Main idea

Locating and understanding the main idea requires the reader to actively seek answers to 'What is this about?' Giving students opportunities to locate and identify the main idea or key message requires opportunities to engage in purposeful reading and viewing of a variety of texts.

Defining the main idea requires the reader to consider what the author or creator of a piece of text wants the reader to remember and consider afterwards. Explicit instruction and discussion of the main idea can be facilitated by using sentences and short texts prior to working with longer or more complex texts. This gives students the opportunity to successfully identify the ideas within simpler structured texts and enables students to begin to consider the main message from the sentence to text level. The ability to identify the main idea is critical for students to gain meaning when reading and viewing and enables them to work effectively with a variety of texts.

Explicitly teaching students to identify and explain the main idea of texts requires the students to have a clear understanding of how texts work. Once students have an understanding and have demonstrated their ability to identify the key message in simpler familiar texts, the complexity of the text should be increased.

Activity 1: the key idea

Brainstorm the concept of ‘key idea’ or ‘main idea’ with students related to all texts. Ensure students relate the identification of the main idea to the purpose of reading.

Students should understand that to be able to make sense or comprehend a text they need to:

  • identify the topic or subject matter (making a connection, visualising)
  • read the text looking for and identifying clues or supporting details (predicting, questioning)
  • identify the main idea and key message of the text (monitoring, summarising).

Please note that when working with narratives or visual texts some students’ interpretations may differ. Please discuss how this occurs due to different understanding and experiences the reader brings to the text. All interpretations need to be supported by evidence from the text, including the author’s language choices (word level), to sentence level (simple, compound, complex) and the overall structure of the text and how this impacts on the reader.

Key ideas in the narrative text

Identified important information/key points

  • What is happening?
  • What has previously happened?
  • Who is involved?
  • How do the characters relate to each other?
  • Where is this happening?
  • Why is this happening?
Student to complete
Grouped important information/key points Student to complete
Combined information = The main idea Student to complete

The students can record their findings from a teacher selected text in this format or a teacher modified format.

The process should remain within the format provided to assist students working with texts to identify the main idea:

  1. identify important information
  2. group important information
  3. combine groups to identify the main idea
  4. discuss.

Activity 2: key ideas in factual texts

Use the following checklist to identify key ideas in factual texts. After modelling the process for a whole class, have students in groups or pairs use the checklist then rank the key ideas in relative importance. Having students work in pairs or groups provides them with an opportunity to discuss the text and clarify their understanding of not only the text but also the reading behaviour that can assist their comprehension.

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