By far, one of the hardest skills to teach is determining the main idea of a nonfiction text. Not only is determining main idea pretty difficult for some (or most depending on your class that year) students, it is also so critical for understanding nonfiction text. To make matters more complicated, so many other nonfiction skills are also dependent on understanding that main idea. Keeping this in mind, I choose to teach main idea three different ways in an attempt to help all of my students master this tricky skill. Keep reading to read the three approaches to teaching main idea and hopefully get some new ideas when you teach it.
Teaching Main Idea of Nonfiction Strategies
Main Idea Strategy #1: Using Key Words
We began this specific main idea strategy lesson by reading a high interest article from Zoobooks about Owls that was projected onto the smartboard. For the first lesson, I wanted the focus to be on key words and using those key words to determine the main idea. Here is the main idea anchor chart that I used to introduce the main idea strategy:
As you can see, I taught the students that key words are either bolded, repeated (keeping in mind words that are repeated through synonyms) or they match the heading or the title. With the students’ help, we came up with four key words from a paragraph in our article (specifically zoning in one paragraph at a time is key to scaffolding understanding). We supported the choice of key words by discussing which requirement they met to be called a key word. Then we turned our key words into a main idea sentence.
Finally we completed what I call a “Sentence Check.” This is where we check each sentence (or randomly select a few) and make sure they match the main idea. If each sentence is not connected to the main idea in some way, our main idea sentence may not be accurate or complete. This really helps them not choose main idea sentences that are just interesting details.
Main Idea Strategy #2: What To Do When You Have Choices
After reading the section and discussing with our partners what we thought the author was trying to tell us with the information, we looked at our choices. We read each choice and went back to the section to determine if it was the main idea. We used our “Sentence Check” from the previous lesson to justify our answers. It was really great hearing the students say things like, “That is just a detail and the other sentences don’t really talk about that.” Or “That sentence is an opinion and doesn’t match the details in the paragraph.” We chose our answer based on the fact that all of our sentences supported that idea.
Main Idea Strategy #3: What are the details or examples showing you?
For this mini lesson, we moved away from our article and used a nonfiction mentor text on sharks. I chose this book because it contained great examples through the text and the illustrations. For this lesson I wanted to explore text that didn’t really have key words, but instead used details and examples to illustrate the main idea. Click here to see my other recommended mentor texts and read alouds for teaching main idea.
Before reading the shark mentor text, we looked at a quick example that I had written on chart paper. We read it aloud and discussed with a partner what the author was trying to show us through the details provided. Since this was a familiar topic, most of them were really quick to notice that the details were showing that the inner planets are different from the outer planets.
After reading the short paragraph, we discussed how the main idea was not stated or even shown through key words. Instead, the reader used the examples and the details to show the reader the main idea.
After discussing this and doing another turn and talk discussion with our partners, we read a few pages from the mentor text mentioned above. We did several main idea sentences together using the book and then I chose a page for them to complete on their own. They were given a post it note where they had to determine the main idea. It was really interesting because some of them let the examples guide them and some of them even chose to use key words to help them from our previous lessons. They posted their responses on our chart.
Next week, we move on to summarizing nonfiction text. I hope to be able to refer to these lessons to guide that instruction as well. While I am teaching summarizing, I will have the students apply these main idea strategies to passages during their reading centers. I use longer passages from my Teaching Main Idea unit. These passages are perfect because each paragraph has a specific main idea.
Do you have any tips or strategies for teaching main idea of nonfiction text? I am always looking for more strategies to share with my students.