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How do you explain main idea versus topic?

march 24, 2020

Students often struggle to understand the difference between main idea and topic. For that reason, we need to provide direct instruction helps clarify the difference between the two.

Start with newspaper headlines

To find quick main-idea examples, my favorite source is newspaper headlines. I point out to students that every headline is a sentence with a subject and a predicate. Show students multiple headlines with the same global topic, such as the Super Bowl. Then dig deeper and look for the main idea from each headline. This helps students learn to differentiate between topic (Super Bowl) and main idea (the specific aspect of the Super Bowl reported in the article).

Utilize mentor texts

Collect a number of picture books or articles that are all on the same topic, such as penguins. Ask students what each of them is about. This is the topic. Then ask students to go beyond the topic of penguins and answer what specifically about penguins? The specific focus on the picture book or article is main idea. Utilizing several different books or articles demonstrates to students that several books can be about one topic, but the main ideas are very different.

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