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How to Teach Main Idea

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 0 Comments

The ability to identify and state main ideas and distinguish them from supporting details is a foundational comprehension skill. Instructional practices for this skill are an integral part of several Keys to Literacy professional development programs, including The Key Comprehension Routine and Keys to Content Writing. Its importance as a reading skill is highlighted as one of the 10 anchor standards in the Common Core ELA standards:

Reading Standard #2: Determine the central idea or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting ideas and details.

While main idea skills are often associated with comprehension of text, we emphasize that these skills can be applied to anything that is read, said, or done in the classroom. We also believe that students need explicit instruction for teaching main idea skills.


Different words and phrases are used to refer to main idea skills, including: chunking, grouping, categorizing, getting the gist, identifying the topic, identifying the central or main idea, theme, topic sentence, seeing the forest through the trees.

In a fall, 2018 blog post, Tim Shanahan writes about main idea skills and notes the discrepancy in terminology. “Not everyone even agrees on what label to use. Are we talking about main ideas, central idea, purposes, topics, central messages, or themes?” He also points out that teaching main idea is complicated. The trainers at Keys to Literacy agree!

We suggest a scope and sequence for teaching main idea that begins with simple categorizing to identifying multiple main ideas in lengthy text, as illustrated below.

Instruction for main ideas can begin in kindergarten and grade 1 with an emphasis on categorizing objects, pictures or words. Categorizing practice continues in later grades by having students categorizing content vocabulary terms, which is also a highly effective strategy for learning new words (see The Key Vocabulary Routine).

As students develop the skills to read paragraphs and multi-paragraphs, they can be taught how to identify and state paragraph main ideas. This task is more difficult when reading paragraphs that have implied main ideas. And as students move into higher grades, the skill extends to identifying central main ideas for larger chunks of text.

The Key Comprehension Routine uses three techniques for
helping students identify main ideas:

  1. Self-Cuing: Self cuing prompts students to ask themselves questions in order to identify the big idea of a source, which may be anything that is read, said, or done. The student asks these questions: Who or what is the focus of the source? What is most important about it?
  2. Goldilocks: Sometimes the main idea that students give is too general or too specific. This technique has students analyze their response to determine if it is too general, too specific, or just right.
  3. Label the Bucket: This technique uses a metaphor. Students are asked to think about stating a main idea as if it were a label on a bucket to describe what is in the bucket.

Click here for a handout with the three techniques that looks like the visual below.

If you would like to learn more about teaching main idea skills, consider purchasing our Key Comprehension Routine books (Grades K-3, or Grades 4-12).

Also, here are a few instructional suggestions from Shanahan’s
blog post mentioned above, all of which are aligned with Keys to Literacy
instructional practices:

  • Teach it as part of a larger and more coherent reading strategy.
  • Teach kids to summarize paragraphs first.
  • When kids are successful with shorter texts, teach them to try the same thing with longer texts.
  • Vary texts in terms of topics, difficulties, lengths, inclusion of seductive information, explicitness of main ideas.
  • Use a “gradual release of responsibility “approach.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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