We tell students to find the main ideas. However, many students need us to teach them HOW to find the main ideas. Build your own anchor charts and think out loud to help students grasp this essential reading skill.
Ever hear someone say that the main idea is in the topic sentence? That is usually followed with an explanation of the topic sentence as the first sentence in a paragraph. Proficient readers know this is generally not the case. In fact, the main ideas are often implied in a text. Determining the central thoughts of a text requires a more analytical reading – sometimes even a second reading of the text.
Instructions vs. Instruction
In When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do, Kylene Beers reminds us that it is not enough to simply give students instructions to do a task such as find the main idea. Students learning to read and struggling to read need instruction on how to do the task.
Beers shares the frustration of one student who said, “How does your telling me to find the main idea help me to know which one is the main idea unless I already know which one is the main idea?”
I agree. Learners need us to intentionally share aloud an internal thought process for working through this prerequisite reading skill. Readers need the main idea to process other tasks such as summarizing, drawing conclusions, making predictions, etc.
K.I.S.S. the Anchor Chart
Imagine if we combine this purposeful thinking aloud with a preplanned teacher-created anchor chart. The chart works as a scaffold for ongoing support as students tackle other reading tasks and self-monitor reading progress.
Sure, you can purchase a poster and laminate it to display in your classroom. However, think about the benefits of creating an anchor chart for and with your students. Audio learners hear the thinking as you model and explain your process. Visual learners see the process as you post strategies to the chart. When you assemble the chart in front of students, you emphasize its importance beyond one more thing on the wall. Consider introducing the chart piece-by-piece as part of a series of mini lessons. Just remember to “keep it simple and strategic.”
Five Ways to Determine the Main Ideas
These five ways are not in any particular order. The key is to think aloud as you share each strategy.
1. Look for repeated words or ideas. Writers often repeat key words or phrases to stress the central ideas. The words don’t have to actually appear in the text. The writer might use words that create images that keep coming up in the reader’s mind. Connect those repeated words or ideas to determine the main ideas.
2. Turn the title or heading into a question and answer it. Most writers are careful in the choice of a title. As you read the text, look for the answer to your question. Use that answer to determine the main ideas.
3. If there is no title or heading, create your own title for the text. Keep in mind that the title of a text suggests what’s most important or central to the text. Therefore, your newly created title will determine the main ideas.
4. Consider why certain words stand out. Pay attention to features such as boldfaced, italicized, or colored text. Writers use these features to emphasize key ideas, especially in informational text. If there are no words in different font styles, sizes, or colors, think about five words you would highlight as the most important words in the text. Combine these words to determine the main ideas.
5. Question the author’s purpose for writing the text. Think beyond writers want to inform, entertain, and argue about ideas. Does the writer want to inspire us to do something or take some action? What is the writer trying to describe or explain? What makes this story more entertaining than another story? What’s the writer’s point? Why did the author write this? Think like a writer and use the writer’s purpose to determine the main ideas.