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Teaching the Main Idea

Janelle Cox


Many elementary students struggle with finding the main idea of a passage. Some students confuse the main idea with the summary, while others just can’t seem to understand what it is. Now that the Common Core State Standards have been implemented in most schools, it is imperative that students are able to identify the main idea and supporting details in a passage. 

Here are a few ideas, tips, and activities to help you teach students to identify the main idea of a story and the details that support it.

How to Teach It

Teaching the main idea should be a process that spans a few weeks. Start simple by having students identify the main idea of a category. Choose categories with things like vegetables, fruits, things you wear, automobiles. Then discuss the main idea of the category: For instance food you eat, clothing, things you drive. Once students have a firm grasp on this, then you can move on to categories with story elements. List all of the characters, setting, conflict, resolution, etc. Then you can move on to the actual main idea of a passage. Start with a nonfiction passage versus a story first, because it is the easiest for students to understand. Once they learn to identify the main idea of passage, then you can move on to a fiction story. Like I said earlier, it is a process that takes several weeks in order for students to truly grasp the concept.

When you are teaching the main idea of a passage or story follow these steps:

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1. Tell students that when you are reading to look for the “who” or “what” the story is about.

2. Have students identify the most important thing about the “who” or “what” the passage or story is about. Once they have done this, they have found the main idea.

3. Once they have found the main Idea, make them prove it. Have them write what the main idea is and two reasons to prove it.

Supporting details is the next thing you want to focus on. An easy way to do this is to draw a diagram of a hand on the board (I would have a handout of this for students also). The main idea of the story goes on the palm of the hand, and the topic sentence goes on the thumb. The rest of the fingers are the supporting details. There are a lot of fun and unique ways for students to learn and practice main idea. I have listed a few activities below.


To help students find the main idea, post the following clues somewhere in your classroom where everyone can see it:

·       The main idea is the most important part of the story.

·       The main idea helps readers understand what the story is mainly about.

·       Look at the title and pictures.

·       The main idea may be stated in the first or last sentence.

·       Look for clue words that are used repeatedly.


“The Important Book”

“The Important Book” by Margaret Wise Brown is a great book to get your students thinking about main idea and the supporting details. This book is a simple story that uses everyday objects to introduce the main idea and details about those objects. Use this book as a starting point when introducing main idea.

Guess the Main Idea

A fun way for students to practice main idea is to have them guess the main idea out of a series of pictures. For example, on a sheet of paper draw a football, the field, a goal post, football players, cheerleaders, etc. Then ask students to guess the main idea of the pictures. They too can create their own guess the main idea pictures. Just make sure to remind them to add details to their pictures so it will be easier for the guesser to figure out.

What’s in the Bag?

This activity is similar to the one above but students like it even more because they get to hide all of their items in a brown lunch bag. To begin, divide students into small groups. Then have each group decide on a topic. The goal is for each group to create a mystery bag full of similar items, with one item being the key that ties them altogether. Once the groups have their mystery bag stocked, allow each one to present their bags to the class. Each group must take out one item at a time, with the key item being last. The classmates’ goal is to guess the main idea of the bag. For example, the first item pulled out may be a picture of a spoon, then a picture of a mixing bowl, then a picture of flour, then the key item would be cake mix. The students would then guess the main idea is to bake a cake.

How do you teach main idea in your classroom? Do you have tips, tricks or activities that you would like to share? Please share with us in the comment section below! You never know, you may just inspire someone.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who draws on her 15 years of professional experience in the education system. Janelle holds a master's of science in education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for, where she provides educational information and lesson plans for teachers around the globe.

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