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Main Idea Strategies & Activities

Determining the main idea is an important reading comprehension strategy.  When students are able to do this, it is easier to feel confident that they understand each section of reading.  Nonfiction text features, graphic organizers, and content-specific keywords can all help improve your students’ ability to determine the main idea as well as supporting details.

Strategies and resources for determining the main idea and supporting details

Main Idea Anchor Chart

I’ve seen different versions of this anchor chart on Pinterest, and I love how it provides a visual for the students to better understand the relationship between main idea and supporting details.

I use this anchor chart in my initial lesson to show students an example.  (I used the book Butterflies and Moths by Nic Bishop.  You can see how this book is also great for nonfiction fluency here.)

I model the process of reading carefully, stopping to think about the section and coming up with the main idea.

Anchor chart for the reading comprehension strategy ofmain idea and supporting details
Visuals on an anchor chart can make it easier for students to understand.

Using Text Features

The Table of Contents can be a very helpful nonfiction text feature for predicting the main idea.

One of the strategies that can help your students right away is to have them preview the Table of Contents.  Students can use the headings to predict the main idea of each section.  They can also make predictions about the details by asking questions that they think will be answered in the text.

This Table of Contents is from the National Geographic Kids book Penguins.  One of my favorite things about this series is that the headings give big clues about the main idea without coming right out and stating it directly.  However, as you will see below, sometimes the headings don’t give the entire picture.

nonfiction text features can help with reading comprehension.

Students predicted that this section would be about what penguins eat.  They were surprised to learn that it also talked about how penguins are able to remove salt from salt water.  Although the passage mentioned that penguins eat fish, there was a lot more information about how penguins are able to catch and swallow their food than what they actually eat.  We revised our predicted main idea to “How penguins eat and drink”.  

Reading the WHOLE page is a reading comprehension skill that I am constantly going reviewing with my students.  The “Bird Words” help the reader to visualize the barbs on tongues and throats.  The large photo gives life to facts like “a hooked bill, or beak, to help them grab their dinner”.

Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are a great way for students to demonstrate an understanding of reading comprehension skills and strategies.  Before assigning any of these organizers, it is important to model how to complete them.  I always use a familiar text and make sure the expectations are clear.  Here are three that I love for main idea.  If you keep reading, you will find a way to download all three of these organizers (plus a bonus one) for free.

This organizer is a straight forward way to assess your students’ understanding of main idea and supporting details.  I like using this one before beginning our research unit.  It provides great practice in finding important details and rewording them to ensure comprehension.

A graphic organizer for the reading comprehension strategy of main idea and supporting details

For this organizer, students first jot 3 important words from their reading.  Next, they place them in order of importance.  Finally, students write a main idea sentence based on the three words they chose.

Key word strategy graphic organizers

Students begin this organizer after previewing the text.  First, they jot 5-10 words they think will appear frequently in the reading.  As they read, student put checkmarks next to the words as they appear in the text.  Students review the list of words and use the most common ones to compose a main idea statement.

Word predictions can help determine the main idea

Determining the main idea (and supporting details) is an important reading comprehension strategy.  Below you will find a link to four activities you can easily incorporate to your nonfiction units.  I included all three of the activities above, plus one additional activity.  Just complete the form below, and these activities will be sent straight to your inbox

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Teaching blogger for elementary teachers

Mary Wingert, licensed educator (K-12 Special Ed. & 1-8 General Ed)

I started teaching in 1993.   I have taught special education, fifth grade, and fourth grade.  I moved to second grade in 2015, and I am still there today.  

I believe in teaching strategies that are effective, differentiated, and engaging. I am looking forward to building a community of teachers who feels the same!  Read more here.