Main idea

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Common Core standards

Related articles

Teaching strategies

What's it all about?

Main idea is the answer to the question, “What’s it all about?”

  • Kendall College prep has a nice explanation of main idea; ““The main idea is the central, or most important, idea in a paragraph or passage. It states the purpose and sets the direction of the paragraph or passage.
    • The main idea may be stated or it may be implied.
    • When the main idea of a paragraph is stated, it is most often found in the first sentence of the paragraph. However, the main idea may be found in any sentence of the paragraph.
    • The main idea may be split. The first sentence of a paragraph may present a point of view, while the last sentence presents a contrasting or opposite view.
    • To find the main idea of any paragraph or passage, ask these questions:
  • The RAPQ Strategy. Yes, the world loves an acronym. Here is one for main idea from JMU’s toolbox:
    • Read a paragraph or a section of the material you are working on.
      • Do not read long sections because you may not be able to understand the material if you don't break it up into smaller parts.
    • Ask yourself what the main ideas are.
      • Try to find the sentence or sentences that give the most important ideas in the section that you read.
    • Put the main ideas in your own words.
      • Paraphrasing is when you put material that you read into your own words.
      • When you paraphrase the main ideas, make sure you try to think of other words to say the same thing as in the book.
    • Questions about the reading.
      • Based on your paraphrasing of the main ideas, write a question and an answer on the back of a notecard so that you can use this for studying.
      • Compare the notecards that you wrote on the main ideas of previous paragraphs or sections so that you can see how the idea of one section is related to the next.” Copied from JMU Toolbox

Teaching older students about main idea

Biology Junction Main Idea has a really well structured how-to for older students. Here are their steps; “The main idea in a piece of writing is the point the author is making about a topic. Use the following steps to find the main idea.

  • Preview
    • Look for meaning clues in introductions, titles, chapter headings, subheadings, bold words, boxed information, pictures, charts, and graphs. This will help you discover the topic being discussed (what the writing is about), the author's "slant" or perspective on the topic how the material is organized, and what's more and less important. During previewing you may also form questions about the topic. Having questions in mind as you read will help you establish a purpose for reading, and you will be more involved as you read, which will help you absorb new information.
  • Read
    • Read the entire text, looking for the general idea or ideas being presented. Re-read to find and highlight key words and concepts.
  • Focus
    • Focus on individual paragraphs within the text, starting at the beginning. Generally, each paragraph in a piece of writing about a topic is a group of sentences dealing with one idea related to that topic. The following steps will help you find the main idea in a paragraph, the particular point the author is trying to make about the topic.
  • Look for transition words
    • Words and phrases such as "thus," "first," "next," "however," and "in addition," often indicate shifts in thought and signal the presence of examples and supporting details.
  • Identify the most general statement
    • Sometimes the main idea of a paragraph is directly stated in a sentence, called the topic sentence of the paragraph. Although it is often found at the beginning or end, the topic sentence can be found anywhere in the paragraph. It is typically the most general sentence, and the remaining sentences provide specific evidence and discussion to "back up" the main idea expressed in the topic sentence.
  • Look for supporting evidence and discussion
    • Sometimes the main idea is not directly stated in one sentence but is implied or suggested by all of the sentences in the paragraph. In this case, the reader must provide the main idea by considering all of the support--the examples, details, facts, etc.--and discussion about the topic provided by the writer. The main idea will be a general statement which incorporates the information presented by all of the sentences in the paragraph.” Copied from Biology Junction Main Idea

Using visual representations

  • The hand.
    • A student’s hand makes an excellent represention of main idea and supporting details for students. The palm is the main idea. The fingers are the supporting details. Students can trace their own hands and use them as graphic organizers for stories.
  • Mobiles.
    • Students can create mobiles with main idea on the top, and supporting details dangling down. This takes MUCH more effort than the hand or some of the other ideas here.

Graphic organizers

idea graphic organizers with organizers appropriate from first grade all the way up through high school

Classroom activities

  • Article share. Have students bring in articles to share with their classmates. Break the class into groups and have each group figure out the main idea of their article.
    • Alycia Zimmerman Main Idea Center is a hand out for third grade students explaining an article center. Students read articles, complete webs, and have extensions activities to do if they finish early. Very well thought out center!
  • Olive Coronado on Bright Hub has these two activities for first grade students;
    • ”Give each group of kids a jigsaw puzzle to form. First, let each member study the picture in the jigsaw puzzle piece he got. Ask the students to write down what the picture is all about. Afterwards, let the groups form their puzzles. Looking at the complete picture, ask them to write down once more and to share with their group members what the picture is actually all about. (Note: An example of a picture you can use is one of a messy room, in which the puzzle pieces show only single items.)
    • Tell the children a short story about a family who will be moving into a new home soon. A child helps his parents pack things in the old house. Then distribute pictures of different things found inside the house. On the board or on a classroom wall, stick illustrations of three boxes with different headings: Things for Cleaning, Things to Play With, Things for Decoration. Now let the students stick their pictures on the proper box. Afterwards, explain to them that each heading stands for a different main idea.”Copied from Olive Coronado on Bright Hub

Cyber games and activities

Grades 3-4

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| Harcourt Schools Rosie Main Idea has students choose the sentence that tells the main idea of a one paragraph passage. Reading level is about third grade. Students get clues to solve a riddle every time they get an answer right. Three paragraphs are included in the activity.
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| Harcourt School Yipee-Yay has students read third grade level paragraphs and then answers main idea and supporting detail questions. Third grade level.
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| Harcourt Schools Yippee Test Tutor has similar paragraphs, but explains how to find the main idea in them.
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| Atlantis Journalist Desk has 11 different one paragraph articles followed by main idea questions. The program gives immediate feedback, but it is a very stripped down program. Third grade level.
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| StudyZone ELA 4 Main Idea has students read five short paragraphs about Ben Franklin. After each, they have to choose the main idea. The program tells them if they got it right, but no cool gizmos or sounds.
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| StudyZone ELA 4 Main Idea 2 is the same thing but the paragraphs are on volcanoes.
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| Manatee K12 Main Idea Quiz Grade 3 has six different passages students can choose from. They read a passage and then answer one question about the main idea. The program immediately grades them.
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| Manatee K12 Main Idea Tutorial walks students through the idea of main idea with lots of practice. A great re-teach for the third grade level or review for older students.
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| Quia Main Idea Quiz has students read a paragraph and choose the main idea statement. Also about third grade level.
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| TV 411 Main Idea Practice has a variety of paragraphs and main idea questions for fourth grade. The feedback is immediate and good—if you were wrong, it tells you why. Quiz style, not game style.
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| SoftSchools Main Idea Quiz isn’t as good because you don’t find out if you got a question wrong or right until the end. Closer to third grade level.
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| Oswego Main Idea Quiz is actually fun! The words come across the screen like a typewriter and there are sound effects. Also third grade level or so.
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| Wisc Online Main Idea is an interactive PowerPoint that seems to be aimed at second grade. The main idea choices are pretty in your face obvious.

Middle School and higher

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| ABLongman Main Idea is for older students (uses words like “enhanced”) which is great, but is incredibly dry and doesn’t provide feedback until the end which is sad.
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| LaFlemm Practice Main Idea has a nice variety of non-fiction passages for middle school level students. Passages include crime victim testimony and cook books. The program doesn’t score the answers until the student has answered all of the questions.

iPad apps

Free worksheets

RHL School Main Idea is a third grade level worksheet that has students read short paragraphs and choose the main idea.

SuperTeacher Worksheets Main Idea 1 is a third grade level worksheet. Students read four paragraphs and decide the main idea of each.

  • Alycia Zimmerman has four third grade puzzlers. For each, the student has to read a passage and then complete a main idea and supporting details graphic organizer.

DHP Main Idea is a printable sheet of paragraphs and main idea statements and revisions for middle school.

Better Lesson has a fourth grade main ideas worksheet. Students have to read a short passage and identify the main idea and supporting details.

Product reviews


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| Brainpop Main Idea is a fun, animated video from BrainPop that seems to come up without requiring a log-in. Normally, BrainPop is a paid service so…
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| School Tube Learning Upgrade Main Idea Video is a one minute twenty second overview of a main idea paragraph.

Helpful links

  • CIA Indiana Main Idea Grade 3 is a 14 page packet of handouts for students explaining how to find the main idea, a graphic organizer of main idea as the needles and thread that holds the passage together, and lots of follow up activities.
  • MDC College Prep Main Idea is a four page handout explaining different types of main ideas, where to find them, and giving several passages to practice on. For older students.
  • Pearson Higher Ed Sample Chapter is a 62 page chapter on main idea (well the end is random vocabulary stuff). It appears to be exercises for older students, but there is some explanation of main idea as well.

At home

Supporting Details

Teaching strategies

Supporting details are the information in the passage that props up the main idea. If the main idea is a table top, the supporting details are its legs.

Being able to figure out which details are actually important, supporting details and which aren't is a vital skill from elementary school through college. Here's how the Learning Assistance Center at the University of Hawaii advises to find supporting details:

"Determining Supporting Details

  1. Decide which details help to further the story line.
  2. Decide which details help you to understand the main idea.
  3. Answer question raised by the main idea (who, what when, why or how)." [1]

They further differentiate between major and minor supporting details: "There are two kinds of supporting details-major and minor. The main idea and its major supporting details form the basic framework of paragraphs. The major details are the primary points that support the main idea. Paragraphs often contain minor details as well. While the major details explain and develop the main idea, they, in turn are expanded upon the minor supporting details.

  • EXAMPLE: Main Idea and Major Detail
    • Studies reveal that people’s first names can have an influence on them. Some names reflect on people in a positive way. However, other names can have a negative impact.
  • EXAMPLE: Main Idea and Major and Minor Detail
    • Studies reveal that people’s first names can have an influence on them. Some names reflect on people in a positive way. For example, one survey showed that American men consider them name Susan to be ver sexy. And participants in a British study thought Tony to be the name of someone very friendly. However, other names can have a negative impact. In one study, for instance, teachers gave lower grades to essay supposedly written by boys named Hubert and Elmer than to the very same essay when they credited to boys with more popular names. Another study found girls with unpopular names did worse on IQ and achievement tests than girls with more appealing names."[2]

Classroom activities

Cyber activities

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| Study Zone ELA 4 Supporting Details has five different non-fiction paragraphs for students to read. After each, they are given a main idea and have to select supporting details. No cool sounds or game features but decent practice.
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| Study Zone ELA 4 Supporting Details 2 gives students a main idea statement. They then have to choose which of the two other sentences is a supporting detail for that main idea. Low on reading, high on practice.

iPad apps