I really struggled when I first began to teach main idea. It seemed like curriculums only provided one way to teach it - read a short paragraph and determine the main idea of the paragraph.
But there are other ways to teach main idea - and using the word cloud activity outlined below is an engaging and visual way to introduce your students to this difficult skill.
If your students have already been introduced to main idea and our still struggling, then these activities and strategies for teaching main idea and key details to 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students might be useful.
What are Word Clouds?
Word clouds are images created from words. There are many online word cloud generators that make it easy for you to create word clouds.
In most word cloud generators, an image is created using the text you provide. The more often a word is mentioned, the larger that word appears in the word cloud.
In this example, you should easily be able to tell that the text that this word cloud was based off of was mainly about the differences and similarities between butterflies and moths.
Using Word Clouds for a Fun Introduction to Main Idea
Now for the most important part - how can you use an online word cloud generator to teach main idea?
In my 3rd grade classroom, I would use it by first reading an article together. Then, we would discuss what the article was mainly about. What was the most important part? What details were included to support the main idea?
After discussing this, I would ask the students to make a prediction about what a Wordle of this article would look like. What words would be the biggest? What words would be included in the Wordle, but not as big?
We would then copy and paste the article we read into a word cloud generator and see if our predictions were correct.
I would also use word clouds to show students how titles are usually good clues as to the main idea of an article. (Read more about how to teach students about main idea using titles here.) In this example, the title of the article was "Earthquake Hit Central Italy," which correlates to the biggest words in the Wordle.
If you use this in your upper elementary classroom, it's important for students to understand that just because a word is mentioned often doesn't necessarily mean it's part of the main idea. Have discussions with students about whether the agree with the size of some of the words in the word cloud.
In the example above, I would ask students if they agree that the word "Amatrice" (a city in Italy) is as important as the word cloud thinks it is. Are there other words that should be larger? Should Amatrice be smaller? During the discussion, encourage your students to use the text to defend their reasoning.
There are many other educational uses for word clouds, but teaching main idea is often overlooked in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classrooms!
Note: These HOTS questions for main idea lessons might come in handy.