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How to Teach Main Idea

Finding the main idea is a basic reading comprehension skill. However, basic does not mean easy. Main idea questions are found on every normed reading comprehension assessment and are the most frequently asked types of questions on the passage-based reading questions of the SAT®. Following are a workable definition, some important disclaimers, and a few critical strategies which will make sense out of this sometimes challenging task for readers of all ages.

Definition: In Googling the meaning of main idea, these two useful entries pop up:

  • The gist of a passage; central thought; the chief topic of a passage expressed or implied in a word or phrase; the topic sentence of a paragraph; a statement that gives the explicit or implied major topic of a passage and the specific way in which the passage is limited in content or reference.
    csmpx.ucop.edu/crlp/resources/glossary.html
  • The main idea of an essay, or other written discourse, is the point that the author is trying to make. It is the most important thing that he wants you to understand about the topic. It is most often stated explicitly, although in narrative essays or in fiction it may be implicit. …
    www.moonstar.com/~acpjr/Blackboard/Common/Glossary/GlossTwo.html

Disclaimers: What main idea is not…

  • Main idea is not the same as the topic.
  • Main idea is not necessarily the thesis statement.
  • Main idea is not necessarily the topic sentence(s).
  • Main idea is not found within the narrative domain of writing, unless tagged on by the author to comment on the story such as with a moral at the end of a fairy tale.
  • Main idea is not limited to one per reading selection.
  • Main idea is not a generalization or something necessarily broad in scope.
  • Main idea is not the minor detail of a reading selection.

Finding Main Idea: Strategies that Readers Can Use

Organization: Access the Writing Connection

Knowing the structure of expository writing (informational, explanatory, analytical, and persuasive) can help readers identify main idea(s) in a reading selection. Reading and writing instruction mirror one another. The reading-writing connection is well-established in research.

  • The thesis statement tells the purpose or point of view of the exposition. Finding the thesis statement will help the reader learn the parameters of the main ideas. Muchlike an umbrella, the thesis statement is designed to cover the main idea(s) of a reading/writing selection. As a starting point, research demonstrates that about 50% of expository writing includes the thesis statement in the last sentence of the introduction.
  • The topic sentences can serve as main ideas in a reading/writing selection. Major details and minor details pertain to, provide support to, and are limited to the topic sentence in any essay body paragraph.
  • The main idea(s) can be repeated in expository writing—frequently in the conclusion.

Language of Instruction

Often the language of the reading text itself or the language of test problems can help readers identify main ideas. In addition to using the phase, main idea, the following references are used in expository text and on standardized tests:

  • “best”                                                  Another answer may be acceptable, but this one most closely fits.
  • “mainly”                                              Not completely, but most importantly.
  • “chiefly”                                              Compared to the others, this is above the rest.
  • “primarily”                                          This means mainly or the chief one, before all others.
  • “most likely”                                       A logical prediction or conclusion.
  • “most directly”                                   Most specifically.

Process of Elimination: Goldilocks and Wanted Posters

Much like Goldilocks eliminates the porridge, chairs, and beds of Papa Bear and Momma Bear from consideration in favor of those of Baby Bear’s, the careful reader can eliminate what is too general and what is too detailed to identify the “just right” the main idea(s).

  • If the material lacks specificity and so is hard to identify as the author’s central point(s), then it is too general to be the main idea(s). Imagine a wanted poster that does not focus in on the specific recognizable physical traits that would help an observer identify the accused criminal in person, but instead affords only hints of the accused’s characteristics with a general description, association, or category.
  • If the material is too specific and so is difficult to identify as the author’s central point(s), then it is probably a major or minor detail that supports the main idea(s). Picture a wanted poster that focuses in on only a part of the whole. Even if that part is the most recognizable physical trait, the accused criminal will not be identifiable unless there is adequate perspective and context.

The “just right” balance of specificity, perspective and context on a wanted poster will enable the observer to identify the accused criminal. Similarly, that same balance will help readers identify the main idea(s) in a reading selection.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

TOO GENERAL/TOO SPECIFIC/ MAIN IDEA (Jesse James Wanted Posters)


Reading, Study Skills, Writing , , , , , , , , ,

How to Skim for Main Ideas

Skimming is a speed reading strategy used as either a pre-reading technique to familiarize yourself with expository reading text before you read in depth or as an end in itself to quickly comprehend the essentials of a reading passage.

As a pre-reading technique, skimming helps to connect the text with any prior knowledge of the reader. Skimming also helps the reader to access the story schema so as to provide a referential context for the reading. In other words, skimming helps the reader to learn in advance what the gist of the reading passage is, while reminding the reader of any background information and knowledge of how the writing is organized that will assist the reader in understanding the text. Used as a pre-reading technique, skimming helps prepare the reader for scanning (reading at 50% comprehension) or further in-depth reading.

As an end in itself, skimming is a very practical and useful skill. As a speed reading technique, it saves time and allows the reader to get the flavor of a reading passage without all of the details. Skimming also permits broader reading, if time is a factor. For example, a reader can certainly skim many articles in the daily newspaper in the time that it might take to fully read a few. Many books can be skimmed for enjoyment or information now and then read later at a more leisurely rate.

To skim, readers should first search for the expository text clues and signposts for key ideas of the reading passage. Textbooks usually provide important study helps that can build comprehension. The unit and chapter titles give information as to the overall focus of the reading passage. Many times, key chapter ideas are listed in bulleted form or as key questions.In social studies texts, timelines are often helpful.

Next, read the first paragraph of the text. The first paragraph  frequently provide an introduction of the chapter main ideas.

Then, read the subtitles and bold print of key terms throughout the reading selection. These act as newspaper headlines to tell the “Who,” “What,” “Where,” “When,” and “Why” of the reading. Graphics, such as pictures, photographs, charts and drawings are particularly important to examine. Indeed, “a picture can be worth a thousand words.”

Finally, read the concluding paragraph(s) or summary. This paragraph(s) will emphasize the key concepts.

Use these expository text clues or signposts for effective skimming. This speed reading technique is well worth practicing to perfection.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

Reading, Study Skills , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How to Scan for Main Ideas

Scanning is an important speed reading technique that all good readers should have in their reading repertoire and works with all modes of writing. Scanning is used to locate specific information for a clearly defined purpose. For example, if a reader needs to know the performance of a particular baseball player in the World Series, it is not necessary to read an entire book on that World Series to find out everything that the one player did in that series. The reader could simply look for the player’s name and read the surrounding sentences or paragraphs that pertain to that player.

Although this sounds like “common sense,” it is actually a learned reading skill. Effective teaching can significantly improve scanning accuracy. Print awareness, knowledge of expository structure, and directed eye movement are the keys to this instruction.

First, readers need to select the key word(s) and possible synonyms to search before they begin to scan. Next, readers must carefully examine what these search items look like. Are they long or short words? Is there a capital? Are there quotation marks or hyphens? Are there noticeable prefixes or suffixes? Readers should then impress the key word(s) into their memories by tracing the letters with their fingers or writing them down. After this, readers should close their eyes and visualize the word(s).

Second, readers should examine the mode of writing and adjust their key word(s) search according to the particular organization of that writing mode. Is it narrative? If so, the organization of the reading passage will normally be chronological and will follow story schema. Chapter titles can also be useful. Is it expository? If so, the organization of the reading passage might be by concept, comparison, cause-effect, or order of importance. The graphics of the text such as subtitles, charts and pictures can narrow the search. Book study helps, including the index, study questions, and the summary, can help pinpoint where information is developed.

Third, readers should run their index finger down the center of each page, using their peripheral vision to search for key word(s) on the left and right sides of each page. How comprehensive the search must be will determine how fast the finger moves. Readers should read the sentence in which the key word(s) appears.

The quality and effectiveness of scanning can be improved with the appropriate use of this speed reading strategy and a good amount of practice. Combined with skimming, scanning can reduce a heavy reading load and still help the reader achieve about 50% reading comprehension.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

Reading, Study Skills , , , , , , , , , , , , ,