What Are Key Details? Make the Concept Stick for Students
The Classroom

What Are Key Details? Make the Concept Stick for Students

Tara Shanley
Apr 25, 2024

How do skilled readers understand informational and literary texts? According to Hollis Scarborough, they use the word recognition and language comprehension skills they’ve learned from interacting with texts to assign meaning to what they read. Identifying key details in a text is part of becoming a skilled reader. In this article, we’re discussing what are key details, how students can identify them, and what areas of ELA instruction are most influenced by this skill.

What are key details in a text?

Key details are important ideas within a text that support, prove, or clarify the main idea. They can also help validate a main idea, meaning, especially in informational texts, they support the author’s stance or point of view with evidence. Key details serve one or more of three main purposes in any text:

  • Answering questions

  • Making sense of information

  • Serving as reasons, facts, or examples to give a more complete view of the topic

Finding key details can be a difficult concept for students to understand, especially in the early elementary grades. To scaffold the concept, you can describe key details in other ways to give students a more concrete idea of what they’re looking for in a text. Answer the question "What do key details do?" with responses like:

  • Share essential information about a topic

  • Answer who, what, when, where, why, and how

  • Help define unfamiliar words

  • Help strengthen an author's point of view

  • Connect one part of a story plot to the next

Key details vs. extraneous details

Two different kinds of details can appear in a text. They include:

  • Key details: These details explain the main idea, answer a reader’s questions about it, and provide examples or reasons to clarify the main idea.

  • Extraneous details: These details provide more information about key details and may not be important enough to include in a retelling or summary.

When teaching students this skill, stress that not all details in a text are key details. This note becomes even more important as they begin to engage with more complex texts. Students can learn how extraneous details enrich content by providing more information, even if that information isn’t worth highlighting in a summary.

Are key details and supporting details the same things?

Yes, supporting details is another term for key details. You can use them interchangeably. Different curricula, materials, or tools might call this skill by one name or the other.

It’s important that no matter which phrasing you use in your classroom you also make sure your students know that these terms are synonyms. This can help them as they progress in their education and use different materials, interact with different texts, and have other teachers who may use different phrasing.

10 types of key details students may identify

There are a variety of types of key details students can identify to support the main idea. Some of these include:

  1. Comparisons and contrasts: Details that show how one person, place, thing, idea, or situation is similar or different from another

  2. Statistics: Numerical data, usually given in percentages or ratios

  3. Results: Numerical or non-numerical outcomes of a test or experiment

  4. Impact: The effects of results on a particular person, place, thing, idea, or situation

  5. Graphs: Diagrams that show the relationships among different data sets

  6. Quotations: Word-for-word accounts from an authority or eyewitness

  7. Sensory descriptors: Details that describe how to experience a thing or situation with one or more of the five senses

  8. Examples: Real-world items or situations that illustrate the main idea

  9. Anecdotes: Short stories or explanations about a person, place, thing, idea, or situation

  10. Definitions: Short descriptions that explain what a word means

Why do students need to be able to identify key details?

Finding the main idea and key details of a text is necessary for reading comprehension. Being able to spot key details can help students identify text structure and make sense of the kind of content they’re reading. When they can do this, they can also begin to understand an author’s purpose for creating and sharing a text.

It’s also important to remember that students need to be able to understand, find, and use key details outside of reading. They also need to be able to add key details to their own writing. Writers include key details in texts because they prop up arguments, points of view, and plots. By looking at examples in other people’s writing, your students can learn to become better writers themselves.

How do students identify key details?

You can teach your students about signals that make identifying key details in a text easier. Explore some of the ways you can help them identify where key details live in a piece of content:

Introduction words that signal key details

Teaching students that some specific words and phrases signal key details in a text can be helpful when working on this skill. Some words and phrases that introduce key details include:

  • For example

  • For instance

  • In addition

  • Another

  • Furthermore

  • Moreover

  • Therefore

  • First, second, third

  • Next, then, last, finally

Other in-text cues for key details

Aside from signal words, there are also parts of speech and sentence constructions that can alert students when a key detail might appear in a text. These include:

  • Answering the questions who, what, when, where, why, and how

  • Specific names of people, places, and things

  • Action verbs

  • Sensory language

  • Adjectives and adverbs

Do key details only exist in text?

Sometimes key details live outside of written text. In picture books, videos, and other types of multimedia, visuals often contain supporting details that help you make sense of the main idea of the story or content. It’s important to teach students how to look for details in media outside of written text, like photos, illustrations, and videos.

Even for students who frequently read texts that don’t include pictures or images, this is still an important point to reinforce. Adding informational texts with photographs or infographics, or developing lessons that include graphic novels are some ways you can reinforce teaching about key details in images with older students and advanced readers.

How key details serve other ELA and literacy skills

Identifying key details is a foundational literacy skill. Three main areas of ELA instruction rely on students’ mastery of the concept. They include:

Close reading

Identifying key details is an important part of close reading. It typically happens on the first read, where students are looking for the main idea. It can also happen during a second examination of a text where students are looking for new ideas, understanding the author’s purpose for writing, and synthesizing information. Encouraging students to pause and check for understanding during close reading is an opportunity for students to locate—and in group instruction, discuss—the key details in a text.

There are three steps of close reading. They include:

  1. Reading for general understanding and to find the main idea.

  2. Reading to look for new ideas, unfamiliar words, and the author's purpose.

  3. Reading for deeper analysis and to make connections within the text.

Close reading is helpful for comprehension because it includes repeated exposure to a text through rereading. It gives students opportunities to identify the main idea and key details. During close reading, they can ask themselves questions like:

  • Does this detail explain or support the main idea?

  • What new information does this detail add?

  • Would the text be less clear or would we lose information without this detail?

  • Is this detail distracting or unimportant?

  • Is this detail more important than other details in the text?

Summarizing and retelling

When students summarize or retell a story, they select and organize key details to help paraphrase the text’s most important parts. This is a skill they can use both inside and outside the classroom. Oral stories also rely on using key details to build on a main idea. When students accurately retell stories to their friends or family members they’re reinforcing this skill.


Identifying and using key details isn’t just a reading skill. Students also use key details when they write. When they write response paragraphs to texts, they use key details as evidence to support a claim or enrich a summary. When doing creative fiction or nonfiction writing you can use those response activities as a guide to show them how to write pieces with a main idea and key details.

When teaching students how to write a paragraph, explain to them what a topic sentence is. Then show them how key details in a paragraph support the topic sentence. These types of lessons are also a great time to teach them the difference between key details and extraneous details. Key details provide more information about the topic sentence, such as answering questions or defining an uncommon word. Extraneous or “fluffy” details don’t directly tie back to the topic sentence. If the paragraph didn’t include these details, the reader could still understand the meaning of the passage.

Teach key details with Newsela

To find key details in a text, students need to read it carefully and look for important information that supports the main idea. But it’s easier to teach this literacy skill with relevant, real-world, engaging content rather than out-of-touch basal readers. That’s why teaching key details with Newsela ELA is easy! Not only do you get access to over 15,000 pieces of high-quality content, but you can level up your content-rich instruction with scaffolds and features like:

Not a Newsela customer yet? You can sign up for your free Newsela Lite account and get access to the content and skill-building scaffolds you need to teach students how to identify key details.

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