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.
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.