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The Complete Guide to Teaching Main Idea and Theme
By Mary Montero
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Determining the main idea and/or theme of a text are critical reading comprehension skills. While it may seem like main idea is a pretty simple skill for upper elementary, once you start digging into the complexities of adding theme as well, it can get tricky! I’ve learned that teaching main idea and theme in unison can help students discern the difference between the terms.
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This free PDF guide will allow you to have all of the main idea and theme resources right at your fingertips. It’s packed with checklists, book lists, lesson plans, anchor charts, practice activities, and more!
Important Main Idea and Theme Vocabulary
Note: There is a great deal of conversation about the proper use of the terms main idea and central idea. Some scholarly articles refer to main idea as being used only for informational texts. Others refer to it being used for both fictional and informational texts. For the purpose of this guide, main idea and central idea are used interchangeably to mean the big idea of the text, whether it is fiction or informational text. I introduce both terms to my students.
Here are a few key terms to cover:
- Theme: The message or lesson
- Main Idea: What the story/text is mostly about
- Key Details: Events or information that support the main idea.
- Topic: The subject of the text
- Recount: Retelling the story/text in your own words
- Summarize: A more formal retelling of the main points and key details of a text in your own words.
Main Idea and Theme Lesson
For 3rd Grade, this lesson is usually done after students have been introduced to main idea and theme independently. If you are teaching grades 4+, this works well as an introduction to both topics.
Introduction and Hook
Begin by playing the song and/or video for Surface Pressure from Encanto (any Disney song works well for this lesson). Then, ask students to describe what was happening in the video. Write down all of their brainstorming. After they’ve listed out all the things that happened, ask them to describe, in ONE sentence, what the song is about. This will be the main idea of the song. Once we’ve determined the main idea, I ask them to brainstorm how Luisa is feeling, what message the song is sending, and what lesson can be learned from the song. This is our theme. Finally, I ask them to pair the theme down to ONE word. This is our topic. My students LOVED this activity, and it became very clear to them the difference between the three terms.
After we dissect Surface Pressure, we create the anchor chart together. I usually give them the themes, and then they generate a fictional main idea statement that would teach the theme. This is another chance to discuss the difference between theme and topic. Oftentimes, we are tempted to write the theme as one word, but in reality, it is usually at least a brief phrase or a sentence.
At this point, I like to start Picture Book of the Day. I have compiled a list of books that are perfect for determining theme, and I highly recommend you read one each day as you’re teaching this skill. Create a chart where you determine the main idea, topic, and theme of each book. For grades 4+, add a column for students to write evidence of the theme on one color sticky note and evidence of the main idea on another.
I created an Amazon Affiliate List of my favorite main idea and theme picture books . The free PDF includes activity suggestions to use with some of the books to make teaching your lessons easier!
Now is the perfect time to use the free flipbook resource from your download. It serves as direct instruction, note taking, and critical practice for students.
Main Idea and Theme Sort
Now that students have had a decent amount of practice identifying theme and main idea, we move on to completing this short sort .
Main Idea and Theme Enrichment and Practice Activities
Just like we start our lesson with a clip from a Disney song and movie, I always incorporate a lyric dissection into our week of main idea vs. theme lessons. This lesson usually comes after we complete our flipbook together. We focus heavily on annotation and providing evidence to support our theme.
I consider these main idea vs. theme task cards an essential part of the lesson sequence, as it gives students a differentiated way to consider different themes and main ideas of texts.
Related Blog Posts
- Main Idea Task Card Activity
- Nonfiction Main Idea
- Find the Theme Task Cards
- Teaching Theme and Topic
- Main Idea Game
- Main Idea Activity
- Main Idea Task Cards
- Theme Paired Passages
I’m so glad you are here. I’m a current gifted and talented teacher in a small town in Colorado, and I’ve been in education since 2009. My passion (other than my family and cookies) is for making teachers’ lives easier and classrooms more engaging.
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Main Idea (Grades 1-2)
With our Main Ideas lesson plan, students learn what a main idea is, how to identify them, and why they are important in a text. Students will practice identifying the main idea and supporting ideas in a text. This lesson is for students in the 1st grade and 2nd grade.
This lesson includes a very detailed, step-by-step lesson plan and outlines what parts of the lesson can be taught on which day. You can find these suggestions in the “Options for Lesson” section on the first Classroom Procedure page.
Additional information, what our main idea (grades 1-2) lesson plan includes.
Lesson Objectives and Overview: Main Idea for grades 1-2 introduces young students to the concept of main ideas, how to identify them, and why they are important to understand. At the end of the lesson, students will be able to correctly identify the main idea of informational and literary texts. Students will also be able to explain how details support the identification of the main idea.
Every lesson plan provides you with a classroom procedure page that outlines a step-by-step guide to follow. You do not have to follow the guide exactly. The guide helps you organize the lesson and details when to hand out worksheets. It also lists information in the green box that you might find useful. You will find the lesson objectives, state standards, and number of class sessions the lesson should take to complete in this area. In addition, it describes the supplies you will need as well as what and how you need to prepare beforehand.
The supplies you will need for this lesson are chart paper or poster board, tape, art supplies, markers, a whiteboard, dry erase markers, the handouts, paper, and writing utensils. To prepare for this lesson ahead of time, you can copy the handouts, gather the supplies, prepare visual aids, and make sure students have access to shorts texts to use during the lesson.
Options for Lesson
Included with this lesson is an “Options for Lesson” section that lists a number of suggestions for activities to add to the lesson or substitutions for the ones already in the lesson. The suggestions for this lesson provide a guide for which parts of the lesson you can administer on which of the four days scheduled for the lesson. For example, for day one, it suggests having students learn the general concept of a main idea and practice identifying the main idea and supporting details as a group.
The teacher notes page includes a paragraph with additional guidelines and things to think about as you begin to plan your lesson. It notes that learning to identify the main idea is an important skill for students, as standardized tests place a lot of importance on this skill. It’s also useful for students to be able to refocus on the main ideas while reading and writing. This page also includes lines that you can use to add your own notes as you’re preparing for this lesson.
MAIN IDEA (GRADES 1-2) LESSON PLAN CONTENT PAGES
The Main Idea (Grades 1-2) lesson plan does not include any content pages. Rather, it provides a very detailed lesson plan, found on the three Classroom Procedure pages.
MAIN IDEA (GRADES 1-2) LESSON PLAN WORKSHEETS
The Main Idea (Grades 1-2) lesson plan includes four worksheets: two activity worksheets, a practice worksheet, and a homework assignment. You can refer to the guide on the classroom procedure page to determine when to hand out each worksheet.
ACTIVITY ONE WORKSHEET
For this activity, students will read a short passage, complete the provided chart, and answer questions about the text. The chart is intended to help students identify the main idea of the passage. Students should fill out the first part of the chart before reading. They will read the title and use just the title to guess what the passage might be about. During reading, they should fill out the second part of the chart, which asks students whether the text is fiction or nonfiction, and directs them to look for any repeated words or phrases. After reading, they should fill out the final part of the chart. Students will ask themselves what the story was mostly about and what details support one major idea. They must then identify the main idea and three supporting details.
ACTIVITY TWO WORKSHEET
The second activity worksheet asks students to read another passage and complete the same chart that they completed for the first worksheet. They must also, again, identify the main idea and three supporting details.
INDEPENDENT PRACTICE WORKSHEET
For the practice worksheet, students will complete the same reading chart and answer the same questions as both activity worksheets. However, they will be able to choose their own passage to analyze.
MAIN IDEA HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT
The homework assignment asks students to read a longer passage and answer two questions about it. They must identify the main idea of the passage and list three supporting details that prove that they have identified the main idea.
Worksheet Answer Keys
This lesson plan includes answer keys for the two activity worksheets, the practice worksheet, and the homework assignment. The answer key for the practice worksheet notes that students’ answers will vary based on their reading selection. If you choose to administer the lesson pages to your students via PDF, you will need to save a new file that omits these pages. Otherwise, you can simply print out the applicable pages and keep these as reference for yourself when grading assignments.
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The quality of this resource was superb! The lesson plans were very detailed and the resources perfect for my students. I am very excited about using other resources in the future.
This helpled with the difficulties i faced trying to get my grade ones to learn about main idea
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Details and Share
This lesson is designed to help students' comprehension and Analysis of Grade-Level Appropriate Text.
Grade Level: 2 - 4th
Length of time: about 45 minutes, sponsored school(s), common core alignment.
CCSS: ELA-LITERACY.RI.3.2 - Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.
Objectives & Outcomes
Students will be able to distinguish the main idea and supporting details in expository text.
- main idea and supporting detail worksheet (can be made or found online)
- computer and projector with internet access
Opening to Lesson
The teacher will activate prior knowledge and connect the content to the students by asking, “what are things you do at recess?” As students brainstorm ideas aloud, the teacher will write their answers into a large bubble map outlined on the board.
The teacher will connect this content to the new information they will learn today by explaining, “Students, you’ve just listed many details that support our topic “Things we do at recess.” A topic is used to create a sentence that tells what a paragraph is about. We call this sentence the main idea. Today, we will identify main ideas and supporting details.”
Body of Lesson
The teacher will promote the concept development by explicitly stating “the main idea is the one idea that the passage is mostly about. A supporting detail explains, or tells more about, the main idea.”
Guided Practice 1
The teacher will then show a short 1 minute video on a computer, tablet or television that uses singing and rhyming to explain examples of the main idea and supporting details in a creative way. The teacher will ask the students questions about the story in the video. “What was the main idea, what was a detail that supported the main idea?” The teacher will then provide the students with a printed copy of the lyrics. The teacher will ask the class to read the short rhyming lyrics together as a class. The teacher will play the video one more time, asking the students to sing along.
The teacher will give each student one worksheet of 6 different variations. The teacher will promote skill development by asking the students to silently read the passage, to circle the main idea and underline the supporting details of the passage.
The teacher will ask select students to state their answers following the prompt: “The main idea is …” and “One supporting detail is…”
Assessment & Evaluation
Through guided questions, close monitoring and informal observation; the teacher will be able to assess student’s ability and understanding of the subject being introduced. Through individually assessing during independent practice and reviewing during guided practice the teacher will be able to evaluate students.
Modification & Differentiation
Students can work in groups or with a partner. Teacher can provided one-on-one instruction as needed.
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Main Idea and Supporting Details
Main idea is a difficult skill to teach. Many capable adults still struggle with finding the main idea of a text, differentiating between main idea and supporting details, and understanding when details from a text support or don't support the main idea.
Below are some ideas and activities to help you as you teach this difficult skill to your 3rd grade, 4th grade, and 5th grade students. You will find:
- ideas for teaching main idea so students actually understand
- a free main idea slideshow
- main idea centers
- main idea questions to include in your lessons
- a main idea pdf freebie
- ...and more
Find ways to scaffold your main idea instruction so that students truly understand. This blog post includes a couple of free main idea printables you can use with your class.
A free main idea slideshow to use with you upper elementary students. Includes a variety of different ways to practice determining the main idea and details of a passage.
3 main idea and details center ideas. These challenge your students to think more critically.
This free main idea resource includes 3 activities to help students practice main idea in several different ways.
36 main idea and details questions based on the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy to help you encourage higher level thinking in your upper elementary students.
A main idea lesson that integrates technology and provides students with a visual.
Want meaningful main idea activities without all of the prep? Check out this Main idea Activities Bundle.
It includes no prep activities, hands on activities, cut and paste activities, graphic organizers, task cards, centers, writing activities, reading passages, and more.
The activities above address the following common core standards for 3rd grade, 4th grade, and 5th grade students:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.3.2 Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.4.2 Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details; summarize the text.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.2 Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.
lesson plans for main idea
Resource types, all resource types, lesson plans for main idea.
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