Identifying the main idea
is the main idea?
may be helpful to first explain what the main idea is
not. It is not the information obtained during
the introduction to the text when the title, headings,
illustrations etc. are briefly considered, and linked
to background knowledge, prior to reading. Although
these text features are often useful in scaffolding
readers towards finding the main idea, on their own,
they are not enough. Readers need to explore the text
at a deeper level in order to confirm or put aside any
tentative thoughts about the main idea that the text
introduction may prompt.
is also important to note that the main idea is not
simply what the text is about. To paraphrase Gerald
Duffy (2003), "Charlotte's Web" is a story
about a spider called Charlotte and a pig called
Wilbur, but the main idea is more to do with
the things that give life meaning: friendship, love,
birth and death. The main idea then, is what the author
wants readers to understand is important and valued
in the text, i.e., across the whole text, not just within
sections of it.
you intend to use one of the Main Idea assessment
resources available in the English
bank and are not familiar with teaching the main idea
comprehension strategy, it would be useful to read the
"Teaching and learning" section of the resource
prior to administering the task. The more you understand
about the concept of main idea, the clearer you will
be when you introduce the task to your students.
because the main idea is hardly ever explicitly stated
by the author, and because readers can't get inside
the author's head to find out exactly what they want
readers to understand is important and valued in the
text, readers can only ever make an informed guess about
what the main idea is. Consequently, readers often disagree
about the main idea. Any disagreement is best seen as
a valuable opportunity for discussion.
do you find the main idea?
determining the main idea the reader uses text details,
in conjunction with their prior knowledge, to think
about what the main message of the text might be. As
they read, they begin to tentatively group related details,
constantly asking themselves where the author is placing
emphasis or value. At various stages throughout the
reading the reader may decide to reject very small groups
of related details as not being particularly valued
by the author. However, as they read on, gathering and
grouping more details, they may reverse such a decision.
Finally, the reader combines all the evidence, including
their prior knowledge, and decides what is most important
and valued in the text.
the important information.
the important information.
the groups to get the main
students and teachers might say:
"First I look for details, then I group them together
to help me work out what the main idea is."
"Some of you think the main idea is 'you need to
trust the people around you before you can try something
new', and some of you think it's 'when you get out there
and take risks, all sorts of doors open for you'. How
do you think your background knowledge might be affecting
what you think the main idea is?"
is important to remember that the reading strategies
work together, and do not operate discretely. For examples of assessment resources with a particular
focus on identifying the main idea, see the list
resources with a focus on identifying the main idea:
This article reviews the literature on searching and extracting
details and main ideas in paper-based informational texts.
The article concludes with some suggestions for teacher
professional development, some potential connections to
searching digital texts, and some possible directions
for raising overall reading comprehension.
Comprehension | ARB