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How to Teach Main Idea With Simple Strategies

Michele Meleen
Child explaining the book to his father

Teaching main ideas can be a challenge even for veteran educators. Think outside the box and use a variety of simple strategies to teach main idea to kids in upper elementary school or ESL students. Be sure to incorporate fun activities for teaching main idea into your main idea lesson plans so kids don't get overly frustrated.

Simple Strategies for Teaching Main Idea

You can use various graphic organizers and picture cards or worksheets to help you teach main idea, but starting off with simpler teaching methods can be more successful for many students. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that how you explain main idea shouldn't involve repeatedly using the words "main" and "idea."

Categorize Things

One of the simplest methods for teaching main idea and details is to have kids categorize items based on similarities. The category title is the main idea and each item is a supporting detail. Even toddlers can group things by similarity like fruits, things that go, or things you read. For younger kids, you should provide either the main idea or the details and have kids figure out the other. With older kids, you can ask them to create a category, then find things to add to it.

Think Out Loud

Modeling is one of the best methods for teaching main idea because it is an abstract concept. Read a short passage, then say your thought process out loud as you try to find the main idea. Describe the clues, such as title words or topic sentences, that help you get to your conclusion. Say each step out loud and end with your conclusion about what the main idea is. If you make this a regular part of your reading time or lessons in any subject, kids will start to learn from your behavior.

Make it Multiple Choice

Before kids can identify the main idea on their own, they need a solid understanding of what a main idea is. You can help them understand by offering up options for the main idea and letting them choose which makes the most sense. You want to offer two choices for younger kids and three choices to older kids. You want to make the choice difficult, but not too tricky.

Start With Nonfiction

The title alone of a nonfiction book, paragraph, article, or essay will sum up what the entire piece is about. Kids' magazines are a great starting point for main idea lessons with beginners. Since the headlines and articles were written with kids in mind, it should be easy for them to guess what an article is about based on the title.

Discover Cover Clues

Have students look only at the front and back covers of a book. The information they find on the covers, such as the title and book summary, should give them a good idea what the book is about. Ask them to predict what the book is about based on the covers, then read the book together and discuss what the main idea really was.

Give a One-Sentence Summary

After students read a passage or book, have them identify one sentence they could use to tell someone else what the book is about. Younger kids can do this with short texts like picture books, while older kids should be able to do it for longer essays and even novels.

Take It One Sentence At a Time

When kids read deeper into each sentence of a paragraph or longer text, they can see what each sentence is specifically about. Have kids write a couple words describing what each sentence is about next to each sentence. When they finish reading, kids would see which sentences were about the same things and identify what the whole passage is about based on what most of the sentences are about.

Questions to Help Find the Main Idea

Whether kids are reading alone or with you, there are simple questions they should ask themselves as they read. If you've got younger kids, you can start asking these questions while you're reading to them. Try out different questions to see which clicks best with your child.

  • What I am supposed to learn from this?
  • What is the big problem faced by the most important character?
  • What is the topic of this?
  • What is most important about this?
  • How could I describe this in one sentence?
  • What is the lesson of this?
  • What makes this book different from other books about the same topic?
  • What action was repeated the most?
  • What does the whole text say about the topic of the text?

What's the Big Idea?

Since "main idea" can be a tough concept for kids to grasp, look for synonyms of "main idea" to help you teach lessons. Calling it the "big idea" or the "point" might make more sense to your child, so try out different terms during your lessons. Kids can use logical reasoning and context clues to help them find the main idea of anything written or spoken, so consider asking them to tell you the main idea of things you hear throughout the day too.

How to Teach Main Idea With Simple Strategies