Main Idea . . . Think about it.

Today I shared a couple of simple strategies for helping students understand how to take in informational text.  It involves breaking down information into manageable bits.  I used to think students should be able to find the main idea easily.  Then I tried to teach it.  Turns out – not easy.  Something in my training, reading, learning had helped me figure it out.  But what WAS that?  I did a lot of thinking and reading and learning across a couple of years.  Here’s the best of what I came up with.

In order to understand what something is really all about – you have to know a lot of components. You have to be able to understand this:



You see, it’s not “just” a main idea.  There are parts.  Like you have to know what the topic is.  What the details the author chooses to present about that topic are … and then you’re still not finished.  You have to do some heavy lifting.  You have to make an inference.


For example – puppies.  Look at details about puppies…furry, small, brothers & sisters, tiny, smooshy and so adorable when they sleep with their nose between their paws.  What do you see?  What can you notice about them?  Read closely now.  Why did the author (me) choose THESE particular details?  What did she leave out?  What is she trying to get me to think, know, or feel?

Put all your smart thoughts together and work that inferential magic.  Determine what I, the author, want you to think.  This is the inferring part.  This is the hard part.

But we can make it easier.  We can make the process more transparent by using friendly visuals rather than complex texts – at least to begin with.  Students have to get there eventually. This is the goal.

Students can access this work.  Discussing thoughts on what the author is trying to say is powerful cognitive work. This is exactly what the common core standards are calling for.


We can then infuse some content.  Here is a slide that includes some of California’s fifth-grade content standards for social studies.  Slide21

It is important to teach students to use the word MAYBE. This is because it lowers their effective filter. They get to speculate rather than land a steadfast position.  THey don’t have to have a “right” answer. They DO have to think.

Learning is vulnerable work. Breaking down main idea to its root components helps students determine importance, consider author’s perspective and begin to understand their own in a world that is often all too ready to tell them how to think.


About Be Strong. Be Courageous. Be You

Principal at the School at the north end of Los Angeles Harbor where AWESOME happens. Working to make the world a little more wonder-full.
This entry was posted in close reading, Common Core State Standards, History & Social Studies, Learning, reading, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Main Idea . . . Think about it.

  1. pittswitts says:

    I love that you make your main idea lesson focus more on the author’s perspective than just a topic sentences, repeated words or what fits into some graphic organizer. This brings together both RI.5.2 but also RI.5.6! The author’s perspective plays the most critical role in determine the focus of the piece!

    Liked by 1 person

    • daywells says:

      So true! Bringing in the author is such a critical piece. When we know WHO is behind what we’re reading it helps us to better analyze what it is we are learning and how we think about it. Too often we teach our students that non-fiction is TRUE. We know, however, just from reading an Op Ed piece that this belief is not the case. Instead, helping students ask questions about what the author has chosen to include (and not to include) help us build stronger, more critical thinkers.


  2. Mandy Robek says:

    I love the line, “Learning is vulnerable work.” It really is. Happy slicing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Carol says:

    I love the idea of using visuals to teach important concepts. We do that a lot at my school, but I’ve never done main idea this way. I can’t wait to try it! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Veronica says:

    You are so thoughtful about guiding your students’ thinking! This is so wonderful to see! Thank you for sharing!!\

    Liked by 1 person

  5. elsie says:

    As a student, main idea was a shot in the dark. Usually my shot missed the mark. Love the way you use visuals first. Why do teachers think that’s too easy, so they get to text before students grasp the concept? Smart thinking, but then that doesn’t surprise me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • daywells says:

      What I intended to say is that there must be as many ways to teach a difficult concept such as main idea as there are students to teach it to. Just keep hitting it one way and then another and then practice practice practice!


  6. franmcveigh says:

    Great post. I love this whole last paragraph!

    “Learning is vulnerable work. Breaking down main idea to its root components helps students determine importance, consider author’s perspective and begin to understand their own in a world that is often all too ready to tell them how to think.”

    When students are doing the work – learning is truly vulnerable!
    Amen, Sister!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s