Do you work with a student who is having trouble identifying the main idea of a written text? How about the supporting details?
Identifying the main idea and supporting details when reading seems like a pretty basic task but it can be very difficult for our children with language delays. It may also affect their ability to organize their writing or even their spoken speech.
Check out these easy-to-follow steps for teaching a child to identify main ideas and supporting details from super easy to more complex.
Step 1: Main Idea in Pictures
If you have a student who really doesn’t have a clue how to identify a main idea, you’ll find that starting with pictures is the easiest. Start by holding up a picture of a common object, like this:
Ask the student, “What’s the main idea of this picture? What is this picture about?”. The student should respond with “apple”.
Then, reinforce the idea of “main idea” by saying something like “You’re right, this picture is about an apple. That’s the main idea. When we talk about the ‘main idea’ of something, we’re talking about the topic. Or what the picture or writing is about.”
Next, show the student a picture of something slightly more complex, like this:
There’s a lot more going on in this picture but the topic or main idea is a football game. You can talk about all of the details that help you know that it’s a football game (though you don’t have to talk much about details yet, that comes later).
Continue showing the student pictures of scenes like this until the child can appropriately answer the question “what’s the main idea of this picture?” most of the time. Then, move on to step two.
Step 2: Main Idea in Single Sentences (Written)
Now, write down a simple sentence for the student. You can write something like “Apples are delicious” or “Football is a fun sport”. Tell the student that you are going to find the main idea of each sentence. Remind them that the main idea is what the sentence is all about.
Ask the student to circle the word or words that contain the main idea of the sentence. Here’s an example:
You can create your own sentences, or use the sheet I’ve already created:
Step 3: Diagraming a Sentence into Main Idea or Details
Once the student is consistently able to pick out the main idea from a sentence, you’ll want to introduce the concept of details. Talk about how details are all of the pieces of information that tell us about the main idea.
Write down a sentence for the student and have him circle the main idea, just like before. Then, ask him to underline any details that give us more information about the main idea. Here’s an example:
Again, you can create your own, or download my free worksheets here:
Step 4: Diagraming paragraph into main idea and details
Once the student is able to correctly identify the main idea and a detail or two in a simple sentence, you can move on to doing the same activity in a paragraph. Give the student a short paragraph to read and have him circle the main idea and underline the details.
Here’s another example to help you out:
I’ve also created some paragraphs that you can help your students diagram on the free worksheets:
Step 5: Stating Main Ideas and Details as Complete Sentences
Now that the student is really getting the hang of picking out the main idea and details, it’s time for the student to start stating them in their own words. For this step, you’ll give the student a paragraph or a text. I recommend using a developmentally-appropriate text from his school work.
Start by having the student circle (or point to) the main idea and underline (or point to) the details. Then, ask the student to restate the main idea in his own words. Ask him to use a full sentence to describe the main idea. This may be something like “The main idea of this text is blueberries” or “Blueberries are my favorite food.”
Next, have the student write out the details that support the main idea. Again, help the student use complete sentences to describe the supporting details. These may sound like “Blueberries are sweet and juicy” or “Blueberries grow on bushes”.
Here’s an example of a graphic organizer that you can help the student use to collect information about text (included in the free worksheets pack):
Bonus Section: Using Main Idea and Supporting Details to Create Your Own Writings
Now that your student knows how to pull main ideas and supporting details when reading, see if the student can create his own main ideas and supporting details for writing.
Have the student create a word web with the main idea in a bubble in the middle of the page. Then, have the student write ideas down in connecting bubbles that will support the main idea. Each one only needs to be a few words. Here’s an example organizer from the free packet:
Once the student has completed the word web, have the student go back and write out the main idea and each detail in a complete sentence. Then, the student only has to put them in order and add transition words like “first, next, last” or “also, in addition”.
And voila! A beautifully written paragraph with a main idea and supporting details!