If you were in a reading or literature class and your teacher asked you what the main idea was, would you be able to answer? Chances are what may seem like a simple question would have several different answers from adults. Now pretend that you were back in school, how many more answers would that simple question have? How stressful would it be to attempt to answer that question when you are put on the spot? Things don’t have to be difficult when teaching main idea. The easiest way to help students is to teach them the purpose of the texts they are reading and learn the main idea while summarizing.
What is the Purpose of a Text?
The first thing that a student needs to learn in order to make learning the main idea easier is to understand what purpose texts serve. Now, if you were to ask this to an elementary or middle school classroom chances are someone would probably want to answer that the messages their parents or friends send them are texts. However, for teachers, when the word texts are used refers to the following things:
- Non-fiction texts
- Fiction texts
- Informational texts
What each of these texts is trying to do is to inform or teach the reader. If the text is a piece of fiction there might be a lesson that the author is trying to get the reader to learn.
Taking the Next Steps
People have problems with main idea because oftentimes they have trouble with the whole concept. It can be incredibly difficult to take an entire story, book or text and break it down into one simple idea even for adults. For young students things can become even more complicated. The problem for students is determining what is actually the main idea and what is simply an idea or piece of information that supports it.
Using Tools to Help
In order to help students better the most important thing to do is utilize teaching tools. The first tool to use is:
1) Idea Webs
Idea webs can help students figure out what the main idea is. With webs, students are tasked with trying to put what they think is the main idea of the text in the center and then having the supporting details follow them on the outside, much like a spider web. Idea webs can help students identify the main idea by making sure that all the facts on the outside of the web support the idea in the center. If they don’t, chances are that the main idea they put in the center isn’t the true main idea.
When summarizing a text, the reader is forced to break the whole text down into a smaller, more easily remembered, piece of information. By doing this students are practicing the concepts of identifying the main idea- what the text is mostly about, or what the text is trying to inform or teach the reader about.
The best summaries follow these basic tenants:
- The summary is written in your own words
- Includes important details
- Is short
The same three rules can be so helpful in identifying the main idea. When working with students, help them to use these three rules to not only help them summarize but also to guide them in identifying the main idea.