What's the Main Idea?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

     I'll be honest.  When I was a kid, I was taught that the main idea was the first sentence of the paragraph.  And, most of the time, that actually seems to work out.  Sometimes, however, it doesn't.  When that is the case, what am I to do?!?!?

     Most of the classrooms in our building are currently working on non-fiction texts in reading, and a big part of that is determining the main idea of what they have read.  The Calkins units spend a few mini lessons on determining main idea and details, but it is becoming obvious that more modeling and gradual release is going to be necessary.  Children all over the building are struggling with this concept.  They are eager to point out the facts that are interesting to them, but they have a very difficult time coming up with what was most important.

     I found a lovely anchor chart on Pinterest.  What I love about it is that is shows the connection between main idea and details AND summarizing.  They both fall under the umbrella strategy of Determining Importance, and they are both skills that our students struggle with.  It is very hard for them to read non-fiction, especially with all the vocabulary, text structures, and features that they need to navigate through.  They also sometimes need the reminder that non-fiction readers read with a different purpose than fictional readers do.   All these things can make finding the main idea a struggle.  

     What can we do as teachers?  I can't stress enough the gradual release model.  
I Do!
We Do! 
You Do!
     The more we walk our students through the process, and help them see that the main idea needs to be supported with specific supporting details from the text, the more likely they are to start to do it independently.  That might begin by helping them determine the TOPIC of a piece of text, then the MAIN IDEA, and then the SUPPORTING DETAILS.   While it sounds simple to us, finding the single topic of a text is hard for many kids.
       Another thing to consider is making an anchor chart that the students both help you create, and can refer back to when reading independently.  There are many things that you can include on an anchor chart, but some things that you might want to make it kid friendly might be a graphic of some sort, and simple steps to find the main idea and supporting details.  Here are some more ideas from Pinterest.

     I was in 4BEBL yesterday and today, and saw a few of their mini lessons on main idea that gave me some insight on some strategies that might work well.  Miss Betz had the kids bring their computers to the meeting area, and they all had a non-fiction article on their screen.  She had them focus on one single paragraph of the article, which happened to be about the meaning of the word "volcano."  She had them turn and talk to a partner about the main idea.  When they turned back and she had them share the main ideas they discussed, it seemed that most thought the main idea was how volcanoes are formed.  Perhaps they meant how the word was created, but the way they stated it seemed to imply that they were talking about the actual geologic formation of volcanoes.  She didn't just tell them the "real" main idea.  She then gave them the choice between 2 main ideas:
1.  Where volcanoes came from 
2.  How "volcano" got its name
     Once again, she had them turn and talk, but this time they had to find the supporting details for either one of these claims.  Turns out, no one could find anything to support the first main idea possibility.  :)  While it was elsewhere in the article, it was not in the paragraph that was in front of them.  

     The thing that became glaringly obvious while I was sitting on the carpet as part of her lesson, working with my partners, was how much guidance they needed to use the text to support their answers.  They really need for us to give them think time, to make them go back and find the support, and to talk things out with a partner.  While main idea falls into Standard 2, it also requires Standard 1.  Using the Boxes and Bullets strategy that Calkins suggests on her dry erase board, Miss Betz was able to guide them to the main idea.  Perhaps next time, they will be able to find their way independently.  If not, she will guide them until they can.

     Using the text features to help determine (or defend) their main idea is a great way for our students to really use what the author gives us to learn.  Students often read headings, captions, fact boxes, labels, titles, etc. without much thought, or skip them all together.  If we teach them to use these features to either predict the main idea before reading, or perhaps support their claims after read, they will use the features more effectively.  Often times they will also pick up key domain specific words that are used in the features.  All the supporting details need to be found in the actual text, though, so make sure they don't just look at the non-fiction features alone.  :)

     What do Tim and Moby have to say about main idea?  Brain Pop shows a nice video where they use the topic to determine the main idea.  

     Here is a short, interactive Main Idea tutorial that you could use in a mini lesson, with a strategy group, or perhaps posted to your eChalk page as review.

Bottom Line:Why do our kids need to find the main idea?

     Perhaps finding the main idea in a random article doesn't seem that important in the grand scheme of things.  However, determining what is important is.  With the Common Core Standards, we are expecting our children to really think deeply and find their own meaning in texts (and across multiple texts).  They can't do that without knowing what the text actually said in the first place.  How can you make your own meaning, formulate new questions, or create new understandings if you can't even come up with a single sentence about what the whole text was about?  It is the place to start with informational text before all other ideas can be found.  Well, that is my humble opinion anyway.   :)



  1. I'm not 100%, but I think one of the images in your post is mine. It's not watermarked (my fault), but you should link them to the pin on Pinterest as a courtesy.

    1. Honestly, if I try to remember back them, I don't think that the person who pinned it had given you credit either. That's why I just wrote from Pinterest. In either case, I didn't intentionally do that and feel bad. Back then no one really read my blog, and now I can't find those posters. So, I just deleted them all. I didn't intend to not give you credit. At some point in time when I started to grow an audience, I got a lot better at using my own images and citing things. I was not as good when I wrote my blog just for personal reflection and a random staff member. I apologize.