Finding the main idea is an important comprehension skill for upper elementary students, but it is also a difficult one. Children are often wrongly taught that the main idea is the first sentence in a paragraph, or the topic sentence. But this is not always the case, especially when authors are using the first sentence to catch a reader's attention with an interesting fact or a question. Guiding students to recognize and identify the main idea may take some time, but will improve their ability to understand a text.
Give all of your students the same text and paragraph to read. Use an article from a kids' magazine, the Internet or a textbook. Use material that goes with the units the students are currently studying.
Read a paragraph aloud to the students. Have them immediately write, in their own words, what they think the paragraph is mostly talking about. They should write this in a complete sentence. Don't use the term "main idea" yet.
Ask students to share with you their sentences. Make a list on the board of their responses, no matter how varied. This gives the children the opportunity to see how other students may perceive something different from the same passage.
Explain the term "main idea" to your students: "The main idea is what the paragraph is mostly telling you about. All the sentences are joining together to give you a message. The main idea of the paragraph is the message the author is telling you."
If one or more of your students already figured out the main idea with their sentences, then ask the class to find the main idea on the list you just made on the board. If no one reported the correct main idea, then together as a class write a main idea sentence. Then discuss why some of the other sentences on the list are not main ideas. Possible reasons could be that the sentence only discusses part of the paragraph, or the sentence is more of a title than a main idea.
Read another paragraph aloud to students from the same material. Ask the students again to write down the main idea, reminding them what that is. Discuss the students' answers to identify the correct main idea.
Pair up students to work together on the rest of the article, writing a main idea for each paragraph or subsection of the article.
Choose your article carefully. Make sure the paragraphs you use to start your lesson have a clear main idea that is easy to recognize for the grade you teach.
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