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For many students, making the transition from reading to analyzing text can be a struggle, especially when it comes to the main idea and details of a story or piece of writing.

Often confused with the summary, the main idea is something that must be identified by students as part of class and exam work and is part of the Common Core Standards now used in most schools. So, when it comes to teaching main ideas, what main idea activities are suitable?

Here are just a few of the top ways for teaching main ideas to your students effectively and without confusion. These main ideas lessons plans are the perfect way to introduce the concept of the main idea for the first time, as well as to build upon the basics and establish a better comprehension of reading materials overall:

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How do I go about teaching main ideas?

The best place to start when teaching main ideas is looking at what may be confusing or difficult for your class to understand. By understanding the challenges, you’ll be far better placed to combat those issues and provide greater clarity to the kids you teach. Scaffolding practical lessons are a must for a thorough understanding of what the main idea is, why it’s essential, and also to continue with other associated work. Developing a real understanding of the concept of the main idea in the 3rd or 4th grade is ideal to avoid misconceptions, difficulty understanding, or pre-formed ideas of what the main idea means.

Unlike more straightforward subjects, your students may need a lot of structure and class time to understand the main ideas at first. But this isn’t a failing on your part as a teacher. It’s simply a reflection of just how complicated this subject can be to children. The first stage to succeeding in teaching main ideas is by looking at your classwork from the perspective of your students. What thoughts, techniques, or methods best suits them, and how can you apply that to this specific concept? The ideas below are an excellent place to start but don’t be afraid to devise your own methods that work for your particular class.

Main ideas lesson plans and teaching

With practice and good lesson planning, teaching your students the concept of the main idea quickly and effectively is achievable. These ideas and teaching techniques might be exactly what you need to help your kids make those connections:

Use the title first

The title of a story or piece of writing can provide plenty of clues and insight into the contents and main idea of the test. This is especially true in non-fiction writing, though plenty of fiction stories also have highly descriptive titles. Encouraging your students to consider the title of the story first before they begin reading can provide them valuable insight into the main idea of the story. Here are a few of the questions you could provide to help your class to figure out the main idea of a book from its title:

  • Based on the title, what will this book be about?
  • Do you think this book has supporting details based on the title?
  • In one sentence, can you explain what the main idea of this book might be based on the title?

Using these questions, and encouraging a deeper understanding of how the title can reflect the main idea of a book, offers students valuable tools for further learning. This technique can then be applied to titled chapters, as well as headings in non-fiction stories. This technique can even be reversed with significant effect, by providing your students the passage from a story without giving the title – and asking them to figure it out.

The main idea bag

This technique takes an abstract concept and makes it more real through the use of props and objects. Students will be divided into small groups, and each of these groups will be given a specific topic. Once topics have been distributed, each group must fill their main idea bag with similar items, with one main item that is the key. Then their classmates will need to guess what the main idea of the specific bag is based on its contents. A bag that contains gloves, a trowel, and a flowerpot, with the key item of a pack of seeds, is an example of the main idea bag. The group’s classmates could then guess that the main idea of the bag is to plant flowers.

The main idea bag simplifies what the main idea is and provides a visual and tactile way for children to develop an understanding of a relatively high-level concept. Using the main idea bag is generally a good idea following covering necessary information about main ideas, as well as completing other on-paper activities. It can be the catalyst that makes the main idea concept feel ‘real’ to students and makes sense later on in the process. Combined with other methods, this can be highly effective in helping the concept to ‘click’ in the heads of your students.

Find sentences unsupportive of the main idea

An age-old technique that’s an excellent tool for any grade, finding the main idea involves a little more prep but is more than worth the results. In this activity, you will write multiple paragraphs with a very clear central idea. Then a sentence should be added to each that does not support the main idea. Students then should read each paragraph carefully and highlight or cross out the sentence that does not support the main idea and doesn’t belong in general.

Each paragraph must be written thoughtfully and effectively. If possible, creating articles of varying difficulty can also help students to flex their brains and find contradictions or odd sentences out in more difficult or ambiguous writing. Repeating this activity several times, with increasing difficulty, is a great way to encourage learning not directly dictated by the teacher. For exams and testing, being able to figure out what is and isn’t supportive of the main idea solo is vital.

Self-study

Alongside guided and teacher-led study, self-study can be an excellent way for your students to wrap their heads around the concept of main ideas. Provide a selection of different passages, books, or stories for them to use, and encourage them to read increasingly long bodies of text to reach their conclusion. If at all possible, providing these materials in photocopy form can enable students to highlight, mark, or otherwise make a note of what they think is the main idea as they work through the text.

While this method is more appropriate for older children, it’s also suited for classes where certain students are further ahead than others. For those that seem to grasp the main idea of teaching better than others, these worksheets can be highly effective. When students struggle, providing worksheets with keywords or ‘clue words’ already highlighted can help them to have a visual idea of the concept. For maximum effect, a combination of different stories and passages can be used:

  • Fiction short stories
  • Non-fiction passages or chapters
  • Children’s books and stories
  • Fables and classic tales
  • Fairy stories

It’s also crucial for students to be able to pick out the main idea across genres and different styles of writing. Providing worksheets with a vast range of different topics, lengths, and writing styles is vital. This will ensure the main idea concept is understood, rather than in the context of a specific type of writing. Timothy Shanahan suggests starting with short passages but building up to longer ones over time.

Remember, having good main ideas and lesson plans in place can really make all the difference. With a little prep and some insight, it’s possible to make this challenging concept accessible to every student. No special measures or interventions are required.