I Finally Taught Main Idea Well

I’m in my fifteenth year of teaching, and I have done a bad job teaching main idea fourteen times.

The concept of main idea is extremely difficult for teachers to communicate to students. We can make statements like, “The main idea is what the article is mostly about,” but this prompt does not lead students to a main idea. Consider this fictional, but not too fictional, exchange between a teacher and students:

  • Teacher: Okay, let’s read this article about dogs.
  • {They read.}
  • Teacher: What was this article mostly about?
  • Students: Dogs.
  • Teacher: Yes, that’s true, but what’s it MOSTLY about?
  • Students: Dogs!

It’s like we think saying it louder or with more emphasis will turn the light bulb on.


This year, however, I believe I have done a good (or at least better) job teaching main idea. This has been a series of eight lessons. Of course, we will continue to build on this throughout the year. Here is what we did:

Day 1: Nonfiction Text Features – I knew I would be talking a lot about titles, headings, and photographs during this unit about main idea. Students have learned about text features in previous grades, but I wanted to be sure they would be able to use them during the rest of our lessons.

Day 2: How To State a Main Idea – Using tips I found and adding some ideas of my own, I developed formula students could use to determine the main idea: Topic + The Most Important Thing About the Topic + How/Why/And/But (choose one). This last part was my own creation because main ideas in upper elementary become more complicated than the shorter sentences found in primary grades. To practice this, we used short paragraphs I found online. These were definitely not authentic texts, but they were a necessary step.

Days 3-4: Using Headings – I taught the students the importance of headings in these lessons as we used them to help write main idea sentences using our formula. I met with small groups of students struggling with this during our workshop as well.

Day 5: Main Idea of a Longer Passage – This was a Monday, so it was a good opportunity to review main idea and transfer what we had learned toward whole passage. Any nonfiction text works here, but I wish I’d have done this lesson using an article we had already read. I could have made this point more clearly by using a familiar text.

Days 6-7: Supporting Details – These were concrete representations of supporting details. We used a table metaphor, with the legs as supporting details holding up the main idea. We also sorted a set of sentences into one main idea and its supporting details.

Day 8 – Relevant Supporting Detail – This lesson focused on identifying the details that supported the main idea, rather than details that just added extra information. It is important for students to be able to identify these, and it will help their writing later in the year.

If you are struggling with teaching main idea, I hope this helps! If you were a student of mine during the past fourteen years, I’m sorry!


About mrwhitehb

I teach 4th grade and am the chair of the Young Hoosier Book Award Committee for grades 4-6.

Posted on October 7, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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