4 Easy Strategies for Teaching Main Idea that Work

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Grasping the main idea of a text is like discovering the beating heart of the story. You know, it’s that core message and central theme that ties everything together. But if we are being real, teaching it can sometimes feel like cracking a tricky, potentially unsolvable puzzle. Don’t worry, though—this post will walk you through 4 easy strategies for teaching main idea that work!

strategies for teaching main idea

What is the Main Idea of the Text?

Before getting into specific strategies for teaching main idea, it’s important to have a clear meaning of this concept. 

Understanding the main idea means understanding the theme and overarching message of a text. This is a foundational comprehension skill that many students can struggle with, especially English Language Learners and students in special education.

The difficult part about identifying the main idea of a text is that it is one of those abstract concepts that is not immediately obvious to many readers. Its a concept that needs to be taught explicitly and thoroughly.

We often start teaching main idea by making sure students have a basic understanding of the definition. As a group, we talk to them about how the main idea of a text is the central message, concept, or specific point that the author wants the reader to take away from the text. Overall, it’s the most important piece of information that provides a clear understanding of what the text is primarily about.

Teach students to think of the main idea as the big message or the most important thing that the author wants them to know.

For example, if the story is about the many ways a fox outsmarts some tricky crows, the main idea is that the fox is really smart. It’s the most important thing to remember about the story.

Sometimes it can take some detective-type strategies to teach kids how to find the main idea of a text. Plus, there are different texts to look at: a sentence, a paragraph, a story and a nonfiction text are a few different texts.


Image that tells what the main idea is. The main idea is the central message, concept or point that the author wants to convey to the reader. It's the most important piece of information that provides a clear understanding of what the text is primarily about.


4 Easy Strategies for Teaching Main Idea to Struggling Learners:


1. Hunt for the Topic Sentence:

One of the easiest ways to identify the text’s main idea is to teach students how to find the topic sentence

We do this by spending some time defining topic sentences and practicing how to identify them.

Explain how they are similar to the concept of main idea- that a topic sentence is a sentence that introduces the main point or central idea of a paragraph or section of text. It serves as a guide for the reader, letting them know what to expect in the upcoming content.

It’s also important to teach students that while the main idea is often found at the beginning or end of a paragraph, it can also be in the middle or oftentimes woven throughout the text. Go through how finding the main idea connects to the author’s style and the organization of the writing, or the text structure.  

We have found that these topic sentence task cards are a simple and direct way to help students fully grasp this concept.


2. Ask These 3 Questions about the Text:

Have students ask the following questions while reading a text:

1. What is the topic?

Identifying the big subject matter of the text lays the groundwork for understanding the main idea. It’s zooming out of the text to see what it’s about in general.   

2. What is the author specifically telling me about this topic?  

Going a step further, students should delve into what aspect or angle of the topic the author is addressing. This helps them narrow down and pinpoint the specific information being presented.

3. Why is this important for us to know?

Understanding the significance of the information is crucial. It prompts students to consider the relevance and purpose of the text.

This framework helps guide students toward the main idea and is another great place to start and look at key details.


Image shows a girl reading a book to show her trying to learn main idea with one of the 5 Easy strategies for Teaching Main Idea


3. Look for Repeated Words and Phrases:

When teaching strategies for main idea, we like to give this trick for identifying the main idea of a text- look for any content words or phrases that are repeated throughout the text. When students begin to notice some common keywords, it makes it much easier to find the main idea of an entire text.


4. Look at the Title and Images for Clues:

Another one of the best ways to help kids identify the main idea is to look for obvious clues in the title and any images provided. If it’s a story or nonfiction text with a title, then it was given that particular title for a reason. 

For example, if an informational text is called “The Strongest Cat” chances are that the main idea is going to be about a specific cat that is super strong. There will probably be details in the text to back this up.  

Image of 2 resources that will allow for practice of the 5 Easy strategies for Teaching Main Idea. Includes a resource for summarizing nonfiction texts for grades 3-5 and foundations of topic sentence freebie.

Activities for  Understanding Main Idea:

Now that we’ve gone through strategies for teaching main idea, check out some fun activities to solidify student understanding. 

🟠 Creating Main Idea Bags

Main idea bags are a creative and hands-on teaching tool designed to help students grasp the concept of main idea and supporting details. They are fun because they provide a tactile way for students to understand how details relate to and support the main idea of a text. 

Here is how you make a” Main Idea Bag:”

    • Choose a main idea or central concept for the bag. This could be a topic from a book, a historical event, a scientific concept, etc. For example, if the main idea is “Underwater Ecosystems,” the bag should represent this theme. 

    • Collect small objects or pictures that represent supporting details related to the main idea. In the example of “Underwater Ecosystems,” supporting details could include items like toy fish, shells, seaweed, etc. Each item should somehow relate to the main idea.

    • Get a bag, like a brown paper grocery bag. For the first few attempts, we recommend starting by giving the students the main idea. So, write or attach a label to the bag indicating the main idea. In our example, the label would say “Underwater Ecosystems.”

    • Bring students up to take an item out of the bag. Have them explain how the item in the bag relates to the main idea. For example, they might say, “This toy fish represents the different species that live in underwater ecosystems.”
    • In later rounds, leave the main idea blank and have students pull out all the items and work together to figure out what main idea they all connect to. 

🟠 Interactive Reading

While reading aloud, pause occasionally and ask the students to share what they think the main idea of the text is up to that point. You can also use picture books with clear, simple storylines. 


🟠 Matching Game

Create a simple game where students match a short paragraph with its main idea. This can be done with pictures or written sentences.


🟠 Drawing It Out

After reading a story, have the students draw a picture that represents the main idea. This reinforces their understanding in a creative way.


Main Idea Resources:

Understanding the main topic of what you are reading is one of the most important skills for reading. These resources include some of the strategies for teaching main idea that will help make this concept more CONCRETE for your students!

Topic Sentence Task Cards

FREE Topic Sentence Worksheets

Differentiated Topic Sentence Activities

Summarizing Nonfiction Texts (includes graphic organizers!)

We hope you are able to put these effective teaching main idea strategies to use!


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