Teaching main idea and supporting details to 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students was always a frustrating experience because it is such a confusing and difficult skill. Nothing I taught seemed to have an effect on my students - either they understood it without my help or they didn't understand no matter what I did or said.
The curriculum my district used was no help - it introduced main idea by having students read a fictional story from our textbook (about 15 pages long) and fill out the main idea and supporting details in a blank graphic organizer together while we were reading. The students were magically supposed to understand main idea and details after this one activity.
Needless to say, the majority of my students needed a LOT more scaffolding in order to have a thorough understanding of main idea.
Why Teaching Main Idea is So Hard
The problem with most main idea resources is that they don't teach students HOW To find the main idea; instead, the resources simply provide students with practice of a skill that they don't really understand. And then students practice finding main idea in the wrong way and form misconceptions that can be very difficult to correct.
Over the years, I experimented with a variety of different ways to teach main idea and supporting details to my students. Below are the different strategies that I found most successful and that helped develop a TRUE understanding of main idea in my students.
A Main Idea Lesson Using Titles
Teaching students how to use a title to help them figure out the main idea of a reading passage is one of the easiest and most overlooked strategies. In nonfiction especially, the title will usually tell you exactly what the topic of the passage will be, which is the first step to figuring out the main idea.
Let’s say your class is reading Sheila Keenan’s Animals in the House: A History of Pets and People. Just based on this title, students should be able to make reasonable predictions as to the main idea and supporting details of the text. You could ask some different questions to help encourage that thinking:
- What will this book be mostly about?
- Do you think one of the supporting details in this book will be about elephants? Why or why not?
- Do you think one of the supporting details in this book will be about dogs? Why or why not?
- What other animals might the author include to support the main idea? How do you know?
- Which of the following statements is more likely to be the main idea of the book: “Dogs make great pets because they are friendly, loving, and loyal,” OR “Throughout history, people have depended on a variety of pets for help, companionship, and protection.”
Just by thinking carefully about the title, students should be able to predict a reasonable main idea to the book, as well as possible supporting details. In nonfiction books or passages, students can also use headings to make similar predictions of the main idea and details of smaller sections.
You could also cover up the title of a book or passage, and have students make predictions about what the title is after reading. This will get students thinking about what was most important and what the text was mostly about.
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Topic VS Supporting Details Activity – Grouping Words
This is a simple yet powerful activity that can help students distinguish between the topic and supporting details. Simply provide students with a list of words from several categories, have students organize those words into groups, and then have them come up with an appropriate title for each group.
This activity helps address an important struggle students have when it comes to main idea. Students have a hard time understanding that the details that support a certain main idea or topic are all different, yet related to each other. Requiring students to sort words into groups is a great introduction into this concept.
Another important aspect of this activity is having students come up with an appropriate title for each group of words. This is a great way to introduce the concept of topic to your students – which later will help them better understand main idea.
Younger learners, ESOL students, or struggling readers could do this same activity using pictures rather than words. They will still get valuable practice with the skill without the frustration of reading words without any context.
Teaching Students That Details Should Support the Main Idea
This activity takes a lot more prep if you do it yourself, but it is a valuable way to assess students’ understanding of main idea and supporting details while getting them to think more critically.
Before your main idea lesson, write a paragraph that has a very clear main idea. Then, add a sentence to the paragraph that is somewhat on topic, but doesn’t really support the main idea of the paragraph. Students must read the paragraph and determine which sentence doesn’t belong.
In order for this activity to be effective, the paragraphs must be written thoughtfully. The sentence that does not belong should not be immediate obvious to students, but instead require students to think carefully about how the details relate to each other to support the main idea.
This is a much better assessment of main idea understanding than the typical “Find the Topic Sentence” activity that many main idea resources have.
You can download this activity (along with 2 other main idea activities) for free at the bottom of this blog post!
Using Scaffolded Main Idea Graphic Organizers
I’ve seen a huge variety of cute main idea graphic organizers in my search for main idea resources – umbrellas, flowers, hamburgers, hands, tables, ice cream cones, clouds, popcorn – you name it, it’s been done.
But no matter how cute or fun it is, the graphic organizer itself is probably not going to make confused students miraculously understand main idea better.
One of the most frustrating things about typical main idea resources and graphic organizers is that they go straight to having students come up with the main idea of a passage without any scaffolding. This is a HARD skill for students – many adults struggle with this as well!
Instead of expecting students to be able to come up with the main idea statement themselves on a blank graphic organizer, provide students with the main idea and details but DON’T tell them which statements are the details and which statement is the main idea.
Then, have students put the statements in the correct spots on the graphic organizer. This takes away the frustration students feel of trying to come up with the main idea from thin air, while at the same time giving students valuable practice in distinguishing between the main idea and supporting details.
The more students do this type of activity, the more capable they will be of coming up with the main idea and supporting details themselves.
According to the feedback I have gotten from my Scaffolded Main Idea Resource for sale in my TeachersPayTeachers store, these scaffolded graphic organizers are one of the most helpful resources for teaching main idea.
For the complete resource, check out my best-selling main idea resource. Many teachers have come back and said how helpful this resource was in helping their students develop a true understanding of main idea.
The resource includes activities related to everything mentioned in this blog post, as well as other no-prep main idea activities that are scaffolded to help your students truly understand main idea.