Teaching Main Idea and Details in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th & 5th grade

Teaching main idea and details is simple once you have a solid understanding of the literacy concept and a systematic approach to teaching it. This blog post will support you in developing an understanding of what it is by providing definitions, comparisons, and examples. In addition, it will recommend lesson ideas, teaching strategies, and resources to help you deliver excellent research-based instruction to your elementary students. This post is helpful to 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers.

This blog post will answer the following questions about teaching main idea and details:

  • How do you explain main idea to a child?
  • What is an example of main idea?
  • What is the difference between main idea and central idea?
  • Is main idea the same as theme?
  • What is the difference between a topic, the main idea and key details?
  • Why is finding the main idea of a story important?
  • How do students identify the main idea in fiction and non-fiction texts?
  • What are some lesson ideas for teaching main idea?

How Do You Explain Main Idea to a Child?

Students focus on finding the whole text’s main idea many times throughout the school year in upper elementary. It is also one of the most challenging standards for students to grasp because it is not always stated directly. 

The main idea is what the whole text is mostly about. This main idea is elaborated with supporting details that make texts organized and easy to read. In upper elementary, students learn this critical reading skill through the eyes of authors and as readers. 

There are several ways to explain main ideas and details to students. I love using food analogies, so I use a nacho analogy for teaching main idea and details! 

  • The bowl or plate that the nachos are served in: The topic or the text’s general subject. 
  • The chips of the nacho dish = the main idea. The main idea explains what the text (nachos all together) is MOSTLY about. 
  • All of the toppings on the nachos = the supporting details. Details are the parts that make the text (or nachos) more flavorful for the reader (eater). They SUPPORT the main idea by providing extra information like facts and examples that add to the main idea.

What is an Example of Main Idea?

It can be helpful to have an example when you are learning about teaching main idea and details. There are tons of main idea examples out there, but here’s a very simple example of main idea that you could use when you model for students: 

My Favorite City

My favorite city is Austin. Austin is located in the center of Texas. The weather in Austin can get very hot during the summertime, so I enjoy swimming at Barton Creek when I can. I love Austin because it has many things to do, like kayaking, hiking, and eating fun foods. My favorite thing to do in Austin is listen to live music. 

Topic: My Favorite City

Main idea: My favorite city is Austin.

Supporting Details: 

  1. Austin is located in the center of Texas. 
  2. The weather in Austin can get very hot during the summertime, so I enjoy swimming at Barton Creek when I can.
  3. I love Austin because it has many things to do, like kayaking, hiking, and eating fun foods. 
  4. My favorite thing to do in Austin is listen to live music. 

You could create a similar paragraph about anything you’d like to model for your students on an anchor chart. You could even color-code each sentence as the topic, main idea, and supporting details. 

What is the Difference Between Main Idea and Central Idea?

There is no considerable difference between the main idea and the central idea meanings. The main idea is typically used for fiction texts, and the central idea is generally used for nonfiction texts. Students must know both in case any questions are phrased differently. They may encounter it phrased either way. 

Is Main Idea the Same as Theme?

Students commonly confuse the main idea and theme even though they are very different. The theme of a text is the lesson or main takeaway from the text. It is the message the author is trying to tell or teach.

Common themes in upper elementary texts include: be prepared, actions speak louder than words, money doesn’t buy happiness, cheating does not pay off, the importance of being a good friend, and don’t procrastinate. 

The main idea is specific to each text and tells what it is mostly about, not the lesson the author was trying to share. 

What Is the Difference Between a Topic, the Main Idea and Supporting Details?

The text’s topic is what it is generally about. Some examples are sharks, favorite city, and springtime. Thinking about the nacho analogy from earlier, the topic is the dish the nachos are on. The topic is usually a word or phrase and is very general.

The main idea is slightly more detailed. The main idea represents what the whole text is mostly about. It identifies the most important information about the who or what from the text. This should be one or two sentences.

The supporting details, also commonly called the key details, are “all of the toppings on the nachos.” They support the main idea.

Why is Finding the Main Idea Important? 

Students need to be able to find the main idea in all texts so they can fully comprehend the text. It is one of the most important comprehension skills because you will use it with every text every time. When reading, students need to identify the most important parts to understand the story or article fully. That’s why it’s so important for teachers to master how to teach main idea.

How Do Students Identify the Main Idea?

Usually, the main idea is the first sentence of a passage or paragraph, but not always. Sometimes it is stated in the concluding sentence as well. However, it may not be directly said, and students will need to have a good understanding of what the whole text is about before making any guesses.

  1. First, students should use the title and any text features to determine the topic of the text. I love letting students do a “book walk” to examine the text features before deciding on the topic.
  1. Next, they will first have to read the WHOLE text. Then, students can get a better idea of what the whole text is about. Frequently, students may look at the first sentence, but as they get older and go on to the upper grades, finding the main idea gets more challenging. It is important for students to know that the main idea will not always be stated in the first sentence of each paragraph or section! For this reason, it is crucial to read the whole text. 
  1. Lastly, students need to ask themselves what the text is MOSTLY about. They identify the most essential information about the who or the what of the text. Then, students answer in a complete sentence. 

How to Identify the Main Idea in Fiction

Finding the main idea in fictional stories can be tricky. Ask students these questions to help them identify the main idea in fiction texts: 

  • What is the story mostly about?
  • What do I notice over and over?
  • Can I state the main idea in one sentence?

How to Identify the Main Idea in Nonfiction

Finding the main idea in nonfiction texts can be tricky. Ask students these questions to help them identify the main idea in nonfiction texts: 

  • What does the author want me to notice?
  • Are there any clues in the first or last sentences?
  • Can I state the main idea in one sentence?

6 Mini-lessons for Teaching Main Idea

Teaching main idea and supporting details can be challenging, especially if you do not have a formal curriculum program. Even if you have a program, it can be boring for students. Here are 6 fun ways to teach main idea!

  1. Finding the topic of a text: cut off or cover the topic of a text and have students come up with their own. Compare as a class and discuss. 
  2. Use graphic organizers: have students read a text and fill in the organizer as they read. Discuss as a class. 
  3. Have students color code the topic, main idea, and details with highlighters. Give each a color and compare answers after.
  4. Cut apart a text and have students reorganize the parts or sort the elements into categories: topic, main idea, or supporting details. 
  5. Read aloud any picture book and model predicting and finding the main idea. 
  6. Use examples and non-examples. Give students a passage or text to read. Then give several examples/non-examples of main idea statements. Students then choose the best main idea statement and explain. Then have them point out non-examples and explain their reasoning. 

Other Notes about Teaching Main Idea and Details

Raise your hand if you struggle with teaching kids how to find the main idea of the text!

I think it’s one of the trickiest things for kids to grasp.

Last week the main selection in our reading curriculum (Treasures in case you were wondering) was a non-fiction article and the focus skill was main idea. We had completed an overview of all genres at the start of the school year, but it was time to roll up our sleeves and really dig into some non-fiction. 

To keep it all focused and feed into their craving for all things Halloween(ish) I planned a week of bat research… but you already knew that because I wrote all about it yesterday{if you missed it you can read it here and check out some cool bat craft activities to make with your kids}.

Between teaching it in school that day and helping my own 2nd grader with his main idea and details homework that afternoon, I had main idea on the brain.

Even later in the evening when I was building blocks with my twins.

And that was when I had an “Ah ha Moment!”

The next day I grabbed some blocks from my math manipulatives, an index card, a pair of scissors, some Post-It Notes, a marker and a non-fiction text. I placed the sticky part of the sticky note onto a block, folded it over and cut along the crease. This gave me sticky papers that were the exact same size as each block.

Next, I wrote sentences from the text that would be considered “supporting details.” The students read the details and decided what the main idea of all the blocks together would be. That was written on the card….which was then literally supported by the details.

It seemed like the visual really helped some of my friends to gain a better understanding of the concept. 

I then created several collections of blocks and recorded sentences onto each. I placed them out on my back counter with colored cards that coordinated with the blocks. The kiddos then worked in pairs to write out cards with what they considered to be the main idea.

They loved the hands-on aspect and the visual and did quite well with identifying the main idea. I’m planning to add this in as a READer’s Workshop station throughout the year and will use this approach backwards in Writer’s Workshop as well.

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