12 Tips To Make Teaching Main Idea Easier
The Classroom

12 Tips To Make Teaching Main Idea Easier

Tara Shanley
May 16, 2024

Teaching students the concept of finding the main idea in a text is tricky. The term has a variety of synonyms and related ideas. Scientific proof shows that interesting but extraneous details can become more memorable to readers than the main idea. Plus, learning about the main idea doesn’t always lead to better performance on standardized tests

If you’re not seeing tangible results in your students’ test scores you might wonder why you should value teaching it at all. We’re giving you 12 tips to make teaching main idea to your students easier. You'll see the importance of teaching this skill, even if it doesn't reflect in test results.

Why is it difficult to teach students to find the main idea?

According to author and literacy expert Timothy Shanahan, finding the main idea in a text or passage isn’t really a literacy skill. He makes this claim because the main idea is specific to each text. With other literacy skills, students can practice through repetition or even memorization. With this skill, they’ll never have the same main idea twice.

That makes it harder for you to teach them HOW to do this correctly. It’s not like using a formula. They can’t do a repetitive process and get the “correct” answer every time.

Plus there are discrepancies in how students may write or identify the main idea. So, even when there’s only “one right answer” there’s also not just “one right answer.” Take an example from the nonfiction text “Kids are abuzz with activities to help save bees” from our Newsela Earth Month: Environmentalism and Conservation text set:

We wrote two sample main idea statements for this article:

  1. Three students are creating bee-friendly habitats to improve bee decline.

  2. J.P. Mackey, Maia Timm, and Kaia Giffen developed projects to save the bees.

Both main idea versions are accurate. They both cover the main points of the article, with more or less specificity in certain areas. If two students gave these answers as the main idea of the text, neither would be wrong. 

12 tips for teaching the main idea to your students

Because the main idea can be a difficult concept to teach not every strategy works for every text. Use these tips throughout the year to help your students practice finding the main idea to make the concept easier to understand:

1. Start with topics

Before you even have students pick up a text, start with a lesson or refresher on identifying the topics of a text. This can be as simple as doing an activity where students have to find the common bond between a few items or ideas.

For older students, play a game like “Tribond.” Provide three statements and have students guess what they have in common. For example, you could ask them what Penguins, Panthers, and Bruins all have in common. They’re all hockey team names (and animals, too!).

For younger students, try a mystery bag activity. Add three or four small items or images with a theme to a paper bag. Call on students to take turns pulling items out of the bag and work together to try to decide what they have in common.

For example, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and dental floss all have teeth or tools to clean your teeth in common. These activities help students think about how items and ideas relate to each other.

After students understand how to identify topics, you can help them use the same thought process while reading to find connections in the text. You can write these potential topics on the board or have students record them in a notebook. Circle the ones that feel most important or relevant to the text.

Then you can model how they should think about which one is the right starting point for their main idea. Ask questions like, What is the author saying about these topics? or How can we write a sentence that describes what this text is about, using our topic as a guide?

2. Teach about the main idea and key details together

The main ideas and key details are two literacy skills that go together. Students can’t find the main idea if they can’t identify key details. They can’t determine what information is a key detail if they don’t have a main idea to connect them all. Instead of teaching these skills in isolation, teach them together. This can help students scaffold the thinking, research, and analysis skills necessary to make meaning from the texts they read.

3. Teach the main idea as part of summarizing

Because this skill can be subjective, Shanahan recommends teaching it as part of a larger reading strategy, like summarizing. Summarizing supports students’ comprehension skills by giving them a full overview of a text.

Students may use summaries to get the idea of a paragraph or a whole text. Students can look at a group of shorter summaries and decide which details are MOST important. They'll include these details in the one-sentence main idea.

4. Vary the types of texts you use

Since the main idea is specific to a text, it’s important to help students find the main ideas in different types of content. Use both literary and informational texts in your lessons. Anything goes: poems, short stories, essays, novels, news articles, speech transcripts.

Different types of texts also vary in length, difficulty, and topic. The variations give students a wide range of content for practice. The more exposure students have to finding the main idea in varied texts, the better they can get at mastering the concept.

Newsela’s content library helps with this. Newsela ELA has 15,000+ pieces of literary and informational content. The topics align with your curriculum, students’ interests, and everything in between. 

Text leveling allows you to adjust the complexity of what students are reading. Use it to show them how the main idea doesn’t change even when the vocabulary or sentence structure does.

5. Pay attention to how you model finding the main idea

Shanahan recommends what he calls, “the gradual release of responsibility” when teaching about finding the main idea. But how does it work?

When you’re modeling the process of finding the main idea, you start by explicitly telling them what to do. Then you pass the decision-making responsibility to them as you practice and repeat the process. Here’s what this might look like when doing multiple read-alouds:

  • First lesson: "We can cross out any extraneous details the author provides. They won't help us find the main idea."

  • Next lesson: "How can we cut down the information in the paragraph to make it easier to summarize?"

  • Later lesson: "We've just read this paragraph, now what should we do?"

This strategy allows students to start finding the main idea independently in any text. Not just the ones you cover in class. Newsela ELA annotations can help with modeling. You can also use them to ask students to highlight key details or remove extraneous ones to help them summarize. 

6. Add visuals to the text

Adding visuals to written text can help make ideas stick. If your text has little or no images, you can add some to help students connect the words with a tangible concept. When modeling how to find the main idea, use free stock images with fair use copyright to illustrate key points of a text.  

For example, if you were teaching with the article “The early history of football’s forward pass,” (in our Super Bowl text set) you may use images of things like a football, Glenn Scobey Warner, or someone throwing a forward pass to illustrate the main concepts of the article. If images aren’t available for the text or topic you’re covering, ask students to draw illustrations.

7. Look at the first and last sentences for clues

The topic sentence doesn’t always include the information you need to find the main idea. But both it and the conclusion sentence can be good starting points for research. They often include at least some clues to the theme, topic, main characters, primary conflict, or resolution. All can be key components of writing a main idea statement.

Before reading, have students scan the topic and conclusion sentences and predict what the text is about. They'll see these sentences again when they read the text (or reread it multiple times for close reading!). Have students hold onto their predictions and after reading have them use key details from the text to support or disprove their predictions. Then have them use that information to decide the main idea.

8. Use titles to your advantage

Titles of texts or articles can also provide clues to the main idea. You can do the same pre-reading activity and have students read the title and predict what they think the text is about. They can use that information after reading—with the key details they find in the text—to determine the main idea.

For example, take an article titled “Online posting can have very serious consequences” from our novel study on the book “One of Us Is Lying” by Karen McManus. Students who read this title may predict that the article is about social media. Other predictions may include sharing information online or getting in trouble.

They can find key details and evidence to support or refute their predictions as they read. If a text has headings and subheadings you can include these in your pre-reading activity, too.

9. Use keywords

Some texts include keywords or key terms as a text feature. These words and phrases stand out from the rest of the text so students know they’re important. In traditional textbooks, there’s often a glossary in the back that lists the definitions for these terms.

With dynamic programs, students can often click the word to view the definition onscreen. Newsela ELA Power Words work like dynamic keywords to highlight Tier III vocabulary words for students, providing background knowledge and context.

Analyzing and reviewing keywords and their definitions can help students learn what’s important in a text. You can also have students find synonyms and antonyms for the keywords throughout the passage. Looking for repeated references can help students recognize some of the important topics in a text.

10. Use main idea prompts

If students aren’t sure where to begin when writing a main idea sentence, they may feel overwhelmed. You can use a fill-in-the-blank prompt activity to get them started. Before reading, provide students with prompts like:

  • The most important think to know about [TOPIC] is [KEY DETAIL].

  • [TOPIC] is [RESULT] because [KEY DETAIL].

  • The main idea of [TOPIC] is [KEY DETAIL].

  • [CHARACTER] wanted [RESULT], but [PROBLEM], so [KEY DETAIL] then [RESOLUTION].

The prompt you choose may depend on whether you’re using an informational or literary text. The complexity of the lesson is also a factor. Asking students to fill in the blanks can feel less intimidating than creating a main idea sentence from scratch.

11. Provide main idea choices

A text only has one main idea. But literacy skills aren’t math and there isn’t always one right answer. We can use that variety to our advantage when teaching students about the main idea.

Do an exercise where you have students read a passage or a text and give them four potential main ideas. Depending on how long you’ve been practicing the skill, you could also ask them to generate four potential main ideas of their own. Next, have students number the four statements in the following convention:

  1. Too broad: This main idea isn't specific enough.

  2. Too narrow: This main idea is too specific as is a key detail instead.

  3. Too many details: this main idea has too many supporting details. It's a summary.

  4. Main idea: This is the main idea of the text.

This activity can help students sort through their ideas of what they think a main idea might be. They can also visualize how to narrow the information down to just the highlights.

12. Review, review, review

The more you practice, the easier anything gets. You can have students find the main idea of any text you read as a class, or even reading that they do independently. Provide for practice and encourage them to do it on their own, the more they’ll internalize the steps needed to master the skill.

The standards and skill-aligned multiple-choice quizzes on all Newsela texts make it easier for you to monitor students' progress on their reading comprehension skills.

Teaching the main idea with Newsela ELA

Main idea is a unique skill, but it's easier to teach and track student progress when you have the right scaffolds and support. With Newsela ELA, it’s easy to provide relevant texts to help students find the main idea.

Coming for back-to-school ‘24, Newsela ELA will have updated reporting features that help you look in on students’ skills progress with ease. You can identify classroom trends and patterns with the new class overview module. It provides an aggregate summary of classroom performance. You’ll also see students’ reading skills displayed clearly so you can connect those growth areas to your Newsela content searches.

Not a Newsela customer yet? Sign up for Newsela Lite to get free access to the scaffolds you need to teach students how to find the main idea.

If you liked this article...

Browse more great content from Newsela.


Theme vs Main Idea: What’s the Difference?

Help students discover the difference in theme vs main idea and how to clearly define other related topics and literacy skills for them throughout your lessons.

Read more

What Are Key Details? Make the Concept Stick for Students

Discover what key details are in literacy instruction and get tips on how to make the skill stick for students in different types of ELA instruction.

Read more

11 Key Details Examples You’ll Actually Want To Teach

Find articles and content that include examples of key details you can share with your students to help them understand & master this literacy skill.

Read more

Inspire the desire to learn.

Ready to engage, support, and grow every learner?

Contact us