In a way, it was the prospect of teaching students how to find main ideas that first led me to researching journal articles. It was 2000, I was teaching reading for the first time, and I realized that I didn't know enough about what happens when reader meets text. All I could remember were my own experiences with reading the SRA cards as a student and learning how to make good guesses about main ideas. And that wasn't enough to help the sixth and seventh graders I was facing each day.
In the years since, I've learned a great deal about readers and main ideas. But even though I have read the journal articles, worked with hundreds of students, and even written chapters about finding main ideas, each year is still a challenge. Because, in the end, finding main ideas is not about what I know in my head, but about what I can help my readers to experience and learn.
Here are some of the big ideas that I keep in mind as I plan for my classroom:
Start with topics
The topic of a paragraph is the word or phrase to which all of the other ideas refer. Even though I thought that sixth and seventh graders could find the topics of a text with ease, I learned that this was not always the case. Sometimes, readers will circle the most concrete or tangible idea, not necessarily the one that is the topic. If the topic is more abstract--like watersheds, or succession, or forms of government--students will often fail to identify it.
Find paragraphs with the same topic, but different main ideas
When students confuse topic with main idea, this is the best way to show them that there is a real difference. You can do this with two opinion paragraphs that state vastly different opinions, or simply two paragraphs that communicate information about the same topic in different ways. Like the discrepant event in science (an activity that forces students to reconsider their prior knowledge), looking at these two paragraphs can help students to rethink the rules they've formed for what a main idea can be.
The first sentence is not always the topic sentence
My work with the SRA reading packets, back in my student days, taught me one important rule--the first sentence is usually the topic sentence. Right? Well, in real text, this is not always the case. Newer digital texts often have main ideas partially stated in headings (like this list you're reading right now), stated at the end, or even left unstated. Make sure that your examples reflect the real-life world of text, even bad text.
Finding main ideas is hard!
Young readers often read at the "local" level in a text, relating each sentence to the one before it and after it. Older readers often adopt a more global reading habit. Main idea is often a tough concept for third, fourth, fifth, and even sixth graders. As text becomes more complex, so do the main ideas, and a reader's task is even more difficult. Combine this with the fact that there is a great deal of poorly written, incoherent text floating around, and it's easy to see why readers have problems.
While I was gathering together items for my own unit on main ideas, about to begin next week, I put together this collection of texts, worksheets, and Powerpoints.