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What's the Main Idea?

By Olive Estrella Coronado

"What is the author's important message for you?" you ask your students. This is one basic reading comprehension question that you must teach your first graders. Here are several great lessons and activities on main idea for first grade.

It is always a good idea to explore different lessons and activities on main idea for first grade, since this topic under reading comprehension is an essential skill that will greatly develop the ability of students to understand any text they encounter. Learning the skill of identifying the main idea in a reading material will help your first graders become better readers as they grow older. They will be able to make sense of different types of text, as well as be able to acquire the knack for understanding just by skimming a text.

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The Not-So-Hidden Message

Teach your students first the meaning of "main idea". You may directly tell them that it means the big idea or the most important message in a piece of text. It is what the author is trying to tell his readers through his words. But then, where is the fun in just telling? It would be better to let your active and curious first graders discover this concept first slowly through the following activities:

  • Give each group of kids a jigsaw puzzle to form. First, let each member study the picture in the jigsaw puzzle piece he got. Ask the students to write down what the picture is all about. Afterwards, let the groups form their puzzles. Looking at the complete picture, ask them to write down once more and to share with their group members what the picture is actually all about. (Note: An example of a picture you can use is one of a messy room, in which the puzzle pieces show only single items.)
  • Tell the children a short story about a family who will be moving into a new home soon. A child helps his parents pack things in the old house. Then distribute pictures of different things found inside the house. On the board or on a classroom wall, stick illustrations of three boxes with different headings: Things for Cleaning, Things to Play With, Things for Decoration. Now let the students stick their pictures on the proper box. Afterwards, explain to them that each heading stands for a different main idea.

With the activities described above, you may also give the students already a hint about supporting details. You can inform them that for the first activity, the puzzle pieces stand for the supporting details which are put together to make the big, important message clear for the readers of a story or selection. For the second activity, let them know that the supporting details are represented by the pictures belonging to separate main ideas. In this way, you also give them the idea that details must really match or hold up the main idea. Explain that the main idea in reading is not really hidden, because there are many clues that can guide you to it.

Stop, Look, and Identify

How can you teach your students to identify the main idea and supporting details in a text? After allowing them to explore the concept through fun activities, it is now time for the real grind! Begin by modeling how it is done. Present a short text or story to the class, and think aloud as to how you will figure out the main idea. You may say, "I wonder what the main idea is here. What is the author trying to tell me? What is the important message? It says in the story that Allen likes to eat. But that is just a small part in the story. Most of the sentences tell me that it is good to share with others. Yes, this is the main idea. It is good to share with others."

Here are several ways you can train your students to identify the main idea and the supporting details in a text:

  • Give simple sample texts with just five sentences each. The length and complexity of the texts may progress as the kids practice more. Let them color the main idea with a red crayon and the details with a blue crayon. You may also ask them to box or circle the main idea and to underline the details. This is in assumption that the main idea is stated like a topic sentence.
  • Let the kids fill up interesting graphic organizers for main idea and supporting details. It can be a simple concept web with the main idea in the middle. Or it can be shown in interesting figures such as a flower where they can write the main idea in the center and the details in the petals, or a train where the main idea can be placed in the front box which is the most important part of the train while the details are placed in the boxes that are connected to the front.

There are many lessons and activities on main idea for first grade, but you have to choose the ones that will be fun and effective for your group of kids. Remember too that drills and exercises work well if you want those students to master this skill.