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  • Writer's pictureMegan Mariano

Main Idea Statements, NOT Topics: 6 Steps to Writing Main Idea Sentences

Main idea. Students do it as soon as they start reading. My son in Kindergarten has even dabbled in it. It gets increasingly more complex as students get older. In the beginning, kids are reading shorter texts, but as they get older texts get longer and more detailed. Also, upper elementary and middle grade students tend to get main idea and theme mixed up. By the way, main idea is for non-fiction, not fiction.

This blog post will explain the way I teach main idea with my 6th graders. There are 6 major steps:

  1. Chunk the text.

  2. Start with a topic.

  3. Build a statement around a topic.

  4. Support main idea statement.

  5. Create an overall central idea.

  6. Summarize using main idea statements.

How Main Idea is Typically Taught

Everyone teaches in their own way and style, but from my experience there are a few ways main idea is commonly taught, none of which are wrong.

Normally, when thinking of main idea, students are using short non-fiction texts. Teachers will have students look at the first sentence of a section or paragraph to help determine main idea.

Other approaches involve having students working backwards; find and list various details read and determine what all those details are saying. This works pretty well, but I do it a bit differently.

Things get a lot trickier in middle school when students are reading lengthier texts. Also, since I am doing reading workshop, students are all reading from actual books or articles chosen by them. I am not forcing them to read specific things (read my blog post about that here). My goal is to get them to determine main idea in any text.

Chunk the Text

So, this is not entirely my idea. Somewhere along my years of teaching this concept was introduced to me. I think it was in one my reading workshop units...I honestly can't remember, but it sounds like a Lucy Calkins' idea.

I start off with having students read their books...a lot. As they read, I have them list topics on a Google Slide or sticky notes in their actual texts These topics are topics that pop up as they read. They are typically one word or a phrase. I did my research on fast food, so some topics were: chemicals, nutrition, chicken, sugar, soda, etc.

I encourage them to read several paragraphs at a time, then write the topic down. Some students will write a topic for every single paragraph but I show them to think bigger about these topics.

The green boxes are the topics. They jot notes underneath each topic as they read.

Start with a Topic

Once they've determined lots of topics, they start narrowing them down. You have to figure out if you want them to find the main idea of a section? Chapter? I usually have them focus on big sections to practice.

They then choose a few topics to create main idea statements. We discuss how the topics are not the main idea; they are what they read about but not the main idea. The main idea is saying "so what?" about the topic. That's where the statement building begins.

Build a Statement Around a Topic

I provide students with a standard fill-in the blank to begin building main idea statements. Remember, we are trying to get them to write main ideas as sentences, not a word. Oftentimes, when asked, "what is the main idea?" students will say "the main idea is about sharks" or something to that affect. Students need help going beyond that and these statements are super helpful. I actually use these statements as a means to build topic sentences for essays, too.

Students get a slide with multiple spots to fill in main idea statements. First, they put in the topic of focus for a specific section/chapter of their reading. Next, they have to pull a verb from the left. Lastly, they fill in what the section was about. They then put it all together to make a main idea statement!

Support Statement

Once they build their statement, they have to support with text details. If their text details don't support their statement, you know either they didn't comprehend the text or misunderstood the main idea. (This is how you'd assess).

If their details don't make sense with the statement, I have them look at the details and determine what all those details ARE actually saying, then, revise their statements.

After the scaffolded notes, I will later have them do it again without the scaffolds. They must write the statements completely on their own.

Create Overall Central Idea

The final component is determining main/central idea for an overall text. This is tricky with a large book, so I usually do it with articles. Students look at all their main ideas created and ask themselves "what are all these statements saying about my topic?" or "what does the author want the reader to know about this topic?" They make one final statement that could represent the entire text.

Summarize Using Main Idea Statements

I always incorporate a summarizing aspect of these lessons. When it comes to summarizing non-fiction, students often want to put ALL the details. This is why I have them do main idea statements first. They build their summaries from previous statements made.

First, they write the central idea mentioned before this step, then copy and paste over all other main idea statements. From there, they play with the wording so it's not repetitive and tada!...summary!

Bottom Line

I think scaffolded statement building is so crucial even at this age. I know writing workshop is all about more open-ended writing, but when it comes to non-fiction writing, they need a basis to go on. Main idea statements are the precursor to topic sentences, so being sure they can craft those sentences are crucial before touching essays.

Want all of these activities for yourself? Get theme below!

I also have a huge research unit in which I use these activities. Click below!


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