One integral part of the reading process is being able to identify the main idea of a given text and distinguish it from supporting details. This key component is the foundation of comprehension and is seen starting in kindergarten, where students are expected to be able to (with prompting and support of course) identify major events in a story. This common core standard builds on itself each year of primary school, high school, and even into post-secondary school. What exactly does a main idea mean and what are some strategies to use in the classroom to explicitly teach and practice finding the main idea?

What is the Main Idea?

When students are asked to find the main idea, this can mean of a paragraph, a chapter, or an entire story (however, while the main idea usually refers to a text, it can also be associated with something that is read, said, or done). It is the overall “big idea” that the reader/listener/observer should walk away with. What was the lesson the author was trying to teach you? Was there a moral to the story? Was this book about a concept you are now expected to understand?

Without understanding the main idea, a student cannot fully comprehend what they are reading. The main idea links all the supporting details and smaller events together that form the story. While main ideas can be a complex concept to teach, there are some strategies and games to help students understand and practice this foundational comprehension skill.

How to Find the Main Idea

Mystery Bag Objects

This activity is great for younger students to practice determining the main idea.  Students are given a brown paper bag. As they pull out items, they think about how they are related to each other. For example: eggs, flour, baking soda, chocolate chips. The students should be able to determine that the main idea is “making cookies” or “baking,” and the objects in the bag are the supporting details.

Use the Clues You Have

Another way to practice finding the main idea, especially for upper elementary students, is to have them use the clues the text provides. Have students look for titles of chapters or subheadings. Have them think about how those titles are connected. They can highlight them, create a list, or flip back through the text as they try and determine how each heading is connected.

Get the Gist

This reading comprehension practice strategy is a way to teach students how to determine the main idea. Students are taught to stop at predetermined points in a text. In this 3-step process, students first write down the “who” or “what” that section of the story is about. They then jot down what was the most important information they read. Finally, they write their gist statement. This combines the information they already wrote down in their first two steps. Instead of copying a sentence from the book, this sentence is to be in the students’ own words.

Why this works is because it encourages students to self-monitor their comprehension while they are reading. It also helps bring together important information throughout the course of an entire text. Additionally, it helps solidify information as students pause to reflect and determine what was most significant about what they read.

Tell a Short Story

Another fun way to get students thinking about the main idea, especially in the younger elementary grades, is to tell them a story. Have them listen and then probe them with questions after. An example may sound like this, “Yesterday was a horrible day! First, I spilled ketchup on my favorite white shirt. Then I was late to a meeting because I couldn’t find my car keys. And finally, I forgot I was baking cookies and they all got burned. Today was just not my day.” After you are done with the story, ask students to identify what the main idea was. Whether or not they get it right away, ask them some follow up questions like, “Was my entire story about spilling ketchup? Did I go on and on about the ketchup, or was that just a little detail?” Then, see if the students are able to tell their own main idea stories.

Using Pictures to Teach a Main Idea

One additional way to teach the main idea is by showing students a photograph. This could be of two people getting married, someone mountain biking and laying on the ground clutching their leg, or a couple carrying a baby into their house with a sign that reads “Welcome home!” Have students come up with a one-sentence main idea based on what they see. Then, have them act out or stage their own photographs and have classmates write main idea sentences based on the photos they review.

Being able to find the main idea of a passage is a key component in the reading process. This skill starts in kindergarten and builds over the course of a student’s entire schooling. Without being able to identify the main idea, a reader would not be able to fully understand the text. To help support your readers in their literacy journey, there are many strategies and games you can use to guide students in identifying the main idea.

*Updated August 2021