The Slow Death of Finding Main Ideas in Fiction
“What’s the main idea of this story?”
It’s a question you rarely hear nowadays.
I’m not going to argue whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but instead, I’d like to clarify why finding the main idea of fiction texts is waning from our curriculum. Four main trends are causing this:
- The expansion of “theme” – When I went to high school, themes were loaded words like “respect,” “family,” or “hard work.” When asked for the theme of literature, one or two words was sufficient to name it. This is no longer the case. Today, themes resemble the morals of a story you can find at the end of Aesop’s fables. The Lion and the Mouse once had a theme of “caring,” but now it’s theme would be described as, “Don’t underestimate someone because they might be able to help you.” There’s no doubt this change has been fueled by the way theme questions are now asked on standardized tests.
- A rise in the modes of writing – Distinguishing between narrative, expository, and persuasive writing has never been more important. We cycle between these types of texts both in our reading and our writing workshops. This has caused us to match certain skills and strategies with certain modes. Again, I’m not arguing whether this is good or bad, but textbook curriculums, standardized tests, and some professional readings tend to pair certain reading skills with a mode. Main idea gets paired with expository text.
- An emphasis on text evidence – Common core demands text evidence. Main idea demands text evidence (aka “supporting details”) as well. We now teach kids to find the specific sentences that support the main idea they have identified. This lends itself toward nonfiction texts. Finding sentences that support the main idea of a nonfiction text is also easier for test companies to develop into questions, especially the multi-answer questions we are seeing more often.
- Less time for fiction – This connects with #2 and #3, but I wanted to clearly state this as its own point. As we spend more time with nonfiction, there is less time for fiction, and teachers must choose what lessons to keep and what to trim away. You can’t teach as many fiction lessons as you used to. So, if you are teaching theme and summarizing extensively, main idea in fiction hits the cutting room floor.
So what do you think? It the decline of teaching the main idea in fiction really happening or am I delusional? (Maybe both…) If it is happening, is it okay with you or not? Let me know what you think!