Sunday, March 23, 2014

Teaching Main Ideas

Looking for classroom-ready lessons and activities for teaching about main ideas? Check here: Main Ideas and Details in Nonfiction Text

So this year I thought that I could take a shortcut through the Land of Main Ideas. My idea of a shortcut was one quick lesson, authentic note-taking about Antarctica, create our own main ideas, and emerge with full mastery.

Looking back, this shortcut idea was a big mistake. After all, I know all about how students understand (or fail to understand!) main ideas. I know that students often pay attention to individual sentences, processing text at the micro-level instead of putting together the macro-structure of the text. I know that students are easily led astray by seductive details. I know that students confuse topics with main ideas. I know that the same students who can pick out explicit main ideas in a paragraph can struggle with finding implicit main ideas. (I wrote a whole chapter about this in my book Paraphrasing, Summarizing, and Retelling.)

So, trying to teach main ideas in one lesson was not a good idea.

Once I realized my mistake, I stepped back to observe what students were doing. A card sorting activity proved to be a great way to find out what students were thinking--they had to put together a paragraph and select the sentence that states the main idea. I noticed that students were drawn to whichever sentence should come first in a paragraph, even if the sentence is a question, and seemed to struggle with the role of a main idea in a paragraph. (You can find this activity as part of this unit.)

Topics and Main Ideas
Next we looked at some paragraphs and found topics and main ideas with the help of a PowerPoint. (You can find it here.) I really like using PowerPoint to illuminate text and show students key ideas. In this particular example, notice how the PowerPoint makes the topic of the paragraph jump right out at students. And for teachers who are sure that their students have already mastered this, I challenge you to give it a try. You may be surprised at how far students can get without having a true grasp on topics. I wrote a book about it and for some reason I still find it shocking, every year. Maybe you will learn a little faster than I have.

Identified Main Ideas
Instead of jumping right into having students identify main ideas, I showed them several paragraphs that had the main idea underlined. Then I challenged them to make a generalization about where the main idea can be found in a paragraph. If you know fourth graders, you know that making generalizations about text can be tough for them. Many tried to answer with information about the wood thrush, confusing the text at hand with the abstract idea of text. If this happens to you (and it probably will), just remember that it takes students time and practice to talk about texts in the abstract. But every new experience adds to their background knowledge for next time.

You may notice that these examples are usually about animals, and that there are multiple paragraphs about one topic. My students love animals and are always motivated to read about local creatures they may see. Using real topics instead of the "fluffy" topics that proliferate in worksheets keeps our work with main idea from devolving back into the worksheets or color-coded SRA cards of yesteryear. I always end the lessons with a video or photo (sometimes from my own personal collection!) of the animals in the paragraphs.

Implicit Main Ideas
Our next step was to jump into creating main ideas for texts with implied main ideas. Fourth graders really struggle with these tasks, but they are so important. In fact, I think that creating a main idea sentence for a set of given details is one of the most important skills for students to develop. This is a lifelong skill that transcends reading and writing.

Looking at paragraphs with implied main ideas and talking about what the main idea could be helps students to consider the gist of a set of sentences. In this paragraph, notice how all of the sentences relate to the movement of the fairy shrimp. Movement and other abstract nouns are vital for academic reading and writing, but not frequently used in speaking. Exposure and practice help students to weave these kinds of words into their writing.

Generating Topic Sentences
Our next step was to write a topic sentence for a paragraph. Yes, it's test preparation, but it is worthwhile. Students really need to be able to do this! Strong readers will breeze right through an activity like this, especially as the pictured example has such a transparent main idea. However, struggling readers will have difficulty. They may write a topic sentence that relates only to one kind of skink. Circling the different kinds of skinks in the paragraph is a way to scaffold their learning.

Assessing Understanding
I'm not talking about student understanding here--I'm talking about my own. What did I learn from my longer-than-expected-journey through the Land of Main Ideas?
-Helping students to identify and generate main ideas is vitally important and may take more time than expected.
-Practice with finding topics and main ideas is worthwhile work, and I can keep it from just being boring worksheet practice by incorporating topics of interest and real-life links.
-Even strong readers may need explicit lessons with topics and main ideas--and that's okay.


  1. I used just the topics and explicit main ideas part of your unit with my third graders this year back in late January. It took nearly two weeks (broken up by at least one snow day and several delayed starts) but they were pretty good at it by the end. I've used the paragraphs cut into individual sentences with students every year I've been teaching and have found those to be a really valuable resources and gives me great insight into their thinking. Thanks again for sharing so much of what you use in your own classroom.

    1. I'm glad it worked well for you! I do love listening to students talk as they work through the cut up sentences. I've added the screen captures from above to the existing file if you want them! :)