The only way something can be “mostly” anything is if that topic/idea keeps coming up, is being repeated, appears over and over. In fact, authors do this intentionally; they use strategies to stay narrowly focused on their own main ideas.

Therefore, teach your students to look for the four typical details that authors include to imply what the text is mostly about.

1. Synonyms

Look for repeating ideas via synonyms. We know that authors vary their word choice to keep readers engaged, so teach students to look for the same detail being subtly restated in different ways. This includes noting each time it is referenced via a pronoun.

2. Descriptive phrases

The use of synonyms and pronouns are tied to individual words– but authors will often refer to the same idea in longer phrases. Look for sensory details and figurative language that allude to the same aspect.

3. Related details

An author wants to deeply inform the reader about something, so he will provide many relevant facts and specific examples all related to a specific idea. Readers must recognize that these little details are hinting at the text’s main idea.

(NOTE: This is also an opportunity to remind students that the term “mostly” does NOT mean “all.” Readers must expect some details and a few sentences will not fit the narrow focus.)

4. Text features

Look around the text at any physical features. The included photograph, adjacent chart, or enlarged quote were all selected intentionally. Authors and publishers do this to capture the reader’s attention and to highlight the most important information. Note what is emphasized in the text features, as they too imply the main idea.

Although a reader won’t find the author’s main idea stated in a nonfiction text, he can learn to infer it if we teach him the four typical text clues to look for.

Practice with newspaper articles

Generate-Headline - Guess the Headline Student HandoutNewspaper headlines are a great source for main-idea examples, as they are mini-sentences that succinctly express the angle or perspective of the article.

Consequently, these would be great texts for students to practice on. Here are a couple of differentiated options:

  • EASIER: Provide 3-4 short articles on the same topic or event, each with its own main-idea headline. Remove the original headlines and write them out on the board. Students are to read each article and match which headline goes with which article. Ask them to provide evidence for their choices.
  • HARDER: Provide a single, short newspaper article for students to infer the headline. Remind them to first determine the topic and then to include it in a single 4-8 word sentence that summarizes the entire article. Compare their headlines to the original one that accompanied the published article. (NOTE: You could execute this same activity utilizing the informational text passages that come within your Weekly Reader, Time for Kids, or other subscriptions.)

The Comprehension Playbook - Smekens Education OriginalThe Comprehension Playbook

Learn strategies to teach students how to determine the main idea of any text. Digital resources provided.

Learn strategies to teach students how to determine the main idea of any text. Digital resources provided.

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Barbara Joyce Malloy, M.,Ed.
Barbara Joyce Malloy, M.,Ed.
3 years ago

This is so awesome!! I am preparing to teach Main Idea and it has been challenging because Informational Text is the most difficult for our students. Thanks for sharing.

Many Thanks,
Ms. Malloy, M.Ed.
Middle Grade ELA

CompCON 2024
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