How to Teach the Main Idea Using Graphic Organizers

Teachers help students identify story details.
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Graphic organizers -- also known as webs and thinking maps -- are visual tools for sorting information. The images may look as simple as a series of bubbles or as complex as the skeleton of a fish. In reading, they help students identify the focus of a text by sorting details and then briefly stating the main point the author is making. In writing, supporting details are added after a main idea is selected.

1 Main Idea Defined

A main idea is a short statement about what a text primarily concerns. Readers gather details from the text to shape their thinking and support what they think the author is trying to say overall. Main idea is different from a text's topic, which usually can be stated in one or two words. For example, a paragraph's topic might be "dogs," but its main idea would be the point that the author wants to make about dogs. If the text provides a number of details about the care and feeding of dogs, students might suggest a main idea statement such as "This paragraph is mainly about how to take care of dogs." A graphic organizer helps students to sort the details and see the big picture.

2 Use of Graphic Organizers

Children begin using graphic organizers for a number of purposes -- including identification of main idea -- in the primary grades. Teaching of main idea begins with helping them to find the key idea and supporting details in a single paragraph. In time, teachers facilitate whole class and small group discussions of the main ideas in complete texts, such as nonfiction articles and fictional stories. Teachers act as scribes, while asking students questions about the details and big idea of a text. They write student comments on blank graphic organizers drawn on dry-erase boards or projected on digital white boards or overhead projectors and screens. Based on what the teacher writes, students reinforce their understanding by jotting notes on a paper copy of the organizer. Eventually, students create these idea webs independently.

3 Types of Graphic Organizers

Some graphic organizers are reproduced worksheets, such as a picture of a fish in which the skeleton is exposed. Students write main idea on the fish's spine and add important details between the bones branching off of the spine. A cut-and-paste reproducible organizer -- which emphasizes the supporting nature of details -- creates a small, round table. The table top is for the main idea; the legs contain the details. Other "thinking map" organizers use basic shapes that students can easily draw in notebooks. One simple organizer for main idea is a circle within a larger circle enclosed in a box. The center circle is for the main idea. Students write key details in the space between the two circles. They add less important details in the surrounding box.

4 Reading and Writing Tool

When used in reading instruction, main idea graphic organizers help students sort information from a text and refine it into a phrase or short sentence summing up the author's main point. However, when students are doing their own writing, they are the authors and can use graphic organizers to plan writing projects. Once students identify topics of interest, they expand them into main ideas. Then they attach details to the main idea spine, bubble or box.

Alicia Rudnicki's Library Mix website blends book buzz for all ages. A gardener, she writes for California's Flowers by the Sea nursery. She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from UC Berkeley, a Master of Arts in education from CU Denver, and has taught K-12.