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Teaching Main Idea Comprehension

A Complex Skill With a Big Impact

By Marta Leon, Manager, Research and Evaluation

Main Idea (Summative) Comprehension

This complex skill happens to have a large role in reading comprehension overall. Instruction in main idea comprehension has been identified as one of the instructional practices with greatest impact on reading comprehension by many leading experts in the field. Main idea comprehension also appears frequently in instructional practices (such as close reading) and reading assessments.

Teaching students to find the main idea of a text is a challenge to many educators. To begin, let’s look at some of the variations in the questions, all of which ask essentially the same thing:

  • What is the main idea of the passage?
  • What is another good title for this passage?
  • What is this passage mostly about?
  • What is a good summary sentence for this passage?

These four questions (and similar ones floating around in different activities and tests) point to the same underlying skill of summative comprehension. As its name implies, summative comprehension is the ability to distill a text down to its core idea. That core idea must be broad enough to not be inconsistent with any part of the text, yet specific enough to give readers an appropriately meaningful notion of what the text is about.

The Challenge of Teaching Main Idea Comprehension

In order for students to do something, they first need to know what they are expected to do. For example, before asking students to describe the setting of a story, we explain to them that the setting is the time and place, or the when and where of the story. However, in the case of main idea comprehension, teachers are in a difficult position from the beginning as they try to define “main idea” for their students. The term is highly abstract: try to explain what “main idea” means without using the words “main” or “idea” in your definition. Then, try to convert your definition into something that eight- or nine-year olds will understand, and you will experience part of the challenge that teachers face when teaching main idea.

The abstract nature of the term “main idea” is just a herald of the difficulties that lie ahead when teachers begin to instruct students on how to find the main idea of a text. It may be tempting to take an approach where students are exposed to many different passages and types of main ideas and expected to grasp the concept through practice alone. This approach is known as EGRUL, or learning a concept by being exposed to examples and non-examples of it. EGRUL approaches work well for concepts that are relatively straightforward, but are risky when we are teaching complex or abstract concepts such as main idea. If this is all the instruction that students receive, they may not develop summative comprehension skills.

As a result, students end up learning tricks to identify the main idea, including using the text’s title, using the first sentence of the first paragraph, or using the last sentence of the last paragraph. Because these tricks do work out sometimes, students learn to look for the main idea in the title or in specific locations in the text and not to analyze a passage in terms of its themes.

A Model for Teaching Main Idea Comprehension

One effective strategy relies on making explicit what people implicitly do when they identify the main theme of a text­ – evaluating the relative frequency of different themes and choosing which one is the most dominant.

Students may need considerable support at the beginning. Since this approach requires students to find a theme, a first step is to teach students to find the theme of individual sentences before they try to find the theme of whole paragraphs or passages. Because main idea comprehension is a tight rope between generality and specificity, instruction in main idea may be one of the places where using multiple-choice questions is the most efficient way to get students thinking along the lines of themes that are “just right” in their broadness. The following question shows a possible beginner-level questioning strategy. Note that the two distractors mention the park, which is a theme in the sentence but an incorrect answer.

They played at the park.

What is this sentence about?

  1. where they played [correct answer]
  2. how to get to the park [distractor]
  3. what they ate at the park [distractor]

Despite looking obvious, this level of initial support benefits students who are not used to thinking in terms of abstract categories or themes even at the sentence level. From this type of activity, a next step would be to have students identify the theme of paragraphs and lastly whole passages.

Once students begin to work with paragraphs, they will run into a new difficulty because each sentence in the paragraph may have its own theme. Some sentence themes will overlap and some will not, but students will need to somehow reconcile those discrepancies and identify which theme is most prevalent. Here again, giving students some carefully chosen alternatives is a good method to get them to develop a strategy that they can gradually refine with practice. Consider the paragraph and question below. In the paragraph, each sentence has been marked based on its theme (the superscript a, for example, means that the theme of that sentence is things you bring to the beach). These marks are not visible to students – they simply show that of the five sentences in the paragraph only one is related exclusively to the main theme, while the others overlap with secondary themes or are not related to any given theme.

Fran and Lee are going to the beach. Fran gets her swimsuit, and then she finds her beach towel, and finally her beach ball a,b. Lee wants to bring his radioa. “Don’t forget to take your sunscreen, Lee!” Fran saysa,c. “You don’t want to get a sunburn!”c

What is this paragraph mostly about?

  1. things you bring to the beach [correct answer]
  2. finding a swimsuit [distractor]
  3. the pain of sunburn [distractor]

How do students learn to recognize which of these three themes is the main one? Teaching students a replicable strategy would enable them to find the main theme across a variety of paragraphs or passages, without having to rely on guesswork or tricks such as using the first sentence as a clue (which in the case above would not help). This strategy can be put into familiar language to students, such as “What is this sentence about? Put a tally next to the answer that tells what it’s about. Repeat this for each sentence. Then see which answer has the most tallies.” Of course, students will still need to practice applying this strategy across a variety of passages and themes in order to refine it, put it in their own words, and ultimately apply it without explicitly thinking about it or needing prompts – that is “internalizing” it.

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