The challenge in teaching first graders to identify a story’s main idea lies in moving them from retelling the entire story. A main idea statement should state only one subject, usually the main character(s) and one verb phrase that describes the story’s most important action. For instance, in the Three Little Pigs, the main idea could be "Three pig brothers outsmart a tricky wolf." Story time gives first graders the daily practice they need to master the art of finding the main idea.

Step 1

teacher explaining to students who are taking notes

Explain to students that a main idea is shorter than a summary, usually just one sentence that tells about the most important character(s) and action in the book.

Step 2

teacher reading to class

Hide the cover of a simple storybook and read it to the class.

Step 3

teacher asking first graders questions

Ask the students what they would suggest as a title. Explain that titles can be like main ideas that give the reader a hint about what the story will be about without giving away the plot.

Step 4

first graders in class

Ask the class to identify the main character. This will be the who in your main idea statement.

Step 5

teacher asking students questions

Ask the students to choose the most important action or lesson in the story. This will be the what in your main idea statement.

Step 6

teacher writing on chalkboard

Write one sentence using your who and what to form a complete main idea statement.

Step 7

child in first grade

Repeat this process daily to give students practice.


  • Some young children are natural storytellers and will want to wax eloquent about every plot detail. Applaud their story telling ability but stress that what you are looking for in a main idea is a one-sentence overview, not details. Give them other outlets to develop their storytelling skills.


  • This skill is best learned by doing. Make it a normal part of story time until you see that students have mastered the process.

  • Start with very simple stories and progress to longer but familiar stories to make it easy to identify a single who and what.