Let’s dig into 3 fun strategies for teaching main idea and supporting details that ask students to consider the details of a single passage in lots of different ways!
When we teach kids to identify main idea, we are really teaching them to look for the author’s intent. If they can identify what a story is really about, then they can translate those skills into other situations and conversations. However, even more important than simply identifying the main idea is the ability to find the details that support that main idea.
Teaching and learning main idea is a long process that often begins with simply defining what a ‘main idea’ is. However, as students progress in their learning, the next step is not just identifying the main idea, but also being able to pick out the details that support the choices they’ve made.
In this post, we are going to use one passage from our Main Idea Digital Jigsaw Puzzle to practice identifying main idea and supporting details in three different ways.
#1 | Sorting Details
This first strategy for teaching main idea and supporting details is about taking a closer look at all the details provided in a passage.
Students are often distracted by all the fluff that goes into a piece of content. They get distracted by the color of the girl’s dress or the specific type of flower referenced in the background. To help students sort out the important details from the fluff, break down the details into lists and have students work together to decide which details are the most important to understand what the story or passage is about.
For reference, we are going to use the following passage from our Main Idea Digital Jigsaw as we work through our 3 strategies.
If you visit the White House, you are very likely to find a pet there. Over the years, presidents have had a wide variety of different kinds of pets. For example, Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon named Rebecca. President William Taft kept a cow at the White House. The cow also supplied the first family with milk and butter. Another strange White House pet was Theodore Roosevelt’s son’s pet badger named Josiah.
To work on sorting out the fluff, consider putting individual details on cards for students to sort. Here is an example of a list of details we may give to the students.
- If you visit the White House, you are very likely to find a pet there.
- Presidents have had a wide variety of different kinds of pets.
- Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon.
- The raccoon’s name was Rebecca.
- President William Taff had a cow.
- The cow supplied milk and butter.
- Theodore Roosevelt’s son had a badger.
- The badger’s name was Josiah.
Give the cards/details to different groups of students, and ask them to sort the information. They can sort it any way they like, but they should have at least 3 groups of details. Then have them explain how they sorted them. Why did they put certain groups together?
Then, ask them to sort them again. This time into 2 groups. Ask the same questions. How did they choose to sort them, and why did they put certain details together?
In order for students to be able to identify important details, they need to spend some time digging into what the details of the passage actually are, how they work together to make a full thought, and why the writer chose to include the details at all.
Eventually, ask the students to pick out the sentence or detail that most clearly states the main idea, and pick the 2-3 specific details that support that statement.
#2 | Create a Passage
If you’re looking for some strategies for teaching main idea and supporting details that also can be combined with another subject area, try this idea!
Students are going to write a passage of their own, but they will work from the main idea and key details provided by the teacher.
Give students a topic and 2-3 key details you want them to use in their passage. Students are then going to be given time to dig into the topic more and find out some specific details to make their passage more interesting.
For example, if we give them the following information:
- Main Idea: Presidents have had a wide variety of pets.
- Detail #1: Calvin Coolidge had a raccoon.
- Detail #2: William Taft had a cow.
Then the students could research or dig into the topic some more and figure out how they could extend the passage to include more details that support the main idea. In this case, they may find out about other presidential pets and include those details in their paragraph.
By creating a passage of their own, they are seeing how details have different levels of importance. Some details are just interesting, but others are used as evidence. After they’re done, students can list all the details of their passage, and label them as important or fluff.
This activity works really well in groups or pairs, and though it may seem like a bit of a challenge at first, a good example (like sharing the example above) may be exactly what the students need in order to understand the goal.
#3 | What is MISSING?
I love using the Main Idea Digital Jigsaw Puzzle as a basis for this activity as well. Either before or after the students have worked through the Main Idea Digital Jigsaw, pick out a few of the questions and try this activity which requires the students to work through the questions in reverse order (answers first).
Sometimes the best strategy for teaching main idea and supporting details is about considering what supporting details SHOULD be included.
For example, in the Main Idea Digital Jigsaw Puzzle, four possible answers are given for the President’s Pets passage.
- Presidents have had a wide variety of pets.
- The White House is a nice place to visit.
- Taft’s cow supplied milk and butter.
- Many presidents have had dogs.
To try to figure out which one is the correct main idea for the passage, teach students to spend some time away from the passage. Rather than considering what is there, ask them to think about what is NOT there. I know this is confusing, so let’s break it down.
If the main idea of a passage was ‘Many presidents have had dogs,’ what types of details would we expect to see? If you ask students this question, they may come up with things like the name of the dogs, the different kinds of dogs, how many dogs have lived in the white house, and other similar kinds of things. Then ask them to read through the passage to see if any of the details they think would be important are actually present in the passage. As it turns out – they are not. This would automatically eliminate this potential answer.
By considering what is MISSING, students are able to see the value in the details that are provided. I love working through activities like the Main Idea Digital Jigsaw Puzzle this way because we can use the passages provided to complete this activity as a whole group, or I can ask students to complete the activity using a different question that many students originally had trouble figuring out. The puzzle works to provide the quick, self-checking answers to let us know if we are on the right track, but also the tools needed to try some of these other strategies for teaching main idea and supporting details.
You will need a variety of strategies for teaching main idea and supporting details because students will be at different levels at different times. No matter where you’re at, some of these ideas may be just the right level for the students in your classroom, but others are going to need to be modified. Some of the easiest ways to modify these strategies are by picking different passages, putting students in groups, working through activities as a full class, and giving more hints or examples as needed.